A Suitable Interval

While Shepherd Washed Their Socks…?!

I have just read yet another interesting post from my friend, George Bevan, who is Director of Music at Monkton Combe School. This one is about how the piano is like a calculator, and I couldn’t agree more! It’s all too easy to use the piano to hear a piece of music, rather than engaging our inner hearing (and even I’m guilty of that all too frequently). Instead, a little bit of mental arithmetic is indeed a very good thing, especially if you want to create thinking musicians (rather than just pianists or other instrumentalists!).

There’s just one thing I wanted to respond and elaborate on, and it’s about how to pitch intervals. George has suggested a very common approach, which is to sing up a scale, or think of a piece that starts with the same interval (eg. While Shepherds Watched for a major third, and I can think of a list of others that helped me get through intervals at school). The only problem I see with this is that a major third is not always the tonic to the mediant! What about all the other major thirds? If a pupil is unable to sing intervals in different contexts, can they really sing the interval?!

Let’s take a look at some diatonic intervals one could sing with solfa:

Major 3rds – do to mi / fa to laso to ti (in major and minor contexts)

Perfect 4ths – do to fare to so / mi to la / so to do’la to re’ti to mi

I could go on (but let’s not). My point is that all of these intervals will function differently in different contexts.

Let me propose another idea for developing the ability to sing (and identify) intervals:

1. Sing and name the internal intervals of a scale (ie. d – r; r – m; m – f; f – s, etc., then down again)

2. Sing and name the external intervals of a scale (ie. d – r; d – m; d – f; d – s, etc., then down again)

3. Sing and name the internal intervals of a piece/song (eg. for While Shepherds Watched: d-m major 3rd; m-m perfect unison; m-r major 2nd; r-d major 2nd; d-f perfect 4th; f-f perfect unison; f-m minor 2nd, etc., etc., etc. – sounds tedious, but works wonders for aural perception and intonation!)

4. Sing one scale up and another one down, using the same tonic (eg. ascend on the do pentatonic and descend on the re pentatonic, then ascend on the mi pentatonic and descend on so, then up on la and finally down on do again – repeat ad nauseum!). This could also be done with the modes (the solution where Ionian, Lydian and Mixolydian start on do and Aeolian, Dorian, Phrygian and Locrian start on la works best for this one).

After practising all this for some time, if someone asked you to sing a major third above (or below!) a given note, you probably wouldn’t be thinking of While Shepherds Watched, and I don’t think you’d necessarily even be singing up and down scales. The more you sing and identify the intervals in different contexts, the fewer internal props you will need – it will just be there in your head. Perfect pitch not required!

