One of the questions that’s come up a many times is “why solfege?”
My Solfege Journey
I was very fortunate to study solfege privately in Toronto somewhere in my early 20s. It’s a funny story; I was dating a guy at the time. He was a jazz trumpet player and he was gifted lessons with this guy in Toronto, Art Levine. So I asked him what the lessons were. He didn’t know but he was told by the person that gifted him the lessons that it was going to have a real impact. Part of me got jealous because it sounded really cool. I signed up and started taking lessons.
I think I actually studied with Art longer than the guy did. Solfege was a really powerful tool for me. It had a dramatic impact on my understanding of the notes and how they relate to each other. At that time, I was doing a little bit of singing but I wasn’t doing choral singing. I was mostly playing the piano and I found that my capacity on the piano really expanded a lot because of the solfege training.
I spent the summer singing just page after page of excerpts of Bach Cantatas and little bits of Bach pieces in movable-do solfege. It really expanded my ears. It’s something that I’ve had in my pocket that I’ve been using with my students since then.
Solfege is not just for Classical Singers
Generally, we would think of solfege as something that you would do if you were a classical singer or if you were going to be singing in a chorus. I’ve used it for everybody. I have lots of students who are singer-songwriters, musical theater singers, a-vocational singers etc. These are not people who are trying to work on their sight singing. Solfege is a way to develop an intervallic relationship within the scale. The syllables have a certain amount of magic to them.
When we think about movable do solfege, if we’re in the key of C. C is do. If we’re in the key of G then G is do etc. Solfege sets up a level of understanding to the inner workings of the scale, to the intervallic relationships to the note and how they relate to each other.
How I Teach Solfege:
We’ll sing through a series of relatively simple exercises that I’ve designed. There’s only four of them that I’ve created where you sing the scale using a couple of patterns. The patterns are there to get you inside the scale and start to understand how everything is working.
At the same time, I use the Kodaly hand signs. Zoltan Kodaly was a pedagogue and a composer who created this set of hand signs that goes along with solfege to teach it. It’s a way of teaching people how the notes relate to each other and how they relate to the scale. For example, you know do is the fist and it shows you a solid home. It’s teaching you that do has a home feeling, has a resting feeling. Then if you look at fa, it shows you that it wants to resolve, it’s a moving note that wants to resolve down to me.
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How Does Solfege Help My Students?
I’ve had several singer-songwriters that have come to me who are writing their own music but they’re having a very difficult time writing melodies. They have ideas for melodies but they can’t commit. Part of the reason for that is that they don’t have a solid enough relationship with the major scale. Over the course of several weeks through our lessons, I would have them sing these exercises and I would sing them into the recorder for them. They would go home and practice them.
We would just do 10 minutes per lesson on it. The lesson was for technique and for songwriting but we would also just use five or ten minutes of a lesson to work through this material. Over the course of a few weeks, things would start to shift. All of a sudden, their capacity for writing melodies expanded. They could hear the melodies clearer and they were able to identify the melodies that they were wanting to write. It gradually happened over time. Then all of a sudden they would say ‘I have no idea what’s going on but all of a sudden my melodies are so much clearer!’
Singers With Pitch Issues (yep, all of us)
Solfege is also for singers who have pitch issues. Singers who may not be not able to transition through the middle of their voice or head register. Even if your voice is in really good shape, if you don’t have a real understanding for what the notes of the scale are supposed to sound like and how they relate to each other, you’re just going to have pitch issues. It’s something that takes five or ten minutes a day that I would weave into our lessons and then over a period of time, the singer would report back and say “it’s the strangest thing, all of a sudden my pitch issues have gone away!”
Singers In a Group
Solfege can be for singers who are singer-songwriters. It can be for people who are singing in a rock band or for music theater singers who sing solos but they have a hard time being able to harmonize solfege. Once you’re hearing inside the scale and you’re outlining the chords in solfege, when it comes time for you to harmonize, you have something to harmonize with. You have notes that you can use. It’s sort of deepening your ability to hear and understand pitch.
How Can You Learn Solfege?
Join my monthly membership The Versatile Musician! There are solfege courses where I will talk you through everything. There’s a solid introduction where I explain how everything works, where it comes from, who Kodaly is, what the hand signs are for, how they work, all that kind of stuff. Then I sing through all of the exercises, breaking them down piece by piece.
I have a whole wide range of people that are using this for their own purposes. I also have a bunch of voice teachers and piano teachers who are using it as a way to develop deeper ear training with their piano students. There’s a couple of saxophone players who are taking it now too! It’s good for everybody to develop that inner ear hearing through singing.
A few other people have been recommending it to their students to take as sort of a supplement to what they’re doing. Maybe they don’t have time in their actual lesson slot to be able to address all of this but they have students that need this information. Or they maybe need some remedial support in harmony, in in the scale. Or they need to get kind of up to speed with getting ready for sight singing. A lot of people have been recommending this to their students so that they are taking it kind of independently of the lessons.
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Solfege (do, re, mi, etc) is a centuries-old method of ear training that I have adapted for 21st Century singers.