Moving Toward Fluency in Solfege in Elementary School

If you, as an adult, moved to Japan right now, would you be able to speak with the non-English
speaking population?  Would you be able to read labels in the grocery store? Would you be
able to navigate the transit system if there were no English translations on the signs?

If not, what would you do?

Certainly, as survivors, we would figure it out, right?  Slowly, after many years through our
daily experiences, we would start to make associations and build our vocabulary.  

The writing  

I’m guessing we would probably need lots of private tutoring to master that.   

That’s how many of the students in our choral classes who’ve never taken a private
lesson in their lives feel about taking the notes and symbols off the page and translating
the symbols into rhythmic pitched sounds that are accurately executed.

Yet, so often, we expect our beginners to be able to figure it out without supplying them
with the tools they need to be able to successfully read.

Learning to sight sing is, in my view, one of the most complex tasks the brain can master.  

For us, as music teachers, reading music is simple.  Many of us not only sing, but we have taken
private instrument lessons.  When we learn to read music using an instrument, we have the luxury
of learning in a tactile manner which really helps it makes sense for the learner.

Music is a language just like any other.  The learning curve is much the same as learning
Japanese or French or any other world language.  The skill sets required to become truly
fluent in any language take years and years to develop. Tenacity, persistence, and frequent
exposure to the language helps speed up the learning process.

The earlier we start, the easier it is to become comfortable speaking, reading and writing
the language.

I teach middle school beginners.  Most of my students come to me in 6th grade, but I get
some new students in 7th grade as well.  That single year of “aging” in the children,
in my experience, makes a big difference. While my 7th graders are still able to learn solfege,
the students who didn’t have me in 6th grade are far slower at mastering all of the skills required.

We have all seen many posts on social media pages about what is better for learning to
sight sing...numbers or solfege or random syllables.  It’s been debated for years. There is no
right answer. I have my own feelings about it, of course, but I think the most important piece of the
puzzle is to consistently work on sight singing and to be able to break down the skill sets required for
success.  If we are tenacious in our approach, regardless of whether we use numbers, random
syllables or solfege, we will succeed in helping our students become solid sight singers and that is
the goal.

When I received my public school education in North Carolina, I wasn’t given tools to read.  
I had taken piano lessons, so for me, reading music was easier than for most. In my choral music
education in K-12, we were either taught by “rote” or we sight sang new pieces on “loo”.  
I guessed as the pitches raised, lowered and skipped. Accidentals? Forget it.
Not happening...And most of my rhythms were quarter notes, half notes and whole notes.

With my background in private piano lessons, I was able to make educated guesses.

When I started school at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro as a music major,
I watched as my peers dropped out of music school because they couldn’t pass sight singing.   
It was very difficult, and they hadn’t been given the tools they needed to succeed.

I had the “piano” advantage. Even with that advantage, I struggled with the sight singing tests.
They wanted us to use SOLFEGE.  


It felt so unnatural...And I didn’t feel like it helped me find the pitches.  Because I had no exposure
to solfege when I was younger, it just made it harder for me.

Determined to succeed, I went to the practice room and made piano recordings of each sight
singing example that would be on the test.  Then, I put my walkman on...yes...I’m a dinosaur…
If you’re under 40, “google” it...they were cute back in the day….don’t judge! :-)

As I walked across campus from class to class and back to my dorm, I listened to
the examples over and over again until I had them memorized.  Then, the night before the test,
with all of the melodies in my head, I would sit down and practice with the solfege slowly so that I
would be able to sing it the next day for the test.  

That's NOT sight singing...but I passed! 

From the first day of teaching public middle school, I was determined to figure out how to give my
students the tools they needed to successfully read music. 

I failed over and over, and I learned from each failure.

I decided that solfege with the hand signs and pulsing for rhythm was the best path for my students.

That’s a tall order.  I had never used the hand signs before.

And it’s an even taller order for the students.

It’s not like you can just walk into the classroom and say “go”.  The skills have to be taught slowly and deliberately one step at a time.

I decided on solfege because I like what it does for vowel production.  Singing “one” instead of
“do”’s a lot. Between the “W” sound that starts the word “one” and the “N”, all sorts
of issues arose with tone and vowel production that I wanted to avoid.  And “one sharp” when
singing chromatics...many more challenges with tone resulted.

But I’ve seen many people teach sight singing with numbers with great success.

I made my decision and moved forward to find ways to make the language of solfege easier
for my students.

I decided to find multiple ways to help them use this new language of solfege each day...through
games, scales, teaching melodic lines in new music and more.  I wanted the journey to be fun and
methodical and most of all, effective for the true beginner who has never played an instrument.

I suppose when teaching World Languages, they call this approach “immersion”.

At first, I didn’t use the hand signs when singing solfege.

I was nervous about doing the hands signs myself.  I’d never done them before.

There is something about the raising and lowering of the hands...showing the skips versus the
steps...that helped my students successfully locate the elusive pitches.  I found that the hand signs
gave them the kinesthetic piece that is missing for singers with no instrumental training so it was
important for me to get comfortable with using the hand signs too.

With use of solfege and the hand signs, my students got better at locating pitch, but they struggled
with successfully executing rhythm at the same time they located pitches.

So, I added pulsing.  

The coordination involved in executing all of these things at the same time is very challenging,
but less so when taught one careful, fun step at a time.

It makes sense that it would take time, right?  

How long would it take to become fluent in Japanese if you spoke it 10-15 minutes a day a few times
a week?

Once I figured out how to break the learning process down, I shared it
through S-Cubed Sight Singing Program for Beginners, and I did my best to share every secret
I’ve learned along my journey.

My sixth graders walk into my room mostly as true beginners.   They’ve had general
music once or twice weekly. Some have had exposure to solfege but most have not, and
after 27 years in the classroom, I am still waiting for that little Mozart to walk into my room!  
Even though they are beginners when they walk in, when they walk out in 8th grade, they are doing
things that I couldn’t do until my senior year in college...all a capella.

Wouldn’t it be incredible if a majority of our students came into our classrooms able to use the
Kodaly hand signs?  What if they could sing correct stepwise pitches simply by following your hand?
Even better...what if your new sixth graders were able to successfully sight sing stepwise quarter
notes off the page a capella?

I suppose we can compare it to having the desire and expectation that our students
will enter kindergarten knowing their A, B, C’s.  

When I created S-Cubed Sight Singing Program for Beginners, I envisioned that teachers who
taught music to grades 3-5 would use lessons 1-5 of the system in order to prepare their singers
for middle school chorus so I created a bundle with just those lessons included.  The first five
lessons of the program are just enough to start students on their journey toward becoming fluent
sight singers down the road. Elementary teachers who use the Elementary Bundle are laying the
foundation for their students.  

If you’d like your elementary feeders to come to your middle school chorus with a solid foundation
in solfege and hand sign usage, let them know about the Elementary Bundle for S-Cubed Sight
Singing Program.  It’s an entire years worth of sight singing lessons for most elementary teachers
if they spend 10 minutes per meeting with their students teaching the lessons, and they’ll have a
great time on the journey using the game, Forbidden Pattern.  The early exposure to the language
of solfege in a variety of ways will help them as they continue their journey toward becoming literate
readers of music.  The S-Cubed Sight Singing Elementary Bundle is normally $99, but for the whole
month of April 2019, it is $39.

S-Cubed large bundles are also available at JW Pepper.