Part 4: Solfege Teaching Guide
Launching a New Class
When I was a child starting at French School, I and all new solfege students were thrown into an existing system, everyone was so much more advanced and smarter than us and we simply soaked up what was going on and quickly caught on. Restarting solfege from scratch in 2016, with none of the previous teachers with us, put us into the same position Mlle. Combe must have been in back in 1927 when she brought solfege to this country. I’m going to carefully detail what happened to us, so that those of you wanting to start solfege lessons in your community will know what to expect.
Start solfege class at the beginning of the month, so that you have the usual four (or five) classes in a month, and the last class of the month will be a dictation class.
Please note that this chapter really only addresses the logistics of launching a new class, but not the specific details. Those details come in Chapter 6: Foundation - Details.
First Solfege Class
Make sure you have an attendance sheet for the first class (and any time a new student starts) where you can capture students’ and parents’ full names, and contact information. You never know when you may have a snow day or cancellation.
Our first class had 10 brand new students, from ages 5 to 17. We simply picked up where we left off from the demo, and what we did at the demo could also be the first solfege class for a group that has never done solfege before.
If none of the students have done solfege before, they will be completely lost. That’s OK. In fact, a completely brand new solfege class will be lost for about three classes before something will “click” and they’ll begin to catch on. It really is quite magical when you reach that third class. And the magic never stops after that, week after week.
Assuming solfege classes are 45 minutes long, here is the basic breakdown:
1. Very first class - introduce treble clef (also called the G clef), staff has five lines and four spaces, and the notes. Since exercise 1 is a simple do major scale, think about Sound of Music, look at the notes and also refer to the first page of Solfege des Solfeges where the notes are written out: do re mi, etc.
Explain that the C shaped symbol that they see is used to denote 4/4 time and learn/review how to conduct 4/4 time. I explain to the class that conducting time is actually very important. If they’ve ever seen a concert, a conductor conducts time for the entire orchestra, otherwise that orchestra wouldn’t be able to play properly. So we are teaching them how to become conductors, so that they can lead an orchestra or a band.
One thing we’ve consistently noticed about conducting time: new students have trouble with the third beat. The third beat should be out to the right, at the 3 pm position on a clock face. Students will often skip the third beat and go straight up to the fourth beat and lose track of time. Or their third beat is “lazy” and more down at the 5 pm position on a clock face. Expect this when you’re starting out, and over time try and have them correct this sooner rather than later. And to reiterate, that 3 pm position is also why when you space out the folding chairs and stands, you will want to leave enough room for students to be able to do the third beat properly without hitting the person to their right (or a cabinet or wall).
Not that this stopped any of us from horsing around and hitting each other during solfege class when we were kids… Again, Mlle. Combe was in her 80s and we probably got away with more than her earlier generations.
Note for very young students: If I’m facing the audience and trying to teach them how to conduct time, and I say make a fist with your right hand and hold it up like this, most students will raise their right hand in a fist except the really young ones who will raise their left hand. They haven’t figured out spatial orientation yet, so you may then have to turn your back to the class and turn your head so you can see them, to show them that this is really your right hand.
Another consideration for very young students is to gauge their attention span. It’s possible they may only be able to handle 15 minutes of solfege initially before they sit in back with a parent. This is also why we start with the youngest group.
To continue, introduce whole notes, and that they have a duration of four beats. Introduce barlines, and that each bar has four beats, and the notes within each bar have to add up to four beats, so now we’re also learning math!
Note the comma symbols - those are breath marks because singers can’t keep singing without taking a breath.
Sing exercise 1 while conducting time. Accompanist plays, one or two assistants are walking on the floor to ensure students are:
- paying attention, eyes on the music, and know where they are in the music (point if necessary using a pencil)
- beating time, assistants will likely need to correct students periodically or say “down” to indicate the first beat
- singing and solfegiating the notes
For a brand new class, I guarantee you the first time almost no one will sing, or they’ll sing very quietly. I remember thinking “uh oh”, but it’s all good. It’s a foreign class, and they’re surrounded by strangers. That won’t last for long. By the third class, even normally shy kids will have bonded and the class will start getting noisy.
Notes for the accompanist:
Here is the accompaniment music for exercise 1:
Now, why those are half notes, I don’t understand. What I Clearly remember is that at French School the accompaniment was played with the melody as whole notes and the rest of the notes played as repeated quarter notes, and I do the same. I think this is extremely important. Why?
- You are launching new students who are going to struggle with singing, solfegiating, and conducting time simultaneously. Having a constant quarter note beat will help students keep better track of time when learning how to conduct 4/4 time. Make sure to clearly accent the first beat and remind students when they hear that, their right hand should move down (first beat). I will even call out “down!” to remind students.
