Introduction: Solfege Teaching Guide
As a child, I took piano lessons and attended required solfege classes with Mademoiselle Yvonne Combe of the French School of Music in Plainfield, NJ, from 1972 to 1982. She was in her 80s at the time. I competed in NJ MEC (Music Education Council) piano competitions, and as a first, second, or third place winner performed in Carnegie Recital Hall nine times. My little sister played there ten times, and many of my classmates performed there as well. We have Carnegie Recital Hall programs with 12 French School students in it. I just thought all of this was “normal” and couldn’t understand why other students weren’t doing the same thing, it all seemed relatively easy.
Of my piano classmates in the 1970s (and a few before or after me), these are the students I know of who went to Juilliard or pre-Juilliard:
- Jim Correnti (also Reformed Episcopal Seminary),
- Julie Jacobson (also Fordham University, NY Restaurant School),
- Robert Taub (also Princeton),
- Karen Zereconsky (also Manhattan School of Music and Moscow Conservatory of Music),
- Mayo Tsuzuki (also Yale),
- Wendy Jaffe (also Duke University), and
- Eri Ikezi (also Columbia University).
Other alumni include:
- Carol Comune (New England Conservatory),
- Vince Di Mura (Manhattan School of Music),
- Liz Du Four (University of Ottawa).
- Suzanne Waters is a professional singer who has worked in many films and television series.
- Her brother Timothy Waters married music and physics and specializes in acoustic design for performing venues.
The rest became doctors, lawyers, technologists, entrepreneurs, executives, etc. Alumni who are past and present faculty include Vince Di Mura and Carol Comune at Princeton, Karen Zereconsky at a conservatory in Italy, and those listed have been / are resident artists and composers, and concertizing artists. Mayo Tsuzuki worked with Zubin Mehta, and Vince Di Mura worked with Constance Keene. I have a background as a technologist (I went to the University of Notre Dame), and I am also a self-taught composer who as of spring 2016 became the eighth known alumna from this French School list to have joined the Juilliard ranks, part of the evening division taking classes in music composition.
Mlle. Combe founded the French School of Music in 1927, and after a lifetime dedicated to teaching piano, we lost her in 1990 at age 97. Her student Stephen Waters took over the school, and in 2014 we lost him as well, and the school’s fate was at a crossroads. Along the way my dad had stumbled on some strange rumors about the school, and when I asked the widow about the school’s history she went diving into cartons of old records and news clippings stored in the basement. This transformed our perception of the school completely.
Mlle. Combe was a child prodigy who studied at the Paris Conservatory starting at age 9. She worked with four famous composers: Claude Debussy, Camille Saint-Saëns, Gabriel Fauré, and Maurice Ravel. Through Claude Debussy, our lineage of musicality continues up through Franz Liszt, Carl Czerny, and Ludwig van Beethoven (you can Google this in the Wikipedia pages). This means former students of Mlle. Combe and her students (including Stephen Waters and more) are musical descendants of these famous composers. Not only did French School students often develop excellent technique, they developed a musical voice whose interpretation was informed by these famous composers.
Mlle. Combe won first place in a competition at the Paris Conservatory at age 13. When she played for Debussy, he conceded her interpretation of one of his pieces improved it so much that he instructed his publisher to make certain changes to his printed work in the next printing. At 15, she performed Saint-Saëns’ Piano Concerto No. 2, with the composer himself conducting. That same year, though, she fractured her wrist in a bike accident. Because it was improperly set, she had to give up her budding career as a solo concert pianist. Instead, she turned to teaching, setting up her first school in Switzerland. She came to this country in 1926 and started a school in Plainfield because her aunt was a governess here.
Sergey Rachmaninoff advised the US State Department that she be allowed to emigrate from Montreux, Switzerland to the US to bring solfege to this country. The French School system of solfege is a fixed do system (syllables are always tied to specific pitches) as opposed to movable do, and a surprisingly approachable, four-prong methodology for understanding music: singing / sightreading on pitch while solfegiating the notes, conducting time, ear training, and music dictation. I have also used solfege as a tool for studying improvisation, and I will discuss this here as well.