Teaching Notation

Back in March, an article in Music Teacher Magazine on teaching notation by David Ashworth (for whom I have healthy respect!) was brought to my attention by Cyrilla Rowsell, a doyenne of the British Kodály Academy. It prompted a letter from me to the editor, Mr Lydon, raising the following points:
  1. The fundamental concept of “sound before symbol” seemed to be misunderstood, with the author suggesting that it is the elevation of sound above, and to the exclusion of, symbol. To the contrary, sound before symbol simply means that the student will experience the music first, preferably by singing it, and then attach a symbol to that sound. With such an approach, students do not struggle to read musical notation, because it is inextricably linked with musical thought – sound can be imagined and transcribed as easily as it can be read and heard, without the assistance of music technology. Thinking in musical sound (or audiating) is the key skill here, meaning notation programmes serve as a presentation tool, rather than as a substitute for good musicianship.
  2. The issue of primary school teachers not having the necessary skills to teach notation must be addressed through better teacher training and CPD. If that is not possible in some settings, an easy way to make notation accessible to students is through Cyrilla Rowsell and David Vinden’s excellent curriculum in Jolly Music. The inclusion of CD recordings in these books, along with the incredibly detailed lesson plans, mean that a teacher need not be a specialist in Music to ensure at least a good standard of music education in their classes. The British Kodály Academy also offers excellent training at reasonable prices.
  3. The first page of suggested activities deals mostly with graphic notation, the use of which is a widely accepted method of teaching about basic notation; however, I would posit that as graphic notation is approximate and aleatoric by nature, its place in the teaching of notation can only ever be limited. It is more suited to the study of Postmodernism. Personally, I feel it is an unnecessary step in teaching the concepts of pitch and rhythm, especially when it comes to traditional, Western notation, and nothing in this article has convinced me otherwise.
  4. The second page of suggested activities contain some better ideas, in my opinion, although no mention is made of how the students will have learnt crotchets, minims and semi-breves suddenly. For example, in Activity Five, why not clap the rhythm of Jingle Bells (having told the students it is a well-known Christmas tune) and ask them to guess what it is? They could then sing the melody (assuming they already know it!), keep the beat, clap the rhythm, perform the beat and rhythm at the same time (all of this while singing), and finally derive the rhythmic pattern in terms of how many sounds are on (or across) each beat. The rhythmic elements could then be revealed as crotchets, etc., and the notation will have been more clearly linked to students’ experiences. Activity Seven is more promising, but I would rather students sing the incorrectly notated melody at sight before correcting it – the use of music technology here obviates the need for students to think in sound, and sight-singing is given a firm foundation in a sound before symbol approach. The example in Activity Eight would probably be less random if students had first immersed themselves in a style (clearly tonal here), improvised using known musical elements (learnt through direct experience as described above) and then written down (notated) what they were thinking. It seems odd to me that we should be encouraging students to input random notes and rhythms to a notation programme, only then to hear it played back, after which they attempt to fix problems that should never have arisen in the first place if only musical thought had been involved earlier in the process.
  5. There is no need to stop at laying a foundation and leaving the bulk of notation work to secondary schools, as the conclusion seems to suggest; earlier in the article, David Ashworth rightly states, “students who make a start with learning to understand notation when they are comparatively young find the process much easier than adults.” In that case, are we not doing a disservice to young people if we do not teach them traditional musical notation, hand-in-hand with performance, in an experiential, aural and sequential fashion, equipping them with vital musicianship skills from their earliest time in Music lessons?

Should we not, I ask, have higher aspirations for our students?

The April editorial of Music Teacher Magazine makes prominent mention of the raft of letters the editor received in response to the article on teaching notation; I was concerned that the editor stated that tempers have run high – all articles are well-argued and it is difficult to disagree with anything published! Obviously, there were some venomous ones received that were (rightly) not published, and how disappointing to think there may have been personal attacks!!! Whilst my letter was not selected for publication, I hope that the points I have raised above are reasonable and logical. It is never my intention to denigrate the non-Kodály methods of music education, and it is in the spirit of an open-minded dialogue and debate that I offer my views.

Furthermore, in his reply to the letters generated by the original article, David Ashworth makes the following statements, and my thoughts are posted below them.

  • If we are talking about tradition in music, we need to recognise that tradition goes beyond the admirable but rather narrow approaches advocated by some of the more vocal, more blinkered members of the Kodály fraternity.

In my opinion, none of the letters published (nor, I hope, my own) indicate a “narrow” or “blinkered” viewpoint of Music Education. Do I sense a bit of defensiveness?

  • The Kodály-based approaches, advocated by these responders are sound, but can really only be delivered by those with a proper Kodály training. Indeed, I only introduced elements of Kodály into my own music teaching after I had spent a considerable amount of time studying the method and attending one of the Cheltenham summer schools.

I don’t agree with the first part of this statement. For example, one of the benefits of the Jolly Music books (Vinden & Rowsell) is that they can be used by non-specialists, or adapted by specialists who understand the Kodály approach more intimately. I also find it odd that the original article contained almost no ideas aligned with the Kodály Method, given that the author claims to have studied it for a considerable amount of time.

  • And that is a big problem we have in music education – competing pedagogies. Let us provide the resources we all have to offer and provide curriculum guidance so that teachers can choose for themselves what will work best for them.