- This small change, plus the slow tempo of exercise 1, turns this exercise into a regal march. And there is no better way to celebrate a new student’s entry into the world of solfege, than with a regally performed exercise 1. Reminder: the tempo marking is Lento, so don’t rush exercise 1.
- Don't simply start, play the first chord, count 1, 2, ready, go! Then play and have students sing together (unless advanced student has perfect pitch, then count 1, 2, ready, go! and then play accompaniment). Students should start conducting time so that when you actually start they sync up.
By the third week students will surprise you and begin to “get” what is going on. Assistants should keep track of what is going on, and if necessary, repeat exercises 1, 2, and 3 until students are comfortable. Laying a solid foundation in the early days is important. Exercise 2 will throw them off because of the half notes, and the fact that new students tend to have trouble with the third beat. When I was a student, after exercises 1, 2, and 3 we jumped to 11.
Beyond exercise 3, however, we will simply go through one exercise after another, and award points (1, 2, 3) depending on how well students do. The point is not to perfect the exercises, that’s what the piano lessons were for when I was a child. The point of solfege, week after week, is to introduce students to a new exercise they’ve never seen before and have them learn how to quickly break it down and sightread it. Because new students start periodically, and a class may have several small groups assigned a different exercise - that’s where students will get their repetition, since the entire class sings the next number to be assigned for the next week. They’ll realize when a new student starts on exercise 1 - hey, I know this. If you insist they don’t go on until they’ve perfected an exercise, you might lose them, and again it defeats the purpose of solfege.
This will usually take about 30 minutes, and I leave the last 15 minutes for individual students to sit at the second piano and do ear training. Because they’re new, I’ll start with do, re, mi. I’ll always start with middle do, or middle C, so that they can orient. Today, some students are taking solfege but haven’t chosen an instrument yet, or they’re playing something other than piano so the assistant needs to help them orient on middle do. If they start to catch on, I may have them try to figure out do, re, fa. Initially they’ll have a lot of trouble, and not even know if the notes are going up or down. Try to discourage them from guessing and just slamming notes. It’s also harder for them to hear notes that are descending, as opposed to ascending. More on ear training later.
One note: I admit since each student goes up to the second piano, the rest of the class can sometimes get unruly. And I admit as kids we were the same. :) I believe there were times Mr. Waters would have the other students try and write the notes down in their dictation book but we don’t. Occasionally I might ask the class what note it is (do, re, mi).
After a new group has completed three solfege classes and they are starting to gel - you pull the rug out from under their feet. The next class, likely the last class of the month, will be their first dictation class..
First Dictation Class
Normal solfege classes, as described above, are analogous to teaching someone how to drive a car. Learning to do music dictation, on the other hand, is analogous to teaching someone how to be an auto mechanic. If you’re learning to read music, you’re learning about notes and durations and rests, etc.
If you’re trying to figure out a piece of music so that you can write it down - you must be able to figure out how many beats per measure, conduct it, determine whether or not the song starts on the first beat (obviously for a first class you’re not going to start with learning pickup bars…), figure out the pitches, the durations, and ah, where the barlines go. You learn for a four beat bar, a whole note can fit in that bar, or two half notes, or four quarter notes, or wow, a half note and two quarter notes, or two quarter notes and a half note…
This hacks your brain at a very deep level in terms of understanding music. And it ties together everything students have started to learn in their normal solfege classes. When I play a bar of music and they have to figure out the pitches - there’s the ear training we started. When they’ve figured out the pitches and then have to conduct time to figure out the duration of those notes, that reinforces conducting time. And so on.
So let’s start from the very beginning. The first thing new students have to do is to learn how to draw a treble clef.
I draw this on the board and have students draw an entire line of treble clefs, and I and the assistants go around and mark what is correct and what is not. Check after they’ve done three, make corrections, then have them continue. Have them do a second line if it’s necessary. For truly young students (like 5 or younger) this is really tough.
So let me take a break for a second and explain something to give truly young students some hope. Yes, they may be a bit discouraged initially because everyone around them is so much bigger and knows so much more. Maybe they’re already doing fractions in school so some stuff is easier for older students. But those younger students likely have something no one else has (even a five-year old has something I do not have) - they are getting an earlier start, and that early start is priceless. That means they will have a few more years to learn something than I had, or other students in the room.
