Oct 29, 2012

Overall Education, Depth vs Acceleration

Two threads inspired this post,
http://forum.brillkids.com/general-discussion-b5/we-can-do-by-moshe-kai/msg91624/?topicseen#new and

Actually, they inspired a lot more than this post, I've been reading and re-reading a lot of homeschooling books lately, and charting out the next chunk of our education.  The people at BrillKids really inspire me.

If you fail to plan, you plan to fail.  My husband recently asked me what's next for Peter (our oldest, 5), and it's been so hard to answer that question!  I have a 5-year-old that is reading on a 4th-grade level.  How do I go about teaching this kid?  It's time for him to start school!  He's got a couple of really smart siblings tailgating him too.  This is uncharted territory for me, and I am both terrified and thrilled with my responsibility to my children.

I'm grateful for the Moshe Kai thread that inspired me to get going and focus on Math.  I bought my Saxon textbooks on e-bay, and we're prepared now!  But what about everything else?  I've been reading "A Well Trained Mind" by Wise/Bauer, and I am attracted to the depth such an education would provide.  So, thinking along the acceleration track, my overall plan is to do a grade level's worth of material every semester.  Then I charted out everything she says to do, and I realized that I'd be setting myself up for failure trying to keep on top of all of the busy work in the textbooks, especially with multiple children.  I'm not that organized, and I don't want to give my children that much paper work at a young age.  I don't want burn-out for them or me.

Then I realized that I'm looking to the wrong source for advice on how to do an accelerated education.  Bauer's outline was designed for a 12-year education.  So I started googling, and I came across a very interesting family, the Swanns. 

Joyce Swann is the mother of 10 children, and they all received their masters degree by the time they were 16.  Her mini-articles on home-school.com are very interesting.  She had a strict schedule, doing school from 8:30-11:30 every day of the year unless their dad had the day off.  The children still had plenty of time to play after those hours, but school time was at the table, and was very focused.  Aside from her strict schedule, however, I can't apply her method in my own home because frankly, our family can't afford the route she chose.  Still, I am planning on reading her book, as well as her daughter Alexandra's book "No Regrets".  Joyce had a very linear approach, which she herself summarized as, "elementary school, high school, university, graduate school".  The shortest distance between two points is a straight line.

However, on the WTM's forum thread on accelerated education, classical education advocates bring up a good point, which is that while certain academic studies can be accelerated, it is hard to accelerate the depth subjects of literature and history.  I once heard Susan Wise-Bauer argue against early college by saying that academic education can be accelerated, but there is a certain maturity that only happens when you go around the sun a few times.  She asked, "Have they read the great books?  ALL of them?"  That was my attitude too until I read the Moshe Kai thread.

Many education methodologies share learning phases, but they do not take Early Learning into account.  Here is the rough outline I have come up with:

Phase one, 0-5. The sponge phase. (what Peter has just finished) During this period, children learn to read well, and learn to love to read. They go to the library and read lots of books about lots of different things. They are introduced to math and music, etc, but all according to Doman's advice "Always stop before your child wants to stop". Learning is a big game.

Phase two, K-11. The academic phase.  Here my children learn how to study with "deliberate practice".  This period ends with a basic high school education. Each semester will cover one grade's worth of material. (We may go faster, but not slower). Our children will be awarded with a laptop computer, or other large item such as an instrument upon graduation.

Phase three, 12-18. The Scholar phase. There is a part of me that has been enticed by the benefits of "child-led learning", where a child can study in depth something they are interested in without having to do other academic work. Some argue, "If they study motercycles for 8 hours, there is bound to be math in there somewhere." I say, "Really?" Um, ya, I'm not going to risk it. However, AFTER they have a high school education, they will have more academic maturity.  They will know how and what to study. They will have a broad background in a variety of subjects. My true academic responsibility to my kids will have been fulfilled, and so my only requirement for my kids during this phase will be to be productive. I will require that they do some kind of academic work of their choosing.  We will highly encourage our children to start getting college credit, especially when they are high-school age since it's free.  The boys will be required to get their Eagle scout award, and the girls their YW award, which is the work-equivalent in our Mormon church.  They may choose to practice an instrument, be involved in 4-H, develop a skill such as woodworking or pottery. They may be involved in a lot of musical productions. They may take high school AP classes. They might tutor their siblings. They might start a business. They might become truly well-read. They might be in a variety of different clubs. They might secure an internship or become an apprentice. It's up to them. 