Yes: as I’ve said in this and other posts, it is important that people find what it is that works for them, and we should be respectful of others’ ideas where they contain true merit. However, should we not be selective about the resources and curriculum guidance we share? Are all approaches and ideas equal? What if the only thing that works for a teacher is making the children do music-themed word searches, or reading and completing worksheets on various styles/traditions? Is that a good music education? As experts in our field, should we not be advocating those approaches and ideas that we have found to be most effective for learning? Is it not healthy to have competing pedagogies? Without competition and conflicting ideas, there would be no debate, and without debate, there would be little progress!

I am very much looking forward to Cyrilla Rowsell’s notation article in a future edition of Music Teacher Magazine. I hope it prompts further debate and maybe inspires some teachers to try Kodály!

Creativity in Music Teaching & Kodály’s Principles

This post is the November editorial for the Teaching Music UK website. You can find the original article here.

Kodaly Method

The Kodály Method – more than just solfa!

 I feel that I was very lucky to be trained as a Music Educator according to Kodály’s principles. It is an approach that makes a great deal of sense to me educationally and I have seen (and continue to see) impressive results achieved where it is used. Nonetheless, as a reflective practitioner, I have been prompted to examine carefully the accusation that Kodály-inspired programmes are “uncreative.” What exactly is creativity in Music Education anyway?! Is it just lots of movement and percussion, or plenty of variety (breadth over depth), or impressive PowerPoint presentations, or is it something a little more meaningful?

It is not my intention to cast aspersions on other styles of Music Education, nor to hold Kodály’s principles up as some sort of panacea; indeed, it is important that music teachers do what they believe is right to achieve outstanding musical outcomes for their students (and hopefully their approach is a flexible one that can change in the light of new information and discoveries). I just happen to believe that Kodály’s principles work best, so that’s what I do, but I know I am in the minority. So let’s see if we can at least agree on the purpose of Music Education: creating educated audiences (intelligent listeners) and skilled, creative musicians. Maybe we also want to inspire and equip our students so they will enjoy Music and take their studies further.

In the context of this article, it is also important to define exactly what is meant by “creativity.” It is too easy to confuse creativity with spontaneous originality; “Creative efforts are intentional” (Elliott, 1995, p. 222). Elliott opines, “… there is a tendency in our field … to equate musical creativity with any effort to make aleatoric music, electronic music, computer generated works, free-form improvisations, or ‘soundscapes.’ The assumption underlying this tendency is that if children attempt to make music in relation to the principles and standards of contemporary musical practices, they are automatically being creative” (1995, p. 221). He goes on to say, “When a music teacher decides that everything counts as creative – that all activities and sounds by the children in his or her class qualify as creative musical achievements – then that teacher cheats those students by removing the two basic conditions necessary for self-knowledge and musical enjoyment: a musical challenge and the musicianship needed to meet the challenge” (Elliott, 1995, p. 222). In summary, I am talking about creativity based on musical skill and knowledge, not random expressiveness.

I believe that music-making is inherently creative. Any act of making music, be it composing or performing, has the potential to be creative. Performing is not just re-creating, but interpreting; each individual brings a fresh perspective to a composer’s intentions. Improvisation and composition can also be creative, although arguably more original. Kodály’s approach supports these creative processes through the use of analytical tools (eg. solfa and time names) and a progressive framework, building musical literacy and musicianship concurrently. Lessons provide ample opportunities to perform, to listen critically and to create in a variety of ways. “Musical creativity and musicianship are mutually interdependent and interactive” (Elliott, 1995, p. 227). It is futile to develop one without the other.