Continuing on, for truly new students, they will need to learn how to write the time signature, and then notes, starting with middle do. Repeat writing do a couple times, then re, up to the do one octave up. Then do a couple lines of middle do high do, middle do high do. Then re and high re, re and high re, etc. Up to mi and that should be enough.
Then they’re ready for the real thing, where you play a bar at a time and they begin to figure out and write down what you’re playing.
Remind students that they should always start a new dictation assignment on a new staff, and on that staff goes their treble clef and time signature. Subsequent lines will need a new treble clef but not the time signature, time signature is only on the first line. I also show them how to end their exercise. The image below is from one of my dictation books, and Mlle. Combe would mark each assignment off. Other useful information to include: initials and a date.
New Students Joining an Existing Class
You just throw them in. =) An infant comes into this world not knowing how to speak, and one day, assuming their hearing works and they are surrounded by speaking adults, they simply begin to speak. All that was necessary was to immerse them in a speaking environment. Solfege works the same way. Students will be lost initially, but they’ll have more advanced classmates they can watch. Another helpful tip, if you have a new group of students joining, is to intersperse new students among the older students so that the older students can correct things like conducting time.
This is also where the assistants are vital - for very young students they can spend the time during the first class giving a new student private instruction on the notes and durations, etc.
Teenage / Adult Students
In the French School archives, there are pictures of classes with all young students. We’ve never seen pictures of mixed age classes, and initially I assumed Mlle. Combe was only interested in younger students, but our experience shows mixed age classes can be a challenge. We started with a fairly varied group from ages 5 to 17, and in a few months all of the teenage students had left. This is a pity, because they really have a small, critical window to get to a place where they can become self-sufficient musicians, and this does become harder when you are an adult.
When I reconnected with French School alumni starting in 2015, I spoke with one alumna who came to Mlle. Combe late and she clearly remembers being the “big girl” in solfege class surrounded by younger students, and she remembers that there were things she couldn’t get quickly whereas all the younger kids were so smart and knew so much. Her father was French so there was an affinity there.
The ideal age range for starting solfege seems to be 5 - 8. Anyone age 12 and up not only sees a lot of young students running around, but also experiences regret that they are not in the 5 - 8 range when they are doing this. If I had been 14 trying to start solfege in this manner, I probably would have turned and vamoosed. It’s possible the only way to do that is to set up a separate class for them so they look around and realize they’re on equal footing age/skill-wise. Then the training will be slightly different.
For students younger than 5, my sister started solfege at age 3, and most of her memories consist of Mlle. Combe scolding her for a “lazy” third beat, not choosing the right stool, not paying attention, and any other number of things. Her solfege book was completely marked up as she and another classmate constantly communicated back and forth during class (Mlle. Combe was pretty much deaf by then. But my goodness, play a wrong note and she would immediately stop you. We never figured that out). The younger they are, the better for them, and, the young age provides more challenges to shepherding a solfege class effectively.
We have a smaller adult class that is inconsistent because work schedules often interfere with peoples’ lives. They have to be extremely motivated to attend on a regular basis but still, they realize benefits from solfege that they don’t get in any of their other training: instrument training, vocal training, theory classes, etc. The only real difference is that instead of going through one exercise a week, I let the adult students go through three exercises a week.
Taking A Step Back
Now that you’ve seen how the whole process works for launching a solfege class, let’s discuss why this is so effective.
Unlike private instrument lessons, solfege is a class. Well, I will admit one time years ago, I accidentally picked up one piano student and also attempted to teach him solfege privately, and that was a complete disaster, and one of the saddest experiments I’ve ever run. Solfege is meant to be in a classroom situation. Why?
By externalizing everything, students have no place to hide. You know something or you don’t, and it becomes clear to everyone immediately - students, parents and teachers.
- Are you singing on pitch or off pitch?
- Are you labeling the notes correctly in solfege form? Is do really do? Or did you say do when the note was really re?
- You are conducting time, so as soon as you’re off, you realize you’re out of sync with your classmates, or a teacher sees and corrects you
- With two piano ear training, it’s clear if students are repeating what the instructor plays, or they’re hunting and pecking
While this can be intimidating initially - having no place to hide - what students often discover is that everyone has different strengths and areas to work on - so they are both unique, and all the same because everyone will learn there is something they’re good at and other things they need to work on. When I was taking solfege lessons as a child classmates would sometimes rib one another. Hahahahaha!!! You stink at ear training! OK, true. But dang, you might have perfect pitch but your sight reading skills are horrible… :) Both my sister I developed perfect pitch because of our solfege training. And for me it was a challenge because then I learned all of the solfege exercises by ear and so I didn’t get quite the sightreading training that other students had. The student who rises to the top for each of the main categories becomes a high water mark for which other students aspire, pushing the entire class.
