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Developing Great Timing with Simple Exercises Part II: Aural Responses

This article is one in a three part series that focuses on great “timing,” specifically ways to develop a sense of beat and rhythm for beginning students, older beginners or even advanced players. Since most beginning flute methods introduce reading from the very beginning, in the first article of this series I talked about ways to develop great timing with visual manipulatives first. Read the article here.

This series of articles focuses on learning styles, a researched-based methodology of expressive teaching through visual, auditory, and kinesthetic modalities. Learning styles are all the rage today, but I don’t believe they are an end-all, be-all solution, because students of all ages can benefit from each different type of learning. I recommend trying multiple exercises in different styles, even outside of the conventional modalities! When a student finds success with one exercise don’t give up; pursue avenues for them to practice their new skill. Don’t give up once they have achieved their goal!


The ideas presented in this series have been taken from my experience as a Kodaly-inspired teacher. Over the past few years I have tried out different ways to use the Kodaly method in my teaching. In the Kodaly philosophy, being able to demonstrate a steady beat is one factor that determines “readiness” and occurs in early childhood, right before instruction of rhythm and more complex melodic instruction. Readiness is developmental and cannot be forced. Depending on the age of your student, it might be helpful to work on readiness skills without the instrument if they are having difficulty with steady beat.

This series of articles is not meant to be a complete solution, so if you have something to add, please comment below.

Developing great timing with simple exercises Part III: Aural Responses

An important component of developing great musicianship is the ability to respond to live music, including dancing, decoding a melody or harmony, or “conceptualizing” the expressive elements of a performance.

My story

When I began my Kodaly training I was overwhelmed by the emphasis on aural literacy. The majority of my experience learning flute stemmed from reading something off a page. I learned music by reading, and there was not a huge emphasis on responding to an aural presentation of the music. When I began lessons, my teacher would play a song for me, but the majority of the time spent in lessons focused on reading music from a page. When I started my studies in college, I had a very difficult time in aural skills, and so did my colleagues with similar upbringing. I was also embarrassed to sing or improvise, not because I didn’t want to, but because I had never tried. I saw other musicians learning this way, and I was envious of their “fluid” musicianship.

In my undergrad I had friends who also  expressed how painful dictation was, so I just assumed maybe it was a “flute” or wind instrument issue. Then, I would meet someone who Suzuki flute training (a method of teaching that focuses on imitation and intense aural training from a young age) who excelled at playing by ear or dictation.  After my Kodaly training, I believe it was the lack of aural training in lessons, which is no one person’s fault, that led me to be a primary “reading” musician. I hope in this article, meant to bring practice ideas and solutions to inspire you, leads you to seek more opportunities for ear training in your studio.

To quote John Feierabend, the writer of “Conversational Solfege” and “First Steps”:

“[The] printed score is still no more than a skeleton of the music. Notation in its printed form is not music…music notation gives no guidance as to appropriate expressiveness. Yet, the artistic singer has an intuition for the nuances necessary to bring the skeleton of a song to life. Musical expressive sensitivity can only be developed by listening to other singers who exemplify expressive singing.”

Dr. John Feierabend

While attending a training last spring with Feierabend, I heard him say that in one European country the translation of the word “music” ONLY referred to the aural performance, and that the written down music had a completely different word and was not referred to as music.

Decoding music : a simple way to build your student’s listening skills

“Decoding music” is not my term; it is again attributed to John Feierabend and his method “Conversational Solfege” that is largely based on the Kodaly method of teaching. Feirabend’s method is a process in which students hear music and then respond using a rhythm or matching a melodic syllable to what they have heard. You can do this in lessons from a very early age. For more information about this method please visit

Caveat: Before you can begin any type of decoding, students must have a sense of beat. You must also spend some time teaching them their music with standardized rhythmic syllables in their lessons. As a private lesson instructor, you may be bound to use what your student is learning in their band class. Always ask if there is a system already in place. If you are starting a student who is not in band or orchestra, you have choices. Some common methods include:

(Please click the link for more information)

Rhythmic syllables

Decoding Rhythm to Create Great Timing

Decoding *known* patterns/songs 

Before decoding, practice the rhythmic syllable with your students. You can simply have them repeat the rhythm of their piece after you, or they can read it on their own.

Without the student looking at their music:

  1. Play a phrase of a KNOWN song, something the student has been working on.
  2. Have the student immediately repeat the phrase with rhythmic syllables (with or without singing on pitch)

Example: Mary Had a Little Lamb

You play the first phrase, then the student repeats in syllables (takadimi example here): Ta-di/ Ta-di/ Ta-di/ ta  / Ta-di/ta / Ta-di/ ta etc. 

If the student is successful decoding KNOWN songs, then you can challenge them with unknown songs/patterns!

Decoding *unknown* patterns/songs

  1. Play an unknown song using rhythm the student has been practicing
  2. Have the student immediately repeat the phrase with rhythmic syllables (with or without singing on pitch)

Example: teacher place this pattern on one note for the first phrase.

Student decodes with the following rhythmic syllables (using Takadimi): Ta  / Ta / Ta / Ta / Ta / Ta/ Ta/ etc.

Once students are able to decode known and unknown patterns, they can create their own patterns.

Creating their own patterns

Have students verbalize their own rhythmic patterns while you improvise or vice versa. Something I like to do is have the students perform a created rhythmic ostinato while I play their song, and then reverse roles. 

Example Song: Mary Had a Little Lamb

Created Rhythmic ostinato: Quarter / two eighth notes repeated (Ta  / Ta-di ) 

Final thoughts

I am currently developing ideas related to the ones presented in this article. Everything discussed in this article is, unfortunately, very academic and not fully tested in my teaching studio. As I create new activities and ideas to help flutists’ musicianship, I’ll post them below. If you have ideas or tried and true methods for creating great timing, please do comment below!

  1. Janice Spooner

    somehow I missed the first 2 installments! Is there a way that you could send them to me?

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