One of the reasons I love teaching the Kodály way is that it challenges students’ musicianship, and it certainly stretches mine. Children enjoy being challenged and they enjoy consequent successes even more. Building their musicianship through a sequential, aural approach provides frequent challenge and success, thereby encouraging persistence, a valuable quality in a student. The “uncreative” trap lies in focusing overly much on the technical aspects of the music. I can admit that I have been too technical at various times in my eight years of teaching classroom Music; it’s easy to forget that our focus should be the MUSIC; it’s the sequence, not the solfa! I was reminded of this important fact at the British Kodály Academy’s Spring Course 2013 (I recommend the BKA’s courses to all music teachers, by the way – very inspiring!). Since then, I have been especially mindful of providing creative opportunities to my students at the same time as nurturing their musicianship and musical understanding.

I discussed ideas for this article with fellow music teachers when I was in Australia recently. Our thoughts aligned, probably because we were trained in the same way by the same people, but one of them provided me with an interesting example of creativity in a Kodály setting, which I have since tried on my own students. At one of KMEIA’s conferences, Ildikó Herboly-Kocsár, something of a giant in the Kodály world, led a workshop where she discussed improvising new melodies to known rhymes (using the voice, of course – everyone has one, and you don’t need to spend thousands of pounds on flashy percussion). The parameters for improvisation were fairly free (there was no prescription of particular melodic elements). She emphasised that the children should never be discouraged (there is no right or wrong improvisation), but that the teacher should latch on to the better improvisations and have the class analyse them and write them down. This could be further extended by performing the improvisations/compositions on various instruments (different students might understand pitch relationship better through a guitar than a keyboard, and so on). This mirrors the process of composition, where a composer must come up with musical ideas, assess them for quality, select the best ones and write them down. Ultimately, this style of activity can lead students to adopt a more nuanced approach to composition, hearing music in their heads and writing it down when it’s good. It is, after all, pretty much how the great masters did it!

I’m willing to bet that there are teachers out there who never would have thought such an activity could be part of a Kodály approach. I get the feeling that when most people think of Kodály, they think of students learning songs by rote, tapping, clapping, hand signing, doing boring technical work, and the like. That’s just the start, and even that can be creative with the right teacher. Once musical elements have been derived from performing repertoire, students practise skills and concepts in a variety of ways; performing, reading, writing, improvising and composing. This provides ongoing development of musicianship, built upon a solid foundation of tradition. Monteverdi, Bach, Mozart, Beethoven, Debussy and Schoenberg all knew the rules before they broke them and reshaped them. Their creativity was judged by its similarity to, and its divergence, from tradition. “A proficient or expert level of knowledge in a field both enables and promotes creativity” (Elliott, 1995, p. 224). If we apply the same ideas to our students’ musical development and creativity, my belief is that they will be more successful at understanding and creating, and understanding what they are creating.

MUSIC is the ultimate goal – no method of teaching analysis or musical skill is inherently creative or uncreative; it’s what you do with it that counts! Kodály’s way is no more and no less creative than other approaches to Music Education; in any case, a musically skilled and passionate teacher is what is required.

Elliott, David J. (1995). Music Matters: A New Philosophy of Music Education. New York, NY: Oxford University Press.

An educated audience

I had the privilege of attending the Philharmonia Orchestra‘s concert last night at the Royal Festival Hall. The programme comprised the Overture to The Barber of Seville (Rossini), Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 20 in D minor and Sibelius’ Symphony No. 2. It was a wonderful evening, and a rare treat for the overworked father of a two-year-old! I was reminded again why I love live art music so very much; I experience a very physical response and find it quite invigorating. The Sibelius was the surprise winner for me; when it ended, I was breathing very deeply and all my nerves were tingling!

I was particularly impressed by several aspects of the evening: the relaxed, musical conducting from Yuri Temirkanov (such simple gestures, but so descriptive), the expressive, warm response from the talented orchestral players, and of course the brilliant playing of Maria João Pires, whose cadenzas were musically enlightening and beautifully integrated into the larger work.

Maria João Pires

Maria João Pires at the piano

The other thing that impressed me was the behaviour of the audience. I’m a bit of a stickler for concert etiquette, and it usually upsets me when people clap in between movements (yes, even though it might be a spontaneous show of appreciation), or use their phones during a concert, or make noise as they search for something in their bags. I was delighted that this audience was an exemplary one, and obviously well-educated.

