Part 5: Solfege Teaching Guide

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Now that you’ve seen how the solfege process works and how we launched, let’s talk about a child’s early years and how important it is to start a musical education before a child is even born. We’ll use our Chang family history as an example, because I think this will both shed light and dispel myths.

Our family moved to Plainfield, NJ when I was two years old, but didn’t learn about The French School of Music until I was seven. Dad had a boss whose daughters were taking piano lessons at French School.

My dad took seven years of piano lessons with a not-so-good piano teacher and struggled to get to an intermediate level, and since before we were born, sis and I listened to him practicing Beethoven sonatas. As a young dad, he was a graduate student at Cornell and strapped for cash, so he taught himself how to tune a piano. Back then, there were no electronic pianos, and everything was analog and had to be tuned.

We have family video of me playing piano as a toddler, with a children’s songbook on the piano stand. My mom taught me what she could. From my dad’s stories, she would try to teach me to read music, but I was too slow to respond so instead of waiting until I read the notes, she would simply show me the notes. So I must have learned to play by ear all those years, say 5 years.

We met the madames and were invited to a French School recital. Mme. Seguin was impressed because at one point, I leaned over and informed her that the student (surprise, playing a Beethoven sonata) had just made a mistake. Then I started piano and solfege at French School. In no time flat, Mlle. Combe determined that I had perfect pitch. She had a seven year old “genius”. Meanwhile, my little sister, who is four years younger than me, sat in back of the solfege class with the parents since obviously my mom couldn’t leave her at home by herself.

One day during ear training, my sister leaned over and whispered to my mom: “why can’t he get those? Those are so Easy!” One of the mothers sitting in front of her turned around and looked at her in complete shock. She marched up to Mlle. Combe and told her what happened, and Mlle. Combe stopped the solfege class and asked my sister to come up.

Well, this is why the whole child versus adult witness thing is so important. You see, I don’t really remember any of that at all, our family had to piece the whole story together like a jigsaw puzzle. The only memory I have as a seven year old is looking up and wondering what on earth my three year old sister was doing, standing on a step leading up to the stage. She was so tiny and bawling her head off. Mme. Seguin, Mlle. Combe and Mlle. Pfeiffer were all standing around her, bent over practically double, patting her arm and back, trying to soothe her. They finally succeeded, and told her they just wanted to play a game. So they picked her up and sat her in front of the second piano.

Mlle. Combe started doing simple ear training with single notes, and my sister got them. Then she tried a few more things, and my sister got them. Then she said hmm, and kept trying more and more complicated things, and my sister kept getting them! Practically the next week, on Mlle. Combe’s insistence, my sister started piano and solfege, at age three. Which, dad says, was a real problem for them because they had budgeted for one daughter taking piano and solfege lessons, not two right off the bat. Sis gave her first French School recital at age 4 1/2.

Mlle. Combe may have thought she had two sibling “geniuses”. Which, if you think about all of the incorrect myths out there, is quite a mystery. My dad was a mediocre pianist who, back then, was completely uninformed about the French School method. Neither of my parents had perfect pitch, so it’s not like it was obvious there was some genetic component that we were “born” with.

In retrospect, I bet if dad had sat down and mangled a couple of Beethoven sonatas for Mlle. Combe, she would have said “oh, of course, this was inevitable.” But he never did so she never knew. Had she ever come to our house, she would have realized our piano was tuned, and that dad tuned the piano regularly.

I think anyone who wants to give their child the greatest possible musical head start in life, should do something along the lines of what happened in our family. In some ways this might be easier today. Technology keeps improving and there are better and better electronic keyboards with weighted keys. Electronic pianos don’t have to be tuned. If parents don’t play, they can listen to classical music by Mozart, Beethoven, Bach, etc. and attend concerts (I was apparently attending concerts as an infant). One caveat: be cognizant of the fact that not all recordings are tuned to the correct key. For example, one Bach Brandenburg concerto, while written in G (sol), is often performed in F# (fa#) at breakneck speed. Even my Juilliard professor made that mistake once. He put on a Youtube recording and at the end I finally exhaled and said whew! I had been furiously sightreading and transposing all at the same time once I realized his Bach partita in E was really being played in D. When I told him this he said “what?!” and marched over to the piano, played an E and said “well I’ll be darned…” I can tell you who is Not teaching ear training at Juilliard!

And, you also now know one of the downsides of having perfect pitch.

This should also reinforce to those teaching solfege that people can join a solfege class coming from all sorts of situations. They’re often starting from scratch, but maybe they had a bad teacher, or they were taught by parents who aren't teachers. This also explains why I had trouble learning how to sightread, whereas my sister was exposed to the French School method from age three. While those early years were probably quite challenging for her, that early start made a huge difference. I started piano lessons, then three months later entered my first NJ piano competition. I came in third that year (first the year after), and most of the time after I came in second place. By the time my sister started competing, she was only two grades below me and kept coming in first place.

One last story: I met a woman living in our building who has two sons. The older son went to Cornell, and the younger one gravitated toward music. She asked me: why doesn’t my first son like music but my second son does?

It took us 2 minutes to determine her first son had no problems falling asleep at night. The younger son could never fall asleep so even though she’s not a musician she started singing to him so he would fall asleep.

What myths did this dispel?

“Geniuses” aren’t “born” - well, they kind of are, but not in the way that you might have thought. The foundation building blocks are created when the child is immersed in the right conditions early. And this doesn’t just “happen” without intent, the “affinity” is really a skill that must be cultivated like any other skill.

The earlier you can start the better. If you want your children to have a chance to develop perfect pitch, set them up for success by exposing them to:

  • In tune music before they are born
  • only tuned instruments

Why are tuned instruments so important? Because if they’re not tuned, even if you have a predisposition towards developing perfect pitch, you’ll be the last person to think you have perfect pitch if you’re exposed to untuned instruments. It would be like teaching someone to add, subtract, multiply and divide in octal, then letting that person loose in the real world. They will think they are a math idiot.

I remember one French School alumnus came in fourth place in a piano competition (then was later disqualified). He played beautifully, but blacked out in the middle and needed to see the music to continue. It wasn’t until recently that I learned his piano was horribly out of tune. This does a huge disservice to the student. It makes practicing, mental play, and memorizing music that much more difficult. When my solfege students heard some of these stories, I was amused when the next week one of the parents informed me he had the piano tuned.

Last but not least, here is one last myth to dispel about perfect pitch. The best way to learn is to focus first on one pitch. For example, my Sonicare toothbrush hums at middle C (do). I have to brush my teeth every day, and even though I had perfect pitch as a child, I still have to practice to maintain it. If you don’t have perfect pitch, start by listening intently to the pitch when you use your toothbrush (or any other appliance that hums, chirps, beeps, or squawks at a Tuned Pitch). Then, try thinking of a middle C before you turn on your toothbrush. Do that long enough and at some point you will have tuned in to middle C, and can then (if you know the intervals) tune into any other pitch. Then you can graduate from there, e.g. now regularly practice both C and G. Get the C major scale down eventually, then add the sharps and flats later.

Eileen SauerComment