This last phase is still a bit vague because I'm not ready to tackle it yet, but I do know that if they get their basic high school education by 12, it will open a lot of doors for them during their transition to adulthood.  That's what my husband and I really want for our children.  There are so many leadership opportunities during the teenage years, and I would love to open as many doors to them as possible.  I would love for my children to get a college education, but I also recognize that there are a lot of great alternatives if they choose something else during these years.  College will still be waiting for them when they are older, should they wait, and if they have a lot of leadership experience under their belt, the scholarships will be waiting too.

Anyway, that's a lot of rambling, but I wanted to share my thoughts.  I do think that no matter how smart the kids are, as parents we should push our kids for greater learning.  Does accelerating our kids mean that we sacrifice the depth we could otherwise go into any given subject?  Is faster better, or is deeper better?  I would argue that "better" is better.  I'm just trying to figure out what "better" is for our family.  I have a few more posts in my head on this subject that I'll be sharing soon.

What does "better" look like to you?

Oct 22, 2012

Review of Little Reader Deluxe materials

Little Reader is available only at www.brillkids.com

Get 10% off with coupon code BKAFF13180

In a previous post I reviewed the Little Reader software, which is the meat and potatoes of this program.  It was $150, and for $100 more, you can get the Deluxe version with the physical products I review in this video.  We have been using Little Reader for a couple of months now, and we are seeing some amazing results.  I love the convenience of the software.  It takes much less screen time to do Little Reader then it did to watch DVDs, while being more effective.

The story books are very cute.  They are my favorite part of the whole program.  The start out very easy, but even the easy versions are stories.  Children know the difference between readers and real story books, and these books have the feel and quality of the real thing.  In the first video, you can watch my 1-year-old read one of these books.  This was 2 weeks after we got Little Reader, and it was his first book.  However, he already knew his sight words from "Meet the Sightwords", and most of the animals from "Your Baby Can Read".  Learning individual words is fairly easy, but putting it all together for story reading was one of the most challenging parts of teaching my oldest to read.  This becomes even more challenging when you consider that my little boy is still speaking with 2-4 word sentences.  In essence, he can read better than he can talk.  Reading full sentences has really helped him with his speech development.  The BrillKids Little Reader storybooks have made that process of reading full books easy.  The practice from these storybooks has helped my 3-year-old expand her reading abilities, as well has develop her confidence to do so.

Here is more detail about what is included in the Deluxe package.

Oct 5, 2012

The Solfege Train

This product will be part of a new membership site as I relaunch my website.  Please check out our Kickstarter Campaign.

"The Solfege Train is an e-product with more than 150 pages of printable materials and a 48 page instructional e-book, all in pdf format.  CD Data disk coming soon.  Here is a video tour to see most of the contents:


And here are a few pictures:

Solfege Circles Game
 Musical Stairs (previously sold separately)
Six different piano inserts to choose from.
 Note magnet activities.  Includes color or black and white, solfege or note names, as well as plain black notes.

 Eleven nursery rhymes in six different formats, including solfege or nursery rhymes, color or black and white, and different keys.

Pre-reading exercises.

 Beginning rhythm activities.
Activities to teach the basic music opposites of high and low, loud and soft, and fast or slow.

The price is $25.00

Now available as a data CD!  $25.00 plus shipping.   (Sorry, this product is currently unavailable)

Oct 4, 2012

Movable "Do" Piano Insert

This insert will help you play in any key, reminding you where the sharps and flats are.  My 3-year-old can transpose simple melodies into any key with it!  If a picture is worth a thousand words, a video is worth much more.

Here is the printable:

Movable "Do" Piano Insert

Here is a simple melody to get you started.

Rainbow Castle melody

Please note: If you think this printable is worth sharing, please do!  But I ask that you share this page's URL (web address), and not the actual file.  Thank you for understanding.

**In the video I called it "well tempered", but I should have said "equal tempered".  Oops!  It's sort of a joke relating to old tuning systems on the piano.  Each half-step is spaced evenly.  So in this printable, instead of spacing the chromatics to match where the black keys are on the piano, this printable is designed to move around.  Hence the even spacing was more desirable.  They don't match up perfectly, but they are certainly close enough.**

Oct 2, 2012

Movable "Do" vs Fixed "Do"

(and why I like Movable “Do” better) 

Before I dig into the debate of “Movable” vs “Fixed” solfege, let’s address the elephant in the room.