That got me thinking about audiences. One of the most important reasons I see for the existence of Music Education (quite apart from all the wonderful benefits to other areas of endeavour) is the creation of future (and arguably current) musical audiences; we, as music teachers, are not just training future musicians, our work is not just for the elite or the most “talented.” A musically literate population, who understand and appreciate “Art Music” (and other genres and traditions, of course) is essential to the continuation of live music, and the livelihood of professional musicians. Experiencing music first-hand and getting to grips with it is fundamental in achieving that end.

I felt very lucky to sit in that concert listening and understanding (or audiating, I should say) what I was hearing (well, most of it anyway). This ability to audiate, still in need of training and refinement (and it always will be), gave me a greater appreciation for Maria João Pires’ clever cadenzas as they moved through different keys and foreshadowed later material, and allowed me to follow the subtle modal touches and motivic development in Sibelius’ 2nd Symphony… and a lot more besides. I wonder how many of my fellow concert-goers heard the music in the same way, or indeed what aspect of live music they find enjoyable, if they don’t understand it fully. Would awareness of the technicalities spoil the experience for some?

This term, I have focused on listening to the great works with quite a few of my classes. They have been singing and moving aplenty, and they have worked out rhythmic patterns, melodies, tempo and dynamic changes, instrumentation, and learnt about composers and the background of the pieces, among other things. I have used as inspiration Judith Johnson’s outstanding text Listening to Art Music, which contains sequenced learning activities that encourage audiation (repertoire covered so far includes Harl McDonald’s Children’s SymphonyIn the Hall of the Mountain King, the Farandole from L’Arlesienne Suite No. 2 by Bizet, Haydn’s Surprise Symphony and Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 4). Throughout these lessons, my students have been listening consciously, using Kodály’s favourite tools (and mine!) to deepen their understanding by engaging directly with the music; and they’ve loved it (incidentally, so did management when they observed an action-packed lesson full of music-making, skill development and challenge)! When explored in such a manner, this music, which might at first seem obscure, is revealed in all its splendour. The students sing, they hear, they understand, and they enjoy. I am satisfied that I am helping to create an educated musical audience, and challenging them all to become better musicians in the process.

What greater gift could we give our music students?

Show me a sign…

It’s no secret that I’m a bit of a sol-fa freak, and this extends to the use of hand signs (I’m addicted – I admit it!). I picked up Curwen’s system very quickly, and it’s stuck with me. The use of hand signs was certainly encouraged by my lecturers at the University of Queensland, and so hand signs have become inextricably linked with sol-fa for me.


Diatonic hand signs

The first time I understood the importance of hand signing, I was on a bus, practising (surreptitiously, I hope) a canon in two parts. It just suddenly clicked (the concept, not my hand): I could hear what my hand was signing, or rather, I realised my hand was reflecting one of the parts going on in my head.

I use hand signs a lot in my teaching (including when using Rowsell and Vinden’s Jolly Music) and choral conducting. It is an important kinaesthetic tool, serving as an external indicator of what we hope is going on in our students’ heads. Just the other day, in a choir rehearsal, I started teaching a purely pentatonic song using the solfa first, with hand signs. The choristers all know the hand signs for the pentatonic scale, so the signs were a useful way of communicating. I admit I had to remind them constantly to use the hand signs, but then you know I’m persistent… My belief is that use of these hand signs (and the solfa) will help my choir learn the music more quickly, understand the structure of the melodies, and inform a more sensitive performance (the music being the ultimate concern).

When I was at St Laurence’s College learning to teach Music at the feet of the inimitable and irrepressible Anthony Young, I remember him using hand signs very effectively in class and choral rehearsals. At one whole school assembly, he even used hand signs to help the school learn and sing the melody of a hymn – and the most impressive thing was that every boy there understood what Anthony was doing and responded. He also told me a story of boys in a band rehearsal once using hand signs to communicate chord changes, as the music they were playing was too loud for talking.