Based on what happened with my fellow alumni and myself, we strongly believe it was the combination of piano lessons and solfege classes that made success possible for so many of us. Let me show you what runs through my head when I am at a piano lesson, and my piano teacher hands me a new piece of music to work on.
I quickly focus on the right hand: treble clef, I see two sharps. Fa and do. Take the last sharp, go up a note, re, so it’s in re major. I can sing on pitch so I sing the scale quickly in my head: re mi fa (#) sol la si do (#) re. There are my two sharps. The timing is 3/4, 3 beats per measure, quarter note is one beat. At roughly this tempo: one two three one two three I start singing in my head. Re – mi fa (#) mi re la re – mi re do (#) re si … Hmm, sounds like a joyous Irish dance. Then I put my right hand on the keyboard and...
Whoops. That doesn’t sound too good. And my piano teacher dives in helping me with whatever technique I need to develop to handle the more challenging passages.
And I hear this joyous Irish dance in my head, but again, it doesn’t sound quite right when I play it. And my piano teacher begins to work with me on developing the muscle memory to fully express the musicality.
This is what a piano lesson should be like. From the start, all of these foundational elements are out of the way so that you can begin to spend your valuable piano lesson time focusing on what is really important: technique and musical expression.
If you take solfege lessons, you should already know how to read music. You don’t forget that these two notes are sharp throughout the piece (except when preceded with a natural symbol). You may not have perfect pitch, but given a starting note, you can solfegiate, in your head, this new piece you want to learn. What is going on in your head is the same as what is going on in your piano teacher’s head. You have the fundamentals nailed down and you can focus on refinement.
All really good musicians and composers think this way, and this is why they tend to get a reputation for being “gifted musical freaks”. But they’re not. And we weren’t. We were just ordinary kids whose parents found The French School of Music. What happened, through consistent solfege training week after week where we were forced to break down a new assignment quickly, is that our brains were hacked and we began to automatically think the way all great musicians think. This is the knowledge we intend to pass along.
As a result, we have a three-fold mission:
- Pass on the legacy we were given, helping music students to establish a solid musical foundation
- Build on that foundation, creating a bridge to the world of today
- Give everyone the means to become us in the future, passing that legacy to the next generation, along with new advances
Pass on the legacy we were given. In the French School archives, there is one recital program that mentions a 2 ½ year old student giving a recital. What is astounding about the French School solfege method is that it is accessible even to the very young, and students begin creating music from day one.
Build on that foundation. On top of this, we will build a bridge to the world as it is today, since Mlle. Combe never saw the internet, much less social media, Garageband, Pianoteq, MuseScore, Sibelius, Soundcloud, and so much more.
Give everyone the means to become us in the future. I am writing this guide because I was a witness to the French School of Music solfege method, and I have a background as a software developer, technical trainer, and engineering manager. Not only can I pass along what was taught in our solfege classes, I can lay down a blueprint for how to prepare the next generation to take over. This involves advanced solfege students learning education and leadership skills, in addition to honing their musical skills.
I will close this introduction with an email from Grace Nocera Boeringer (in her 80s in 2017 and one of French School’s earliest students). I couldn’t have said this better, and I’ve added the highlight. There is no way so many French School alumni could have gone to top conservatories and done what they did with their lives if, as Grace attests, there was no pleasure and ease with their musical experience. This is the gift we received from The French School of Music, and on behalf of all French School alumni - we give our hearts, admiration, and greatest respect to you, Mlle. Combe, for changing our lives.
Dear Eileen, Judy, Wayne and all the others, Thank you all for reviving this marvelous tradition (Solfege) that I grew up with many years ago. I am so thankful for the training I had and want you all to know how much pleasure and ease it gave me in my career in music.
I remember well those classes with Mlle. Combe, Mlle. Pfeiffer and Madame Seguin. Not only were they musically very instructive, they were FUN!! We formed a great "support" group. I will always remember those days.
Very Best Wishes,
Grace Nocera Boeringer