‘Competence’ in this context encapsulates all the aspects of aural ability: a highly developed ‘musical memory’ that enables the musician to identify and reproduce melodic intervals and recognize vertical harmonies and progressions, and the theoretical knowledge that underpins that aural ability and enables the musician to apply it. As with the screwdriver, specialist training in this field can be desperately dull – but the musician can’t get very far without it.

Much music teaching in HE institutions focuses on technique and repertoire; aural skills, if they are examined at all, earn only a fraction of any marks on offer. This may be because it is notoriously difficult and time-consuming to assess aural skills – especially those that I shall argue are of real value to musicians. The result is a pedagogy that ‘[i]n an attempt to make the important measurable, [has] instead made the measurable important’ and is led by assessment – the educator’s cardinal sin.

Drawing on many years’ experience as educator and performer, this chapter will argue that the foundation of effective, confident musical leadership is aural, manifested in the ability to sing at sight, to recognize and understand harmonic structures and progressions, and to identify mistakes made by others. All this requires a solid grounding in theory. This chapter emphasizes the integration of aural training with theoretical work: the two least popular – hence most neglected – elements of music curricula.

The chapter will be illustrated using examples drawn from the author’s research into the music of the Canterbury Catch Club: the instant part-singing created by even the simplest catch – offering a taste of harmony spiced with a hint of competition – allows for the exploration of horizontal intervallic relationships and vertical harmonic progressions in the context of accessible and inclusive music making.

The chapter will close with a consideration for curricula and assessment, discussing ways in which this work might be best delivered and evaluated.