I find hand signs useful for memorising music too. I recently started helping someone with a few piano exam pieces, and to prepare myself, I analysed the music using solfa (and some traditional roman numerals when I fancied it). It’s been about two weeks since I started looking at the music, and I’ve already memorised  two of the pieces (very little time spent at the piano!), helped in no small part by walking around the house hand signing and audiating every chance I get.

I know that Curwen’s hand signs aren’t as widely used as they once were, and I think that’s a shame. Even at the BKA Spring Course, they seemed in short supply! Used musically and expressively, they are a brilliant tool, and not a little bit fun.

Failure (or Making Mistakes) = Learning

I have made it my mission this year to inculcate a more positive attitude to learning in my students. I have explained to them all that a mistake is nothing to get upset about, merely an opportunity to learn something. When they make a mistake (eg. they clap the beat instead of the rhythm, get the handsigns wrong, or they sing the wrong notes), I point out the error, explain how to fix it and then everyone gives a gentle clap and says, “Yay, learning.” There is only one exception – when they do the same wrong thing more than once!

Insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.

Well, maybe not insanity, but it’s certainly not the best approach to learning… I have suggested that students should simply do it wrong again differently. So long as you are aware of what you are doing wrong, then eventually, you are bound to stumble upon the right way of doing it (and it’s usually quicker than that). “Right” can often be unfamiliar sensation.

Professionally, I can also admit to having made mistakes, but I have learnt from those mistakes and have tried to do things differently (with varying degrees of success). I will certainly make other mistakes in the future, and hopefully learn from them too.

One example I feel comfortable sharing is from my student days, at the Queensland Conservatorium, Griffith University. In advance of my third year singing exam, I had decided (with some collusion from my teacher) that I must be a tenor, and that I must therefore sing everything in a higher key (ha!). Some days I could sing the entire programme of twelve songs, and other days I could only sing a few songs successfully without becoming incredibly tired vocally. Rather than change the keys to something more comfortable, I persisted, mostly on faith that I could turn the occasional successful practice session into a more regular occurrence. I should have paid more attention to the crushing anxiety I experienced every time I thought of singing, but I didn’t, and so the exam was a disaster. Every second song tanked (octave displacement became my option), and I felt like I was choking; I even had to take an extra break, just to try to regain some composure. The only reason I passed, as far as I can tell, was that I did not give up (I am stubborn, although I prefer to call it persistence).

In the spirit of not giving up, I spent the following year trying to overcome this anxiety. I set myself the goal of performing in a competition in October, and booked myself in for a couple of low-key (pun intended) performance opportunities with amateur musical societies. I remembered that the point of singing (and indeed any musical performance) is to communicate, so I devised what was ultimately a very successful strategy: every time I thought about singing a song, I would override the rising panic with as much visualisation and emotion as I could muster. I began to be able to put this into practice in front of an audience, and when I sang at that competition (which I didn’t win), I enjoyed myself, for the first time in a long time.

That same year, I also studied for the Bachelor of Music Studies with Honours, and wrote my dissertation (all 15,000 words of it!) on Bel Canto, Richard Miller and the Alexander Technique, in aid of figuring out what had gone wrong with my voice and how I could fix it. The point is, I turned my “failure” into a success, because I treated it as a learning opportunity. I was recently reminded of this by the very knowledgeable Allan Wright, who led workshops on vocal technique at the BKA Spring Course. He suffered from vocal nodules, had them removed, and then devoted himself to learning everything he could about the voice (and that’s a lot, clearly). He now helps all sorts of people use their voices properly – another great example of turning a failure to triumph.

Allan Wright

So the next time one of your students apologises for making a mistake, on whatever instrument or in class, don’t accept it – mistakes are how we learn.

Why Kodály?

I was a well-educated musician before I ever encountered Kodály’s principles, so what’s so special about it and why did it make such an impact on me? Why not stick to more traditional methods for teaching music, or even go for the more modern approach of a series of music technology projects, or even a purely instrumental approach?