The piano accompaniment is there to provide students with a framework. That framework is pretty solid initially, but even by exercise 14 there are a couple places where students will begin to sing acapella. As an accompanist, if the student is doing well I will allow them to sing those areas acapella. If they are having trouble singing on-pitch, I will also play the melody. Also, if they go off pitch, I will repeat the melody note a couple times and focus their attention on it. This does help them to learn to sing on-pitch over time.
About making mistakes: Initially we tried to be helpful without “crowding” students. Even if students make mistakes, the fact that they enthusiastically raise their hands means a lot. So we would praise them for their efforts and gently correct them how ever many times they need.
In those early days and still today, we made mistakes, the teachers included. Making mistakes along the way means we are doing, and doing means we are learning, and growing. So it helps for all to learn how to make mistakes and treat our mistakes and others’ mistakes gracefully and with respect.
In fact, I think this is a core to a book called Antifragile, written for the software industry but it applies here too. Life can be a roller coaster ride sometimes. Life is not about perfect SAT scores. Where true life Really happens, is what do you do when you’ve been knocked down 100 times? Do you curl up and suck your thumb? Or do you take a deep breath and get up one more time?
The start to the Antifragile book is a quote: wind blows out a candle. But wind fuels a forest fire. You want to learn to become the forest fire, and ask for wind.
Reminder: Capture contact information for all students.
Consider having an agreement from parents before classes start, and signed, that they will pay a monthly fee for solfege due the first of the month. The fee is paid regardless of whether students attend or not. You can’t change behavior after the fact, it helps to set the expectations up front.
Initially, while I accompanied and Yves Sukhu and Judy Waters assisted, Yves would email a write up each week on each student’s strengths/weaknesses and progress. That was incredibly helpful because in the beginning my brain was spinning so hard as I tried to keep several steps ahead of the class that I missed many of the things he and Judy saw. At the start of solfege class it felt like a starting gun would go off and I became a bunny rabbit running as fast as I could while these energetic baby fox hounds were nipping at my ankles.
Here are some of the things Yves captured in those early classes:
- Name of each student so that we could begin calling them by name, plus their ages
- What kind of musical experience they have (can they read music?), what instrument they play?
- Was the length of the class appropriate for the number of students?
- Was the breakdown of the class appropriate, e.g. Enough time to sing the numbers and do ear training?
- Age ranges - if it’s too great, do we run two 45 minute classes back to back? One for young students, and one for older students / adult students.
New Solfege Instructors
Transitioning from former solfege student in the distant past to solfege instructor has been an interesting journey. As children, both my sister and I developed perfect pitch from solfege training. While she seemed to do just fine with both ear training and sightreading, I figured things out by ear much more quickly so I found it harder to develop good sightreading skills. And, when I started composing at age 17 and my sister also started composing, she was able to both play and sing while I discovered I could not. I could play, or I could sing, but not both at the same time.
When I reviewed the accompaniment book, I was amazed I remembered all of the exercises, although it was my first time actually looking at the accompaniment book. Since I compose I will sometimes simplify the accompaniments for a couple reasons: so that I can both play and pay more attention to what is going on with the class, in case students aren’t beating time correctly for example. It allows me to more easily incorporate the melody in case a student is having a little trouble singing on key.
Make sure students don’t strain their voices if the notes go too high. For students who are inexperienced singers, or male students whose voices are changing, tell them they can switch and sing an octave lower if needed, until they get back in range.
Students will stumble right and left. Any time we go through an exercise for the first time, no matter what, I won’t stop. Learning how to barrel through mistakes is learning how to be a professional musician. At Juilliard when a string quartet is sightreading our compositions for the first time, they can run into any number of things if our sheet music isn’t clear. Do they stop and say “oh, sorry!” Absolutely not. They barrel through as best they can unless they totally, completely fall apart or our professor stops them. If everyone said “oh, sorry!” every time they made a mistake, everyone would have to stop and regroup. That’s valuable time wasted in a 20 minute reading where performers sightread, then play while we record.
So we do the same thing in solfege class, and only when we’ve completed the exercise, do we go back a second time or hit certain challenging areas. Students will need to learn:
- If they stumble while singing, stop singing but keep following along in the music and pick up
- If they stumble while conducting time, stop conducting and wait for the next beat one downbeat
When students are standing, we have them place their left hand behind their back. That way the arm isn’t dangling or wiggling around, and it supports better posture when standing. We don’t have them place their left hand behind their back when they are sitting, because they need to hold their solfege book on their laps.