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Archive for August, 2012

One of the principal tools used in Kodály music education is the movable-do system of solmization, or solfege, or sol-fa which was originated by Guido d’Arezzo in the eleventh century. In this system the tonal center of a song is do in the major and la in the minor modes, whatever the key may be. One can move the tones of a melody anywhere on the staff, and the solfege syllables which disclose the relationship of the notes to each other remain the same. It becomes a very effective tool in revealing melodic/ harmonic structure and tonality to the musician.

Solfege helps the student to easily understand the structure of keys and harmonies.


Kodály first saw this system when he visited England and observed choral training there. The method he saw in use was essentially the one developed by Sarah Glover and later refined by John Curwen in the nineteenth century. He had this to say about this effective tool:

“Only the well-conducted teaching of sol-fa can develop the ability to connect tone-image with written note to the point where the one will evoke the other instantly.” (F. Bonis, The selected writings of Zoltán Kodály,. New York: Boosey & Hawkes)

In other words, sol-fa helps students hear what they see and see what they hear. It simultaneously reveals tonal relationships and gives them a name and a symbol. It is simply the thousand-year-old original, easiest, and best means of comprehending the architecture of music.

Most Americans’ knowledge of sol-fa is limited to the song in Sound of Music that is so familiar. But maybe you asked yourself like I did, “Why is Maria teaching the children how to sing that way? That’s not how I learned music.” I didn’t know that she was teaching them a skill which I did not possess. Many people who play an instrument consider themselves able to “read music,” even though they often cannot accurately sound out a single interval without their instrument. I was not taught to hear in my head what was on the page. A piece of the music puzzle was missing in my training; that is, until I finally took an aural skills class in college.

So, why wasn’t it taught? Was that something only European musicians learned? Bodman and others remember that up until the middle of the 20th century in America, sol-fa was in the curriculum. As teachers began to try to “simplify” music for their students, it was all too easy to take the shortcut and skip the sol-fa. The trouble is, the knowledge of musical structure based on the educated ear was sacrificed, and we became more technicians than musicians. (Now, you can even learn to play a keyboard instrument by pressing the key down that lights up for you. Sort of like, painting by the numbers.)

When I got to my college aural skills classes, I was very surprised that I was expected to have a skill that no one told me about all those years I was practicing. Now that I know its value, I have to ask, “Why didn’t someone teach me that from the beginning?”

 

 

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Until about 15 years ago, I had been teaching my own blend of Suzuki approach and traditional violin methods. But, I wasn’t satisfied with the results I was getting. Technically, my students did fine, but I lacked a system for teaching real literacy and musicianship, so my students could hear in their heads what they saw on the page.

I was relieved to know I was not alone when I read the following from Lyman Bodman, retired professor of string pedagogy at Michigan State University, in his Essays on Violin Pedagogy:

“No one, but no one, who cannot hear melodic intervals can play a violin in tune…This is another string teacher responsibility, and a way must be found to fill this need…There was once an almost golden age of training when those privileged few in Europe were given, at a very early age, a thorough training in solfege. There was also a time in our own country when in many elementary schools solfege was in the curriculum. We might wish that present day music education in America could learn from that era and do more to establish fundamental musicianship for our children. As it stands at this time, the violin teacher must teach much more than the violin. It may be true that our country is now leading the world in training instrumentalists, yet there is a glaring shortcoming, namely teaching children music fundamentals and sight-singing.” (2002, p. 21)

Zoltan Kodaly


Fortunately, I found a way to teach these musical basics when I encountered the teaching principles and practices of Zoltan Kodály. He and his associates researched and put together a Hungarian national music curriculum which brought about the music literacy of an entire people. It was so good, that music educators around the world took notice and began to apply the principles. His concept of the educated ear as essential for achieving true musicianship was the piece of the puzzle that had been missing from my early music education and my teaching. (See International Kodály Society at http://www.iks.hu and The Organization of American Kodály Educators at www.oake.org)

One basic premise of Kodály ’s philosophy is that the voice is the first instrument, and you cultivate musical sensibilities at first through singing. You find most Kodály programs being conducted in elementary school general music classes and also in choir programs. There are not many string instrument applications, with the notable exception of Colourstrings developed by Geza and Csaba Szilvay, the internationally recognized string educators out of Finland. (See www.colourstrings.fi and Helsinki Strings)

Another principle used by Kodály is that folk songs from the cultural heritage of the student should be the first study material. Therefore, a more authentic and useful program for American students, in contrast to Hungarians, would use songs from North American and English speaking cultures when first presenting musical elements.

For well over a decade, I have been involved in developing a string curriculum which uses materials from our own folk cultures, and which integrates with typical Kodály-based singing musicianship classes that are being taught in American elementary schools. What a joy it is to be using the tools which produce thinking, hearing violin students!