There are a couple of major reasons, but the most profound for me was the simple fact that my first encounter with Kodály changed how I heard and understood music. After five years of intensive study at the Queensland Conservatorium, I thought I had a pretty good grasp of music history, theory and practice, and my results reinforced this belief. However, my first lecture with James Cuskelly opened a different world for me – we only used ta and ti-ti (crotchets and quavers for the uninitiated) and probably just three notes (do, re and mi), but I could suddenly hear the music differently. It seemed my years of training had been a lengthy and elaborate preparation for this awakening of musical consciousness, and I haven’t stopped practising since.


Dr James Cuskelly

At school, I struggled with aural dictation. For some reason, I could hear and write rhythms easily, but melodic and harmonic dictations involved a large element of guess-work (direction presented no problem, but interval did). Sol-fa gave me a clear point of reference and enabled me to notate melodies and harmonies with more confidence. The benefit extended to composition – I understood better the music I could hear in my head and was able to write it down much more quickly! For me, hand signs are an integral part of understanding the music. I still remember the first time I could hear what my hands were signing (or rather, my hand signing began to reflect what I could hear in my head) and the realisation that I could consciously hear several things at once.

From an educational perspective, Kodály’s principles are incredibly sound (pun intended): moving from the unknown to the known, experiencing music first, then attaching a label to it, sound before symbol… This is how we learn our mother tongue, so why not music? What has struck me most about the schools where I have seen Kodály used effectively is that students who would not ordinarily experience success in Music have flourished; uptake for elective classes is strong and involvement in choirs and other ensembles is impressive. Part of the reason for this, I believe, is that a Kodály classroom will cater for the full range of learning styles (auditory, visual, kinaesthetic) and provide ample differentiation for students at all stages.

Take, for instance, some activities that could be done with a new song:

  • Students listen to new song and analyse simple features (eg. number of beats, phrases, starting and ending note)
  • Sing song back line by line, inside heads first, then out loud
  • Keep beat and rhythm in a variety of ways (eg. different body percussion)
  • Derive the rhythmic pattern and perform it using rhythm names (read it from the board too!)
  • Derive the solfa (or singing names) and sing it with hand signs
  • Sing some of the notes inside heads (inner hearing)
  • Sing the song in canon, or with a partner song or ostinato

This selection of activities appeal to visual, auditory and kinaesthetic learners and provides opportunities for success for anyone. More able students could be encouraged to perform multiple parts by themselves earlier on, or to play the piece on an instrument, or even notate in a different key, with letter names, or augment or diminish the rhythm. These aural skills can then be applied quickly and effectively to performance and composition. Music is then available to everyone, not just the elite.

So what about those who don’t want to be musicians, who have no interest in pursuing a musical education beyond that which is compulsory at school? Well, those people will be (or are already in most cases) part of a wider musical audience, and we should want them to be discerning, literate musicians, who understand what they are hearing when they listen to music. In much the same way, everybody has an experience of sport through school, and therefore an appreciation of the skills required and the rules of the game. That, I think, is why sport is so popular, and perhaps Kodály’s principles offer a similar opportunity to musicians!

All that said, the most compelling argument for teaching the Kodály way is what it does for your own musicianship. If you’re not already a convert, book yourself on a BKA Short Course and give it a go. I’ve never looked back…


Memorising a piece away from the instrument

A good approach to memorising music – would be even easier with solfa (ok, maybe not with Rautavaara, but generally speaking…).

Memorising Music

I did something amazing this weekend – I memorised a new piece. And I did it mostly at my kitchen table.