Um, what is solfege?

“Do, Re, Mi, Fa, So, La, Ti, Do”.  They are names given to the notes in the scale.  In many countries, these are the names of the notes.  In others, they are assigned to the scale degrees.

Okay, I’ve seen “The Sound of Music”.  Why should I learn solfege, or teach it to my child?

Do you need to learn solfege to become a proficient musician?  In a word, no.  There are many conservatories that do not use solfege at all.

What a musician does need is a system for developing relative pitch, and absolute pitch.  They need it to operate their instrument, for analysis, for comprehension, memory, and dictation.

Although solfege is a popular tool to achieve this, some prefer instead a numbering system.  Students sing the scale degrees as “one, two, three, four, five, six, sev, one”.  (“seven” shortened to ‘sev’ for the sake of only needing to sing one syllable.)  This method is especially popular for conservatories with many international students.

Others prefer solfege for some of the following reasons:

  • Solfege has specific syllables for different scale degrees, for example, a raised “Fa” becomes “Fi” instead of a “4” becoming a “raised 4”.
  • Solfege sounds more musical than numbers or letters.  The one-syllable names all end with a vowel, making intonation easier.
  • Solfege allows musicians to reserve numbers for fingering and counting.
  • Solfege is the traditional way of learning to sight-read.
  • Solfege adds precision to the thought-process of ear training.
  • Solfege is an effective short-hand for dictation.

I realize that this article will have a varied audience, and I give fair warning that if you are a parent with no musical background, the fierce debate musicians have about which one is better, “Fixed Do” or “Movable Do”, may seem irrelevant and ultimately, yes, it doesn’t matter that much.  Ultimately it would be good for a musician to be able to use both.

I’m going to dig into some deep music philosophy and theory here, and if you get lost, I apologize.  I’ll give you the cliff-notes first and let you skip the rest if you wish:  They both have their benefits, but I personally prefer “Movable Do”, and that’s what I’m teaching my American kids.  The only reason why I delve into the deeper theory is to give you a road-map of where each method will take you.  For beginning purposes, it really doesn’t matter which you use, but as the student advances, it does matter, and because it matters later, I hope to be able to explain why you may be better off with Movable “Do” now.

In “Fixed Do”, “Do” is always “C”, no matter what key you are in.  With “Movable Do”, “Do” is the tonic note.  For example, in the key of “C Major”, “Do” is “C”, but in the key of “F Major”, “Do” is “F”.  There are various syllables used throughout the world, such as “So” or “Sol”, and “Ti” or “Si”.  I use “Do, Re, Mi, Fa, So, La, Ti, (Do)”.

Some countries don’t even have letter names (“A, B, C”), there are only solfege names (“Do, Re, Mi”).  For citizens of these countries, there should be no debate.  If there is no “C”, only “Do”, then obviously you would want to teach “Fixed Do”, that’s what your country does!  The conductor of your local orchestra will ask you to tune your violins to “La”.  You don’t want 12 versions of “La” to confuse your child!  But if your local orchestra tunes their violins to “A”, then this debate is applicable to you.

Which is better?  Well, that depends on what your goal is, and what your local music conservatory or community classes are teaching, if you have plans on sending your child to them.  What do you feel more comfortable teaching?

There are many great musicians who have never been trained with solfege.  Personally, I feel that I was fully prepared to be a music major in college without it.  But upon learning solfege, I realize now that learning to internalize music with solfege is a valuable tool.  It is a part of my music vocabulary that I use all of the time, especially when I am sight-reading a new melody.  If I am looking over a melody in my head, it is easier to use solfege to articulate the pitches than to simply think of the tone.  BUT!  I don’t need it.  You don’t either, really.  I don’t think that not knowing solfege will hurt a musician from becoming proficient in their instrument, or from building a strong foundation in musical understanding, but it certainly can help.

