Introduction: Solfege Teaching Guide
Starting at age 9, Mademoiselle Yvonne Combe studied music at the Paris Conservatory when French composers Claude Debussy, Gabriel Fauré, Camille Saint-Saëns and Maurice Ravel were alive and Fauré was Director of the Conservatory. She later emigrated to the US and founded The French School of Music in Plainfield, NJ in 1927, teaching piano and solfege for over six decades. I took piano and solfege lessons at French School from 1972 to 1982 (ages 7 - 17), when Mlle. Combe was in her 80s. Many French School alumni competed in NJ MEC (Music Education Council) piano competitions, and as first, second, or third place winners, performed in Carnegie Recital Hall. I played there nine times, and my little sister played there ten times. There are Carnegie programs with 12 French School students listed. Back then I thought all of this was “normal” and couldn’t understand why students of other piano teachers weren’t doing the same thing, because it all seemed relatively easy.
Of the French School alumni in the 1970s (and a few before and after), these are the known alumni 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) (check Wikipedia)
- Karen Zereconsky (also Manhattan School of Music and Moscow Conservatory of Music)
- Mayo Tsuzuki (also Yale)
- Wendy Jaffe (also Duke University)
- 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)
- Timothy Waters (Principia College), specializing in acoustic, audiovisual, and technology design for performance venues (requiring knowledge of music and physics)
- Suzanne Waters (Principia College), professional singer who has worked in many films and television series (check IMDB), also a graphic and web designer
Alumni who are past and present faculty include Vince Di Mura and Carol Comune at Princeton, and Karen Zereconsky at Princeton, French Conservatory, and more. Alumni have been / are resident artists and composers as well as concertizing artists. Mayo Tsuzuki worked with Zubin Mehta, and Vince Di Mura studied with Constance Keene.
Those alumni who did not pursue careers as professional musicians became doctors, lawyers, technologists, entrepreneurs, executives, etc. I became a technologist (University of Notre Dame), and also a self-taught composer who as of spring 2016 became the eighth known alumna from the above French School list to have joined the Juilliard ranks, part of the evening division taking classes in music composition and orchestration.
Alumni from earlier decades who reconnected with the school through the French School of Music Facebook page also show a pattern of successful musical careers as performers, music educators, etc. Because of Mlle. Combe’s history with the Paris Conservatory and her methodologies, French School students often developed both excellent technique and a musical voice informed by French composers.
After a lifetime dedicated to teaching piano and solfege, Mlle. Combe passed away in 1990 at age 97. Her student Stephen Waters took over the school, and in 2014 he passed away as well, putting the school’s fate at a crossroad. Judy Waters took over as director of the school, and in late 2015, she asked me to restart solfege classes at French School, which hadn’t been offered in years. By then, the days of Mlle. Combe insisting students take both piano and solfege lessons had ended. There can be various obstacles to taking and teaching solfege classes. Parents may not want to make multiple trips to the school every week, and students today are involved in more and more activities that leave insufficient time for learning solfege. Piano teachers are often so busy with piano students they may not have time to run solfege classes.
At French School what was lost in terms of extra time and effort needed for solfege classes, was repaid when it took months, not years, to learn to perform increasingly advanced music because instrument and voice lessons became more efficient.
When Judy asked me to restart solfege classes, I had never stepped into a conservatory environment, and her request prompted me to simultaneously enroll in Juilliard. Three months after we restarted solfege classes, one student surprised her parents by secretly auditioning for a solo voice part. During the performance, she stepped off the bleachers to perform her solo. At the one year mark, two students had begun to develop absolute pitch (meaning without the aid of a pitch pipe, they could identify the pitch of a note, the same way those who are not color blind can identify a blue sweater). At the two year mark, the 5th grader was preparing to join the 7th / 8th grade jazz band playing saxophone. When asked what music training they get in their schools, the universal response is crinkled faces and “that stuff is so Easy!!”.
The French School methodology uses a fixed do system where syllables are always tied to specific pitches, as opposed to movable do. This is an approachable yet powerful four prong methodology for gaining a deep understanding of music through singing / sightreading on pitch while solfegiating the notes, conducting time, ear training, and music dictation. Solfege can also be used as a tool for studying improvisation and music composition.
The combination of piano lessons and solfege classes made success possible for so many French School alumni. Those who take piano and solfege lessons run through a thought process when a teacher presents a new piece during a piano lesson that may look something like this:
Focus on the right hand: treble clef, two sharps: fa and do. Take the last sharp, go up one note, re, so the song is in re major. Many French School alumni can sing on pitch and might start with a scale in their heads: re mi fa(#) sol la si do(#) re. There are the two sharps. The timing is 3/4, meaning 3 beats per measure, a quarter note has one beat. At roughly this tempo: one two three one two three, begin to solfegiate: Re – mi fa (#) mi re la re – mi re do (#) re si … This sounds like a joyous Irish dance. Place the right hand on the keyboard and...
That doesn’t sound too good. The piano teacher would then help students develop whatever technique is needed to handle the more challenging passages.
The joyous Irish dance students hear in their heads might not sound quite right when they play it. And the piano teacher would help students develop the muscle memory to fully express the musicality.
This is what a piano lesson should be like. Solfege teaches foundational elements of music so that students can spend their piano lesson time focusing on technique and musical expression.
Not all alumni developed perfect pitch, but given a starting note, most could mentally solfegiate a new piece they wanted to learn. What occurs mentally for solfege students is the same thing that occurs in a piano teacher’s head. Everyone is on the same page when the fundamentals are nailed down, and students and teachers can focus on refinement.
In the French School archives, one recital program mentions a 2 ½ year old student giving a recital. The French School solfege method is accessible even to the very young, and students begin creating music from day one.
While there are many ways to skin a cat, this guide will explain the French School solfege methodology, as well as fill in relevant gaps encountered in a conservatory environment. In addition, students taking piano lessons may want to look at my dad’s book Fundamentals of Piano Practice (see References at the end), which explains Mlle. Combe’s methodology for efficient piano practice. The piano practice and solfege teaching guides provide a comprehensive treatment of her entire methodology.
In closing, here is an email from Grace Nocera Boeringer (one of French School’s earliest students, now in her 80s in 2017 and still a performing violinist).
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
Eileen Chang Sauer (French School ’72 - ’82)