RautavaaraThe new piece in question is a short three-movement work by contemporary Finnish composer Einojuhani Rautavaara. Originally written in the mid-1950’s for solo guitar, Partita has two rather frenetic outer movements and a slow, more ethereal inner movement. I would hesitate to describe the piece as atonal, but it’s certainly not tonal either! (Which is one of the reasons I wanted to learn it – to expand and modernise my piano repertoire.) Familiar harmonic fingerprints are regularly disrupted by unexpected modulations, giving the piece a slightly haunting quality. The catchy chromatic motif that unifies the piece provides a clear anchor point for the listener, but has numerous rhythmic incarnations across the three movements as well as several transient key centres.

I’ve heard numerous stories of performers learning music away from…

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Taking Risks

Something that Sue Hollingworth (esteemed Music Director of the Scunthorpe Co-operative Junior Choir) said on the BKA Spring Course last week resonated very much: take risks!*

Sue Hollingworth

*not a direct quote…

She was talking about being bold with choices for choral competition repertoire, which was a valuable bit of advice, and qualified with some other important points, but the advice applies equally to our own musical development and to our music teaching.

When I was studying the Kodály Method with Dr James Cuskelly as part of my Bachelor of Education at the University of Queensland in 2005, I had to do a music skills examination, worth 20% of the course (although if you didn’t pass the exam, you failed the course – that’s how highly regarded musicianship should be for music teachers). We had to sing a canon in a small group, perform two technical exercises (mine were the major triads and inversions in solfa with an ostinato, and all the pentatonic scales starting from the same note with an ostinato) and perform two pieces in canon by ourselves, singing and playing piano (two or three parts). Partly because of the importance of this examination, I took a risk – three weeks out, I changed one of my three-part canons for another, because the first one I had prepared had become too easy (and I really liked the new one – Alleluia by Australian musical giant, Richard Gill). The risk-taking paid off in two respects: I strengthened my musical skill and thinking, and achieved top marks.

There is, of course, another side to taking risks – when they don’t pay off! I can think of some very ambitious repertoire choices I have made with my six choirs at various points, and whilst the choirs have always delivered a respectable performance in concert and competition, I have been forced to admit that perhaps a less ambitious choice performed really well would have been more effective (but then, I’m rarely 100% happy with a performance). It reminds me of Vgotsky’s Zone of Proximal Development – that perfect extra little stretch, that a learner (or learners) can do with some guidance. Stretching too far (or two fa, for those sol-fa nerds who like my cheesy jokes) can be demoralising for everyone. That’s not to say that failure doesn’t provide valuable learning opportunities, so long as it is approached with the right attitude, but more about that in a future post, I think… The risk must be the right one at the right time for that learner.

Before Christmas, I assessed a Year 6 class (and others) on a performance of the pentatonic scale (I’m so mean…). They had to sing the intervals between each note (do re that’s a step, etc.) and clap an ostinato (ti-ti ta ta ti-ti, or 2 quavers, 2 crotchets, 2 quavers) at the same time. I made it clear to them that I wanted them to work hard, no matter how easy they found the tasks (for some, the first option was challenge enough). There were several levels available:

  1. Sing and sign the do pentatonic scale with intervals (in tune!)
  2. Sing the scale with intervals and clap the ostinato
  3. Sing the scale with intervals and hand sign in canon (four or eight beats behind)
  4. Sing the scale with intervals and hand signs and tap the ostinato on a leg
  5. Sing the scale with intervals, hand sign in canon and tap the ostinato on a leg

Each step represents another level of challenge. I think one girl managed option 5, so I asked her to walk the beat at the same time! The point I emphasised was that none of them should feel comfortable with what they were doing; there should always be an element of stretch! If you find something easy, why bother with it? It is, potentially, a waste of learning time (although in performance, you should feel comfortable with what you are presenting!). I can’t remember where I read about this idea (thank you to whomever it was who wrote this somewhere), but I like it: if a student says that a task is easy, then I say, “I’m sorry for wasting your time; let’s do something harder, ” or something to that effect (it usually elicits groans, but they love it really). This is just one way I like to keep my students on their toes.

Therefore, I would challenge you to consider how you can challenge yourselves and your learners to take responsible risks in the development of musical skill, and not rest on your laurels – the benefits are well worth the trouble.