Part 8: Solfege Teaching Guide

Using Solfege as a Tool

Once solfege fundamentals are mastered to a point where nothing stops you, the possibilities become endless. Granted, people have different strengths and weaknesses and, as an example, those who have a good ear may find themselves relying on that a lot and slowly and painstakingly writing down the sheet music for their latest composition. That’s fine, as long as all of the fundamentals together give you enough information to bring your sheet music to a Juilliard audition.

What will often happen at that audition is that the people interviewing you may say things like: why did you write this in 5/4? This should be 10/8. Or yes, this is 6/4 but the notes in this bar are beamed incorrectly, and you’ve used the incorrect enharmonic equivalent here.

That’s perfectly fine, if you at least have the basic ability to write sheet music that accurately reflects what is going on in your head. Because then and only then can you begin to embark on a useful discussion with professors who can see exactly where you are, and they can begin to help you.

You can not only sing in a choir, you could be paid by a choir to help others who can’t sightread as well but can pick things up by ear and memorize. You can arrange music for a new quartet or band that you just joined.

With respect to improvisation and composition, this is what I do understand about improvisation and composition.


Introducing a young solfege student to improvisation on the piano can be fairly simple. Improvisation is first and foremost about learning patterns.

  1. Start with the Twinkle Twinkle melody only. Then add a left hand accompaniment using three note chords like (do mi sol) and (do fa la).
  2. Show how some chords in the end of Twinkle Twinkle seem related - (si fa sol) (sol si fa) (sol re fa) - like cousins or siblings. And they can be substituted in to give the song more variability or make it slightly different each time you play.
  3. Transition to repeated broken chord patterns: (do mi) sol or do (mi sol)
  4. Then the do sol mi sol pattern.
  5. Then the do mi sol mi do pattern.
  6. Switch from 4/4 to 3/4 time and turn it into a waltz, adding little ornaments to the melody.
  7. Here’s the “I dropped my ice cream cone” pattern. Make it minor, sounding a little sad.
  8. Transition back to a happy French-style march since I bought myself another ice cream cone.
  9. Get serious and throw in a little Bach-like left hand wandering around.
  10. Add little Mozart ornaments ending with a typical Mozart flourish and little trills (granted, Mozart already did a set of variations for Twinkle Twinkle).

Now, start with the Happy Birthday melody, and guess what?

Three note chords. Broken chords. Do sol mi sol pattern, etc up to Mozart.

Basic improvisation involves applying patterns to different melodies. In addition, performers need to develop the muscle memory to transition to different key signatures and transpose these different songs and patterns.

On the jazz side, there are patterns like Boogie Woogie, blues, Joplin ragtime, and standards like Ain’t Misbehavin’, Georgia On My Mind, etc. 

From there, keep building a database of patterns - both classical and jazz - in increasing complexity. Cross over patterns, as an example, starting with serious Bach and blending into a warm and rich jazz landing.

This is the additional fifth prong to solfege, and ideally every student should be able to riff Twinkle Twinkle at least 20 different ways, whether they are studying classical, jazz, or both. This is the core foundation that leads to being able to play at a piano bar for a few hours in the evening, entertaining friends, family and customers, taking ad-hoc requests for favorite songs and riffing on them. How might Beethoven do Itsy Bitsy Spider? What would Debussy have done with the “A” Train?

Beginning improvisers can improvise up to a certain level of complexity and then they start to stumble or go a lot slower. This is because being a really good improvisor entails knowing all of the scales, arpeggios and finger exercises down cold in different keys. This requires a lot of drilling, to be able to improvise at full speed on the fly and transition from one key to another. While endless mindless hours of Hanon exercises are not a productive use of piano practice time, those who want to learn to improvise will need targeted, mindful practice to build a solid database of patterns that they can play in all keys, and can transition easily from one key to another because it is imbued in muscle memory.

The key to understanding “improv” is that it’s “practiced improv”, based on building a core set of fundamentals. Having said that, what is detailed in my dad’s piano practice book, and this solfege guide, can all work together to facilitate building this core database of patterns.


What is your relationship to music? Are you a listener? Performer? Composer?

Listeners can appreciate many things about music and develop preferences, even if they are not  performers or composers.

Performers can appreciate music as listeners, can also appreciate that something is easy or difficult to play, and can appreciate all of the intricacies associated with learning the music from the perspectives of technique and musicality.

For those who embark on a journey to become composers, famous composers now become teachers. Are you trying to write a violin solo for a composition class when you’ve never played the violin? You might begin to ask:

What is the range of a violin?

What kinds of things can a violin play? Can it do arpeggios, can it handle large leaps?

A listener might appreciate a Beethoven violin concerto. A violinist understands the intricacies involved with performing that Beethoven concerto. The composer writing a violin solo for the first time, having never played the violin, might hear Beethoven laughing gleefully.

“Finally! You begin to ask the right questions. Range, you ask? How about this?

What kinds of patterns can the solo violinist play? How about that?”

And so on. Being a listener, performer, and composer is the best way to develop a mindset for asking questions others might not normally ask, and gain a deep understanding of music from the greatest composers.

What kinds of techniques facilitate learning to compose?

One TED talk with Jennifer Lin and Goldie Hawn shows Goldie randomly chooses notes and Jennifer improvising something on the fly. Try doing the same thing, even daily, to improve composing skills. Study different styles, randomly pick notes, and try to compose in that style. Progress by:

  • trying varying time signatures.
  • trying chords, sequences of notes.
  • trying to pick just white notes randomly.
  • later adding the entire chromatic scale.