Again, what a good musician does need, is to develop a strong sense of relative pitch, and of absolute pitch.  Solfege is a tool used to reinforce one or the other, but not both.  Dr. Jody Nagel said it well in her article “The Use of Solfeggio in Sightsinging: Fixed vs Movable “Do” for People Without Perfect-Pitch”

It is rather amusing, for the first-time observer, to overhear "theorists" arguing as to whether or not students should be taught Fixedor Moveable "Do" in their course of music study. Musicians need both an absolute and a relative system for pitch. For example, a clarinetist needs to know the correct "fingering" to produce the concert-pitch Middle C. If this pitch is scale degree 1 of C-minor, scale degree 3 of A-flat-major, or scale degree 6 of E-minor, etc., the clarinetist still must be able to produce the pitch Middle C. On the other hand, regardless of the key it is sung in, musicians should be able to recognize that the tune, "Happy Birthday to You," begins on the 5th scale degree. The absolute pitch-system seems to be more appropriate when operatinga musical instrument, while the relative pitch-system seems to be more appropriate for perceiving how various tones function (i.e., where they are located) within a scale…

The "debate" between fixed-Do and moveable-Do is essentially a debate between whether or not to emphasize the operational or the perceptual requirements of music. It is actually an absurd debate, since professional musicians require both operational and perceptual skills.

In other words, when asking yourself which method you want to use, rather than asking, “Which is more important to learn, relative or absolute pitch?”, we should be asking ourselves, “How can I best teach my student relative andabsolute pitch?”  You need the whole enchilada!  Before I can tackle the topic of Fixed “Do” vs Movable “Do”, it is important to understand what relative pitch is, and its valuable application, as well as absolute pitch (perfect pitch), so allow me to touch on these.

Relative Pitch:  A person with a good sense of relative pitch will understand the relationship that notes in as scale have with each other.  The scale degrees are often marked with numbers with a carrot top, as pictured:

Sometimes the scale degrees are also known by the names “tonic, supertonic, mediant, subdominant, dominant, submediant, and leading tone”.  The latter names are valuable for reference in music theory as they accurately describe each note’s function, but they are hardly useful for quick sight-reading.

Perhaps the best advantage of having a good sense of relative pitch is the ability to transpose.  When a pianist is accompanying a singer who has difficulty reaching some of the high notes, the ability to transpose the music into a lower key is very valuable.  Those with that ability have a keen sense of relative pitch.

Absolute Pitch:  In the USA, among other countries, absolute pitch could be restated as the letter names of a scale, as pictured:

In these examples the fourth scale degree of the C major scale is the same as the first scale degree in the F major scale, the note “F”.  If I were to play the note alone without any context, and you could tell me that it is an “F”, then it would be said that you have perfect pitch. 

Perfect pitch is a much desired ability, and we have all heard stories of great musicianship by those who have it.  Consider the prodigies who have notated large sections of music after they arrive home after a concert.  Aside from an incredible memory, perfect pitch was most certainly an asset.

If your child is very, very young, there is the “critical period” for language development.  What that age period is, and whether it is “critical” or only “sensitive”, is not a topic I am qualified to address, but I will express my personal opinion that when children are very young, language acquisition is easier.  In some East-Asian countries where pitch is an important part of their spoken language, there is a higher percentage of citizens that have perfect pitch than in countries where tones in the language aren’t as important.  This is not genetic, it is a cultural thing.  Do I believe that young children, given the right music environment can learn to have perfect pitch?  Yes I do.  I don’t believe they “are born with it”.  I believe that the gift of perfect pitch, or any prodigious gift for that matter, comes from a combination of interest and work on the child’s part, and their opportunity to learn, or in other words, their learning environment.

In my own personal research, I have come to the conclusion that it is not an “all or nothing” ability.  Certainly Pavarotti, with his ability to discern between “A 440” and “A 438”, had an incredible ear.  But the common person who hears a television theme song, and then hums the melody while doing dishes, and consistently does it in the same key, is blessed with perfect pitch too.  I can play basketball enough to enjoy shooting hoops on occasion, but the NBA would never have me, and rightfully so.  Perfect pitch is likewise an ability that all can work on, if desired, but the fact that very few professional musicians have that highly developed ability is a testament to the fact that it is not necessary.  Nor does having perfect pitch guarantee a musician success in their field.

There are some musicians with a very keen sense of pitch, who warn those who seek it that they should be careful what they wish for- life would be much simpler without it.

But I digress.  Having perfect pitch is not as important as having an absolute pitch system.  I remember hearing that Albert Einstein was once asked if he knew how many feet there are in a mile.  He replied that he didn’t, and thought it was worthless to fill his head full of dry facts that would take less than 2 minutes to look up in a standard reference book.  I feel that way about perfect pitch.  Yes, it is a valuable skill to have, especially for piano tuners, but when I lead a choir, I want the singers to be able to match each other, and the instruments that are accompanying them (which may or may not be in tune).  I want them to be able to adapt to the key they are singing in, to understand it and appropriately interpret it.

