Dusting Off My Kodály
My latent, inner musicianship nerd has resurfaced lately. I am lucky to have had a very high level of musicianship training, largely based on the Kodály Method, which actually is more of a philosophy than a method. It’s mostly associated with the teaching of small children, but I encountered it first as a college freshman. I’ve been trying to rebuild my memories of how I was taught, and how I might use similar techniques as a teacher.
Sight singing exercises are executed using the movable do system, whereby “do” represents the tonic, as opposed to just being another way of saying “C”. The benefit to me was that intervals were learned in the context of tonality. The ascending fourth do-fa has a completely different implication tonally than the ascending fourth of so-do, for example. The tritone is notoriously difficult for students to hear and sing, but I think of it as fa-ti and have no trouble. The syllable ti is always a leading tone. Do-fa is always a perfect fourth. You can count on it. With fixed do, where the syllables are the same as note names, you get no help with intervals, and you just have to learn them by rote. Do-fa could be a tritone. You’re on your own.
In cases where sight singing exercises change key, it’s necessary to change the meaning of do. If you start out in D, do is D, but then when you modulate to A, do becomes A. It’s tricky, but it keeps you constantly aware of what key you’re in. Sometimes it’s a philosophical choice where to change the do. It’s also fun. (I did mention that I was a musicianship nerd.) Using this system, singing becomes a big help in learning diatonic harmony.
Hungarian composer and educator Zoltán Kodály advocated beginning with pentatonic scales (eg. do-re-me-so-la) because he had observed that children have trouble singing half steps in tune. The fourth (fa) and seventh (ti) scale degrees are left out to avoid the problem until students are more secure. The first interval taught is a descending minor third (so-mi), as this is the easiest to hear and sing. Think of all the nursery rhymes that start this way, to say nothing of the child’s taunting “nyah nyah” song. Then la is added, then do and re. The idea is that singing should be fun and natural.
Teach music and singing at school in such a way that it is not a torture but a joy for the pupil; instil a thirst for finer music in him, a thirst which will last for a lifetime. Music must not be approached from its intellectual, rational side, nor should it be conveyed to the child as a system of algebraic symbols, or as the secret writing of a language with which he has no connection.
Movement is used from the beginning, which means clapping, marching, conducting or whatever while you’re singing. This promotes an awareness of pulse, which ensures that notes and rests are given their full value. At later stages, students can clap one rhythm while singing another, or perform a three-part exercise with two parts on the piano and singing the other.
Mastering these skills without an instrument will make the student a better musician, no matter what their instrument will be. Musicianship is more than sight singing and dictation. It’s singing in tune. It’s inner hearing. It’s feeling the pulse. It’s listening to your partner. It’s making music.