Solfegiating Improvisations to Music

Start singing with the radio using solfege skills. Start with solfegiating the melody, then harmonizing and solfegiating in thirds. Huge leap: try harmonizing something completely different without ever singing the same note as the melody. Expect to sound like a train wreck for an entire month, but doing this on a regular basis will improve the ability to improvise on the fly.

Last: try harmonizing to music you've never heard. This is possible (musicians, especially jazz musicians, will often come together and create informal jam sessions) because those who practice long enough begin to understand the general structure of music and realize it's like crossing a river. If you try to cross the entire river you won't get there, but if you realize there are 5 stepping stones in front of you, then you can hop on 2 of them and now you have three choices. From there you can see the next 5 stones so you hop, make a random choice, and from there you can see the next 5, and eventually you get to the other side. 

If you're not sure where the music is going, add a rest instead of a note for the first beat. As soon as you hear the first note or chord, you immediately know where the music is heading (your 5 stones and choices are visible again) and you can continue hopping from stone to stone.

If you guess wrong, going off kilter is perfectly fine if it resolves later in that bar, or further down the line once you grasp where the music is really going.

Back to the flash card system of randomly choosing notes, I use this in two ways: to spark ideas for a composition, or to jog myself out of a creative block. I generally need at most three flash card draws to break out of a creative block. This is how effective the flash card technique can be.

More deliberate composing sessions:

  • When starting out, you won’t have good control. Explore different chords, sequences, chord progressions.
  • You usually have no coherence and will jump from one thing to another. Melodies will be short and wander initially.

While earlier works may be less refined, sometimes they're a much more honest window into a composer's psyche, because inexperienced composers lack the control to both compose and filter/polish their work simultaneously. Later it gets easier and more polished, but maybe also more mainstream. This is both good and bad.

The goal is to experiment and begin building your own database of patterns, of harmonies, progressions, and transitions that you like that make sense, things that you can begin to string together. As time passes, work to make those patterns longer and less repetitive.

Random Tips and Tricks

Don’t end a day of composing by sticking a temporary bandaid on a composition. It’s difficult to unthink a bandaid ending. Leave it as ambiguous as possible, maybe it's an up or down sequence that can lead to many different options. Then sleep on it, or take a long walk and it will usually resolve itself. One theory is that ear worms occur if we hear part of something, and it will continue to loop and jangle in our brain until we mentally play the ending. If this is true, this explains a lot. If you’re composing and stop in the middle, this is probably like creating an ear worm for your subconscious to work on. 

Music progresses from a start to a finish and people may assume that's how it's composed, but many times you want to go back to the beginning or to some expansion of what was played at the beginning, so learning to compose something that joins up with some future melody is a good thing to practice.

When I first started composing I had a bunch of cassette tapes with nothing but my endless wandering around trying to compose something. Fast forward decades later, and I no longer worry about losing something. True, this has bitten me two or three times over these decades, but if I forget an idea, one of three things will happen. If it’s worth keeping, it will resurface. Capture it in sheet music form. If it’s not worth it, it won’t reappear. If it’s a half-baked germ of an idea, it tends to resurface later in a more mature form.

Fusion is another great sparker for creativity. Punk Bach or Punk Polka. Beethoven done in Ragtime. The possibilities are endless.

If you’ve honed “your thing”, how do you avoid stagnation or forcing your vision onto others? Do what the Philip Glasses of this world do. Play with every conceivable musician you can find under the sun. Each one introduces you to a whole new world of notes, rhythms, culture, etc. And it eventually infuses into your database of patterns.

Having a story in mind may facilitate creativity.

Deux ex machina refers to a plot device where a seemingly unsolvable problem is suddenly and abruptly solved with a contrived and unexpected intervention or some new event. The same thing can happen in music, especially with inexperienced composers who paint themselves into a corner. Learn to recognize this, how it is the crutch that it is, and eliminate it by learning how to make smooth, coherent transitions that make sense.

Improve your piano or instrument skills. Instrument skills, more than anything, will inform the level of technicality and musicality at which a composer can compose.

Having said that, performers never have enough time to practice and rehearse. Pushing the edges of the envelop and keeping compositions playable requires careful balancing. If performers can’t devote a reasonable amount of practice time and play your compositions, how will you build communitas with performers and fans?

Composition at Juilliard

A good composition professor has the ability to give technically precise enough information, without imposing any particular viewpoint. Composition classes in a conservatory:

1. offer an expanded world in learning to write for other instruments. Hearing Juilliard performers run through a 20 minute reading is illuminating in terms of learning what kind of music works for different instruments. 

2. teach how to notate music properly for performers and conductors, so there is no time wasted during a rehearsal or practice session. Different instruments have unique notations (e.g. see the Samuel Adler orchestration book in the References at the end).

Music can seem highly subjective, so how do you teach and critique about music? Have every student in the class refer to a specific measure or measures and provide one positive and one constructive comment.

The comments need to be precise and not fuzzy opinions or judgments (those familiar with the SMART acronym learn to craft feedback that is Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Realistic, and Timely). Our professor will often ask questions and help us rephrase our feedback. After we are done, our professor will give his positive and constructive comments, often both agreeing and disagreeing with other students. This is invaluable. Instead of worrying about whether someone giving feedback is biased, soak in the totality of everyone’s feedback, and choose which to consider.

Because each instrument has different characteristics and timbre, this can help composers to remain creative since the different characteristics will influence what composers write.

Constraints are another fun way to shake things up. Pick your favorite jazz chord structure and composed an entire piece around it (e.g. The Tarpit Dance).

What if you have a commission from a school band with very young, inexperienced members, so that you can only use quarter notes and longer duration, and a limited range in pitch?

What if the pianist can only perform with the left hand, having broken a right arm?

Eileen Sauer