An Absolute Pitch system is also necessary for an orchestra or band.  Instrumentalists need to know how to operate their instrument well.  They must be able to tune their instruments to each other, and they all tune to an absolute pitch.  A member of an orchestra may have no background in music theory or tonality, and still contribute much to their ensemble simply because of their ability to play their instrument.  They see the notes on the score, they play them in tune and in time.  They are enjoying the music.  Isn’t that the amateur musician’s ultimate goal anyway?

So now that we understand what absolute and relative pitch are, let’s look at the Movable “Do” vs Fixed “Do” debate.

Advantages to Movable “Do”:  If musicians are to learn relative and absolute pitch well, they need to have experience with both systems.  We do have a precise system for absolute pitch, and it is called letter names.  For relative pitch, we also have numbers, but numbers are difficult to sing, especially when accidentals (sharps and flats) come into play.  Michael Kaulkin summarizes the difficulty with using numbers nicely in his blog post “The Case for Movable “Do” in Classroom Musicianship:
Yes, scale degree numbers accomplish the teaching of intervals and function very well. Thumbs up on numbers. Up to a point. What happens when you’re working in a minor key? What happens when it goes chromatic?  Sing me a German augmented 6th chord, please, using numbers.  You can sing “6-1-2-4″, but that comes nowhere near expressing what’s happening in this chord.  At best you can sing “lowered 6 – 1 – raised 2 – raised 4″, but that is unreasonably clumsy.

Movable “Do” has a system for these chromatic notes.  In a nutshell, when a note is lowered, the vowel is changed to rhyme with “day”.  “Mi” becomes “Me”, “La” becomes “Le”.  If a note is raised, the vowel is changed to rhyme with “bee”.  “Fa” becomes “Fi” and “So” becomes “Si”.  There are a few variants, but for purposes of this article, this explanation will suffice.  Ultimately Movable “Do” becomes a precise system of naming the scale degrees that a singer can use to sight-sing a piece of music.  Because the majority of music an amateur musician will come across is tonal (ie, not dissonant or a-tonal), the use of these chromaticisms are greatly reduced.  95% of the notes will be the typical “Do, Re, Mi, Fa, So, La, Ti”, and the other 5% will mostly be “Fi” and “Si”.  (I made those statistics up.)

There are two different systems in use for adapting Movable “Do” for minor keys.  They are the La-based minor (the relative minor, which is the minor key with the same key signature as the major key.  A minor is relative to C major, with no sharps or flats), and the altered syllable system, as pictured below.

Some prefer the Do-based minor scale because the primary chords remain similar (“Do-Mi-So” becomes “Do-Me-So” and “So-Ti-Re” remains the same).  This reinforces harmonic concepts learned in music theory and form.  Having the “I”(Roman numeral one) or “i” (lower case denotes a minor key) chord begin on “Do”, and the “V” chord always begin on “So” is a great advantage for composition and theory students.

It is also interesting to note that in early sight singing history, the scales’ defining characteristic was not the tonic, but instead the half-step between “Mi-Fa”.  Others prefer the “La”-based minor scale because “Mi-Fa” remains a semi-tone (half-step).  Guido D’Arezzo’s original scale was a hexachord consisting of “Ut, Re, Mi, Fa, So, La”.  There was no “Ti”, and “Ut” has since changed to “Do”.   

Traditionally his hexachord was placed over a broad range of notes, called the “gamut”.  To idium “run the gamut” comes from this part of music history.  A singer who could sing and internalize all of the notes of the gamut with their various solfege names had “run the gamut”.  Now “run the gamut” means to include everything within a group or type.

Traditionally solfege was done with Movable “Do”.  Fixed “Do” is relatively new, and came about when France decided to assign solfege to specific pitches.

Coming back to the different systems of Movable “Do” for minor keys, I will state my preference for the La based minor.  Why?  Simply because it is harder to remember to change the syllable when there is no accidental before it.  My ear will know where “Le” is in the second example, but without an accidental, I intuitively want to sing “La”.  In the first example, the sharp before “Si” helps me keep my solfege on tract.  That’s just my preference.

