“Ears On” Surfing

Web Sites that Support Well-Rounded Musicianship

by Sara Holtzschue

This past fall I conducted a workshop for the CUNY Arts Consortium with students from the Bedford Stuyvesant Outreach High School. The goal of the workshop was twofold. We sought to teach students some of the rudimentary components of musical composition as well as to introduce them to literature. The final project was a song based on a poem chosen by the students. The writers ranged from William Butler Yeats to Maya Angelou. The musical portion of the project was conducted in the classroom and in a piano lab.


Tackling basic theory, ear training, piano skills and literature over the course of a semester is a tall order. As a performing musician and educator, I often lament the lack of preparation with which students embark on their musical studies. There was, and often is, little focus on theory or ear training at the basic level, perhaps the two most critical components of complete musicianship. Students don’t believe they need these skills to thrive as amateur or working musicians. They frequently think of music only as lyrics and rely heavily on prerecorded samples and recycled “beats” for their songwriting endeavors.


Fortunately, there are a few places on line that provide comprehensive assistance for the musical aspects of projects such as these. These Web sites are excellent supplemental tools — easy to use, free, appropriate for a wide range of levels and fun.


MusicTheory.net created and maintained by college junior Ricci Adams. Mr. Adams clearly has a passion for music theory and supports his well planned lessons with “trainers” that offer, if you will, an “ears on” approach to theory. The cumulative lesson plan allows students to progress at their own rate or pursue topics they find they need help on separately. Although I think Mr. Adams often goes beyond what is practical for a beginning student, there is room to tailor a lesson plan. The site has great graphics that serve to visually illustrate theoretical concepts that can be abstract. The “trainers” cover scales, intervals, chord progressions as well as reading skills. Students can keep score of how well they are doing and move on at their own pace. I did find the lesson on how to figure out key signatures to be more confusing than helpful, but the fundamental principles of theory are available and are reinforced by aural training exercises — a critical combination.


For pure ear training purposes, I recommend Good-Ear.com. This site is quite comprehensive. Possibilities range from use of different tone colors and tempi; nearly every possible permutation of intervals; simple to sophisticated scales, chords and chord progressions; inversions and perfect pitch training. It is also cumulative and keeps score. The one thing Good-Ear.com is missing is compound intervals. These can be found at Big Ears.  The site has a very clean sound and offers a myriad of types of interval training.


Teachers will find that devising a plan for a class or an individual with various materials from these sites will encourage and support well rounded musicianship. Although web sites will never replace an actual classroom or private lesson setting, anything that promotes these basic skills can only result in better educated student musicians — ones who are better prepared for college as well as challenges they will face as they continue to pursue music.


Born in New York, Sara Holtzschue began her career in music as a classically trained flutist. She graduated with a degree in music with honors from Barnard College at Columbia University.  Sara’s interest in jazz led her to a master’s degree with honors in Jazz Composition from New England Conservatory of Music in 1995.


Sara currently performs as a vocalist and composer in the greater New York area. Past performances have been in Boston and Rome. She currently is a full-time faculty member at Kingsborough Community College. Sara is the recipient of numerous awards and scholarships from New England Conservatory, The Brooklyn Conservatory, Reed College, Columbia University, Barnard College, and, for the last two years, the AscaPlus Award for Performance and Composition.