For as long as I can remember I have been able to sight-sing with confidence, doubtless due to my early training as a chorister and subsequent involvement with choirs for many years since. It still remains, for me, the most important thing for any musician – to be able to sing.
Three years ago I signed up for a British Kodàly Academy Spring Course. I can’t quite remember why, but one of the things which did interest me was the knowledge that the Kodàly approach uses solfège, the naming of each note of the scale as do, re, mi, fa, so, la, ti, do. I was interested to see whether there was anything in it, since I had my doubts – after all, I could sight-sing perfectly adequately without, so what possible use could giving all the notes funny names be to me? As I soon discovered, I was missing the point.
The first event of Day One was choir. We learned a song from memory by repeating back phrases sung by our director, which was challenging for one reason only – we were expected to sing in solfa! For me pitching the notes was easy, but remembering which solfa name to sing them to was not, and immediately I found my brain racing to keep up. And it was relentless! Just as I thought I had the hang of it, we cut to something different – learning another melody, or clapping and/or stamping a complex syncopated rhythm. And then (I should have seen it coming!) we put all of them together; melody, rhythm, others singing the countermelody, and the solfa! By the time the hour was up I felt like I’d done a day’s mental workout. They say that music uses both sides of the brain – definitely!
And then on to musicianship training. I was aware that there are different hand signs for each of the solfa syllables, but was not yet aware of their full potential. We learned some relatively simple pentatonic melodies from memory, and again the most difficult element was singing the solfa names. By now I realised that I was becoming much more actively aware of the relative position of each note in the scale, rather than just pitching each note from the previous one. The latter system still worked for the pitch, of course, just not for the name. Interesting. And then we were asked to perform a melody in canon. First at the piano; play first, and start singing a bar later (in solfa). Challenging, but manageable, and I have to say I felt very proud of myself for negotiating the task successfully, albeit with my brain running at full tilt. And then with hand signs. That’s right, sing first (in solfa) and then sign the canon a bar later with the solfa hand signs. “You’ve got to be joking” I said to Klara, the delightful Hungarian lady who was taking our class. Evidently she wasn’t. As encouragement, she performed the canon in three parts, using both hands, without even breaking a sweat! Respect.
Back in choir, I soon discovered that when the music changes key, do moves too – and so of course does everything else! Never before have I been so intensely aware of the place value of each note in a melody, and in observing every modulation as it occurs. I realised that much of the time I sight-sing on autopilot; yes, I am constantly listening, but perhaps not always thinking so hard. On the other hand, solfa actively forces you to listen and to analyse, and the intensity of this experience is actually very surprising. It is an amazingly powerful tool for teaching complete novices (as my Choir who can’t sing will testify) right through to analysing Schubert symphonies in detail, which I did on this year’s Spring Course which was hosted at Monkton.
This approach to musicianship is so refreshingly rigorous, and I love it! It certainly incorporates all of the 5Es which are at the centre of what I believe to be most important in teaching music – Engage, Enthuse, develop an Enquiring Mind, Equip and Empower.