“Bad musicians cannot hear what they are playing; mediocre one could hear it, but they don’t listen; average musicians hear what they just played; only good musicians hear what they are going to play.” -Edgar Willems (1890-1978) Belgian music psychologist and pedagogue

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The best way to describe this comparison is with a table and a few explanations. Each row in the table corresponds to the paragraph of the same number:

Suzuki Traditional Kodály
1. Sound to Sound Sight to Sound Sound to Sight

2. Intuitive Cognitive Intuitive and Cognitive

3. Child Developmental Subject Logic Child Developmental

4. Quick Technique Slow Technique Quick Technique

5. No literacy Visual literacy Aural literacy

1. Suzuki – The student hears the song first from a teacher, a parent, or a recording playing it; hence, sound to sound.
Traditional – The student reads the note and then plays it; thus, sight to sound.
Kodály – The student’s model is his/her own singing voice. The song is taught by rote from the teacher’s singing, often in singing games. The rhythmic and melodic elements of the song are derived and given a name and a symbol, which the student will recognize when placed on the staff; thus, sound to sight.

2. Suzuki – The “mother tongue” approach. Children learn how to speak their own language through hearing it spoken. They perceive it without having to reason or concentrate; it’s just part of their environment. The music is likewise presented through listening and can be perceived at a very young age.
Traditional – The music must be read first, before it can be played. Reading language or music notation takes cognitive skill and concentration. The difference between Suzuki and traditional is like the difference between speaking a language and reading it.
Kodály – Singing is intuitive to all children. The first instrument is the singing voice. Learning to play an instrument is easier and more musical if the songs are sung first and then transferred to the instrument. Next, reading the symbols on a page of music, which were learned first from sound, calls upon the child’s cognitive skills. First intuitive, and then cognitive.

3. Suzuki – The Suzuki “mother tongue” concept of learning is itself child developmental. Rhythms and bowings begin with small note values, much easier than long ones with extended bow strokes. Generally speaking, however, the technical demands progress rapidly from piece to piece. In my opinion, there are some large gaps in the learning sequence which make it not child developmental: too many new things all at once.
Traditional – In past decades, a subject-logic approach was used in traditional violin methods. Rhythmically, it began with the whole note and then proceeded to halves and quarters: certain to kill any enthusiasm for playing the violin. Since those days, several wonderful pedagogues have taken a more child developmental approaches to technique. The work of Paul Rolland was especially significant. However, one needs only to look at the preliminary instructions about music notation and fundamentals given in most method books, to realize that the student must intellectualize certain abstract concepts about music before he can begin to play.

Kodály – The learning sequence begins at the best starting place for children’s voices and experience. Rhythmically, it begins with feeling the basic beat. Melodically, children are able to sing a range of only five or six tones with no half-steps. While the best first tones for singing are pentatonic, the best for starting a string instrument are those which are step-wise starting from the open string. Learning those first music elements one at a time through singing, and then transferring them to the instrument at the appropriate time is the order of things for a smooth, natural, child-developmental learning sequence.

4. Suzuki – The principle advantage is that a young child can get to the technique of the instrument very quickly. There are no prerequisites which involve reading. I call it quick technique.
Traditional – Having to decode the page before you can play, tends to slow down the process of acquiring excellent technique. There’s only so much brain available to think of everything. I call that slow technique.

Kodály – There are actually two learning tracks going on simultaneously. The intuitive one, starting from sound, transfers to the instrument very easily, and results in quick technique. The reading track is going on at the same time to create literacy. It’s important for teachers to have their objectives clearly in mind: am I working on technique or am I working on literacy? That determines your approach. The nice thing about this separation of tasks is that it allows a teacher to customize a student’s program according to his/her strengths and needs. Gradually, the students’ ability to play and their ability to read merge until they match.

5. Suzuki – The biggest weakness of staying with the Suzuki approach for very long is the lack of literacy. Most Suzuki teachers now find a way to introduce note-reading of some form or another from traditional sources. The necessity of a prescribed repertoire I find particularly limiting and tiring as a teacher.
Traditional – Learning by these methods, students who persevere until their technique catches up with their ability to read music notation, can become great sight readers and independent learners. Reading notes, however, does not necessarily mean that students will know in their heads what the notes are supposed to sound like. I call this visual literacy.
Kodály – One of the primary objectives is to educate the ear and achieve music literacy based on hearing. (See articles “To Hear or Not to Hear” and “What is Solfege and Why is it Important” in this blog) These students become even better sight readers, because they hear in their head what they are about to play. With careful step-by-step learning, students can achieve a high level of musicianship which this type of literacy makes possible.

Which is the best approach? It depends on the result you are looking for. Many fine players have emerged from each of them.

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