Part 3: Solfege Teaching Guide
Spreading the Word
While restarting the solfege class has been my primary focus, the director’s focus has been on growing the school. I’ll document what Judy Waters did to spread the word about solfege classes restarting at French School. You could use this list as a blueprint for efforts in your local area. She reached out to:
- Deputy city administrator for economic development
- Plainfield Symphony
- DuCret - local school of art and a strategic partner
- NJ Youth Symphony
- Plainfield Music Club
- Plainfield Academy for the Arts and Advanced Studies
- Van Wyck Historic District
- Ensure the rich diversity of artistic talent and resources are more widely known
- Support creation of a Plainfield Performing Arts Center (ongoing, now is a non-profit)
She was able to have Robert Taub, one of our alumni, teach a master class for piano students to help fundraise scholarships for students.
From Juilliard alumni, I learned that not all high schools have an orchestra, but they all have bands and sports teams. There are tens of thousands of bands (or more?) across the US and they tend to be an underserved community in terms of music composition. They are also another ideal community to tap.
Initially I used Meetup.com to create an online presence alerting people that we were teaching solfege classes. I posted each week’s lesson. After awhile, Meetup started to charge a subscription fee so I let the solfege meet up group lapse.
I created a Facebook page for the French School of Music, and this has turned into sort of a “yearbook” for alumni and friends. I started with listing alumni I had found, along with their online information, CDs, etc. Our family was lucky to have pictures from the 1970s and video of Carnegie Recital Hall award ceremonies. The number of viewers has grown organically so this is the primary place where we let people know about upcoming concerts and what the school is doing.
Judy Waters connected with someone who manages a website dedicated to announcing local Plainfield news and events. This is also where she would announce concerts, offerings, and solfege enrollments.
Connecting with other strategic partners with an online presence allows French School and others to increase the overall number of “warm leads” - motivated and interested eyeballs who would be inclined to act (reach out for more information, drop into the school, etc.).
Word of Mouth
When I was started lessons at The French School of Music at age 7, I plugged into an existing and vibrant community. People had known about the history of the school and at its peak there were four teachers teaching 200 students each week. During my ten years there things slowly faded, since Mlle. Combe was already in her 80s by then, but she never stopped teaching. Even solfege! (In retrospect I find this absolutely amazing, given the amount of energy that you need to corral a class of young and eager students, and I’m in my 50s for goodness sake.)
In 2016 and 2017, it was a completely different story. After Stephen Waters passed away, there were two students. As of 2017 the number of students taking lessons and solfege is somewhere in the 30s. This is the strategy the director of the school has taken in terms of spreading information through word of mouth:
- Judy Waters is a member of several boards that are education and community based.
- Solfege is ideal for many groups - church, choir, piano players/students, orchestra, bands, karaoke aficionados, etc.
Call to action:
Schedule a solfege concert or demo for the community and advertise both online and through word of mouth.
Demonstrations / Concerts
When I was a child, Mlle. Combe was in her 80s and her main focus by then was to keep cranking out MEC (NJ Music Education Council piano competition) winners. But in earlier decades, we learned the teachers used to host solfege concerts and we began to do the same with this new generation. There are many possible venues for a solfege demonstration or concert, including:
- The French School of Music recital room
- Nursing homes
The main initial preparation we did prior to our very first solfege demonstration included the following:
- Recruiting current piano/voice students and alumni/teachers willing to participate in a demonstration
- Choosing a popular number from the Solfege des Solfeges book to perform - 39 is quite popular so we chose that
- Learning the basics of singing and conducting 4/4 time
- Practicing until all recruits are somewhat of familiar with solfegiating, singing on pitch, and conducting time. If they’ve never done this, it could take a little bit of time to acclimate.
- For those who are concerned about making mistakes during the demo - it’s OK. In fact, it’s GREAT. That’s because one of the most important things solfege students learn is how never to stop if they get lost, but to listen for the accompanist who may accent the downbeat so that they can simply conduct the first beat (down) and continue from there. So mistakes shouldn’t be intentional during a demo but if they happen, they are part of the demo and this should help ease recruits’ performing concerns.
- Creating an attendance sheet for audience members to give their name and phone number / email address and who might be interested in taking solfege (children OR adult).
- Creating flyers announcing the demonstration, and creating a sign to place in front of French School to attract walk-ins.
Structure of Solfege Demonstration
This is how we structured our very first solfege demonstration to reintroduce the local community to the benefits of solfege:
1. Judy Mae Waters introduced herself as the director of the school and outlined some of the history that can be found in the introduction of this solfege guide.
2. The solfege recruits then come on stage, and place their solfege books on music stands placed around the piano.
3. I then asked the audience - who is familiar with The Sound of Music? Raise your hand if you’ve heard of it. Needless to say, practically the entire audience - adults and children, enthusiastically raised their hands. This is great! This will make the demonstration that much easier because, believe it or not, you already know how to solfege.
4. I then sat at the piano and ran through for the audience: do, a deer, a female deer, re, a drop of golden sun… while playing each note on the piano. Some in the audience started singing along. At some point - I got to “ti, a drink with jam and bread” and explained that in our case, because we are The French School of Music, we use “si, a salty drink instead…”. That’s because historically, it was si before England introduced ti in the 19th century so that every note started with a different letter of the alphabet.
Also, si is more lyrical than ti, especially when you’re solfegiating more advanced and fast songs, e.g. with 8th or 16th notes. For example, try singing do ti do ti do ti do rapidly, versus do si do si do si do… Trying to sing two hard, percussive syllables is a challenge and makes the musical delivery more choppy, so we stick with the more lyrical French system.
One note about using si. Most Americans are familiar with the alphabetic notation for music - CDE instead of do re mi. That’s fine except that si and C sound exactly alike, but are different notes (because si is really B in alphabetic notation). Given the world in which we live, while we use the do re mi system in solfege class, we expect all students to be fully familiar with both the do re mi system and CDE system. To avoid confusion, I tell students that we will always use do re mi. If I want to switch to the alphabetic system, I will ask what is this note using alphabetic notation? That eliminates the confusion between si and C.
5. I then introduced conducting 4/4 time, which looks like a cross. I make a fist with my right hand, and the first beat is down, second beat is left (across the body), third beat is right (out), and fourth beat is up. The solfege demonstrators demonstrate conducting time. I explain this isn’t easy to do initially, and very often people may get lost and we’ll likely see that happen here. That’s OK, if students get lost, they simply stop beating time, find where they are in the music, note where the other students are (the accompanist will often accent the downbeat), and they can simply catch up with the class on the next downbeat and continue.
6. Accompanist and demonstrators then demonstrate both exercise 1, and exercise 39 (or whichever popular number they would like to perform).
7. Now, here is the fun part. Judy did some extra preparation prior to the first demo. She made copies of exercise 1 on card stock, and taped them to a board so that the audience members could each have a copy to place on their lap after the demo. Then we had the audience learn to conduct time and sing exercise 1. This is a Hoot because the audience - both adults and children - realize immediately what a challenge it is trying to learn to do all of these things correctly. This is especially helpful if some in the audience are parents of prospective solfege students, and helps them to develop some perspective and compassion for what their child will experience when starting out. You will invariably hear people in the audience giggling when they start making mistakes. It’s all good.
8. Remind the audience that if they haven’t added their contact information to the attendance sheet, please do so. Once they walk out the door, you may not have any way of reaching them again.
Follow up after demonstration
Go through the attendance sheet and call / email attendees, thanking them for attending, asking if they have any questions, and if there is interest, taking further steps to enroll students into solfege.