Part 1 : Solfege Teaching Guide
To run a solfege class the way French School used to (and still does today), we use the following materials:
- Accompaniment book for Dannhäuser solfege book 1
- Accompaniment books for Solfege d’Artiste (no longer in print)
- Dictation books / pencils / boards
- Folding chairs
- White board or chalk board with lines
- Markers / chalk
- Music stands around the piano for students to come up, place their solfege books, and solfegiate while conducting time
- Flash cards (music notes, sharps and flats, different note durations like quarter note, half note, etc.)
- Binder with French School history to pass around, keep in room
Dannhäuser Solfège des Solfèges
There are three books, but we only used the first one. After book 1 we then used a blue book titled Solfege d’Artiste but I can no longer find this in print anymore so we will use Dannhauser book 2 if we need to continue with more advanced students.
Book 1 contains 171 short exercises that students can sightread, and these are the same exercises we sightread when Mlle. Combe was teaching. The only difference is that the page numbers differ from the original book I used in the 1970s.
What makes this solfege book so effective is that the exercises are fun to sightread and sing. They are not childish, boring, or non-musical.
There is also a piano accompaniment book. French School still had the accompaniment books and we digitized them so that we could preserve the fragile volumes (which, along with everything at French School, should be part of historical preservation). I even had one of the accompaniment books rebound in a leather cover by a top-notch NYC bookbinder because someone had bandaged it in blue duct tape and I just couldn’t take it.
Here are two pages from one student’s dictation book. We restarted solfege lessons in February 2016, and these pictures were taken in December 2016.
We only do dictation once a month, the last solfege class of each month.
Students listen to what the teacher plays, and figure out how many beats per measure, what pitches are played and the duration of each note.
Solfege is like teaching someone how to drive. Dictation is like teaching someone to be a mechanic.
Whiteboard / Chalkboard
It helps to have a whiteboard with a music staff on it. We also have magnetic buttons that can be used as notes, for students to come up and place them on the board when testing if they know where “re” or “la” are.
The French School of Music also has a regular black chalk board with white lines painted on it.
The French School of Music has folding chairs in a range of heights, shorter chairs in front and higher chairs in back. Students need to learn to find a seat that is the appropriate height for them, so that when they are conducting solfege or doing dictation, the board sits horizontally and stable on their laps when their feet are flat on the ground.
Make sure folding chairs on the right are far enough away from a wall or cabinet so that students don’t hit the wall or cabinet on the third beat. Chairs should be far apart enough for students to conduct time without hitting each other. When I took the photo of the folding chairs they were a little too close to the cabinets.
There are benches and chairs in the back of the class for parents to sit if they would like to stay. When I was a student Mlle. Combe insisted parents attend piano lessons and solfege classes and sit in the back. Today, sometimes parents stay and sometimes they don’t. However, when students’ progress starts to get interesting, it catches the attention of some parents who begin to stay to figure out what is going on, and this is so important.
Former students were child witnesses to the French School method. But both my dad’s piano book and this solfege guide are possible only because of decades of family dinner conversations, and all of us recounting our memories and piecing together this puzzle - both the child and adult witnesses. When each generation transitions to adulthood, they will need the adult witnesses to guide them in understanding what happened and why it was so effective, so that they can continue passing this along to the next generation.
This is more important than I realized initially. I tried some other options to see how they would work and quickly discovered why Mlle. Combe did what she did. I’ll show you the history of what happened.
Initially when I agreed to help restart solfege classes, there was only one piano in the room. The second upright piano had been sold years ago. So, during the ear training portion, I started off having students call out the note that I played: do, re, mi, etc. That was fine for me since I knew if they were right or not, although it got a little chaotic as some of the younger students were calling out random notes, simply trying to guess. This didn’t help the parents at all, because do, re, mi, I could say anything and they wouldn’t know if a student had really gotten it right or wrong, no one had perfect pitch except for me.
I finally realized why it was better to have two pianos, but the closest second piano was in what used to be Mr. Stephen Water’s studio, so I started having a small group of students go to this second piano, along with a teacher aide, to have them play what I was playing. This was harder because they were in a separate room and we couldn’t hear each other as well. But to the parents, it became immediately clear finally, who was becoming good at ear training, and who was hunting and pecking trying to find the right key. This system works whether or not a listener has perfect pitch, and that’s all that counts.
That’s when the director finally realized why we needed two pianos in the same room, and she quickly found a second upright piano to put back in the recital room. And now, each student goes up to the piano individually to try and play what I play on the piano on the left.
That’s the other thing that is nice about the set up: I can see the students and what they’re doing, but they have their backs turned to me, and even then, they wouldn’t be able to see my keyboard so they have to use their ear to figure out what note I’m playing.
Students love the ear training portion and music dictation. In their later years, they will come to realize how valuable the music dictation portion was (Vince Di Mura and I both solidly agree that helped us become better musicians and composers - and even then there was much I had to learn from Juilliard, which I am now passing along to this next generation of solfege students).
5 music stands so that groups of students can stand on stage and sing. Younger students should be closer to the pianist so that the pianist can see if they're beating time correctly, and emphasize the first beat if necessary.
Markers for white board, chalk for blackboard, pencils for dictation, boards where students can place their dictation books on their laps and write.
There are extra solfege books in case someone forgets theirs, or they can share with others. Since dictation is only once a month, students leave their dictation books at French School so we don’t have to worry about them losing their books. This also means many former students’ dictation books are still at French School… Luckily my sister and I both kept ours.
There is one final ingredient in the supply list and this is the pièce de résistance.
This is a picture of the award cabinet, and when I was a student, we could get a star in our notebook depending on how well we did. A red star for OK, silver star for good, gold star for very good. If you did very well Mlle. Combe would write Perfect in your book. If you had reached a certain number of gold stars or perfects you could get a prize from the cabinet. If you’d saved up 200 gold stars or perfects, you could get a beautiful, tiny cuckoo clock she had gotten from Switzerland when she went to visit during the summers.
Multiple generations of French School alumni remember that cabinet and those cuckoo clocks. In 2017, those who studied with Mlle. Combe ranged in age from 30s to 80s and beyond, and Still we wax poetic on the French School Facebook page about the award cabinet and the cuckoo clocks. We’re doing the same with the next generation because, quite honestly, the award system works. Practically at the end of every solfege class, students ask if they can look at the award cabinet and they’re counting their points (yes, we now have a point system for solfege as well).