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