The “La”based minor also sets the stage for easier modal reading.  Most western music is the Ionian (Major) or Aeolian (Minor) modes [1], but the Dorian[2]and Mixolydian[3]modes are also very popular.  Most singers find it easier to adapt the tonic to a different syllable, such as “La” or “Re”, then to memorize a new set of chromatics for every different mode.  Keeping the primary chords of “I, IV and V” with the same syllables becomes a mute point in modal music because the primary chords are simply different.  The Dorian mode often employs a VII (Major seven chord), which is practically unheard of in traditional harmony.  For your own trivia enjoyment, I have included the seven different modes.  Each mode is written as relative to “C Major” in that there are no sharps or flats.  The first version allows the tonic to move to keep the syllables “Do, Re, Mi, Fa, So, La,” and “Ti”, respectively, as well as keeping the “Mi-Fa” semitone.  In other words, they are all relative to “C Major”.  The second version forces “Do” to be the tonic, and instead alters the syllables.  When considering modal music, which mostly manifests itself in folk music, the La-based minor clearly becomes the preferable method.

A lot of tension can result in music schools over which of these minor-systems to use.  In some schools it will vary from teacher to teacher, and in others, it is the privilege of seniority to decide.  Ultimately, a singer trained in Movable “Do” will get a flavor of both anyway, depending on how the minor passage presents itself.

Going back to the advantages of Movable “Do” (modal music was most certainly a tangent), it removes a student’s dependency on the key of “C”.  It happens all too often:  A beginning piano student begins their study in the key of “C”, and when they start to learn to play in other keys, it suddenly becomes difficult, and many students quit.  Later they join a choir, and all they know is how to play is “C”.  Most other keys are considered “hard”, but it doesn’t have to be that way.  Training in Movable “Do” can help this singer branch out and feel more confident with reading in other key signatures, or, in other words, reading with the tonic (key note) located at different points on the staff.  Because all music is not in C major, our students need a learning system that helps establish relative pitch, and eliminates that dependency on “C” major.  Movable “Do” is a fantastic tool to accomplish that goal.

Students trained in Movable “Do” are often able to learn to read on new clefs, like the Tenor Clef, easier than those trained in Fixed “Do”.  Likewise, instruments based in other keys, such as the “F” recorder, or the “B-flat” clarinet are better served by a relative pitch system, as even the letter names become relative to which instrument is used.  For example, a clarinetist on a “B-flat” instrument will need to play a “D” if the orchestra director asks for a “Concert C”.  On an “E-flat” instrument, they will need to play an “A”.  There is the standard “A=440”, which is scientific, and called “Concert A”.

Unless you have reference to that pitch when you practice (there are many ways to accomplish this), you will not be developing perfect pitch.  If you don’t have access to “Concert A”, Movable “Do” may be better for you.  I have a clavinova for my reference, but I like to practice with my children when we walk down the stairs, when we are driving in the car, or any other time that the mood strikes me.  It is nice to incorporate ear training exercises at the same time, without having to use a pitch pipe first.  My children will always have access to their voices, even if they won’t always have an instrument.  This is part of the philosophical foundation of Kodaly- build proficiency in the instrument all citizens will have in their homes, their own voice.  Singing with solfege is a tool to develop the ear and the body (voice), and not necessarily an instrument. 

There may also be cultural advantages to using Movable “Do”.  For example, in the United States, most music programs will use Movable “Do”.

Disadvantages to Movable “Do”:  The biggest disadvantage to a Movable Do system is for those who live in a country where the absolute names of the notes are “Do, Re, Mi” instead of “C, D, E”.  France, Italy, Spain, much of South and Central America, Japan, and Korea are key examples.  It is wholly incompatible for students in these countries, and should be avoided.  Some argue that when a student begins to study a-tonal music, Movable “Do”, with its strong emphasis on a tonic note, become especially difficult to sing.  Me?  I say that a-tonal music is hard to sing no matter which system you use!

A-tonal music does not have a tonic, but it will often have a tonal center, and if there is one, there will be a key signature to show what it is.  Otherwise, there will be no key signature, leaving “C” on “Do” and giving the singer the use of chromatics.  When I was in college, we switched to Fixed “Do” during the a-tonal semester of study, and I was grateful.  Not because a-tonal music is easier to sing with Fixed “Do” per-say, but because I was able to essentially abandon solfege analysis altogether by simply substituting my letter-note-name knowledge with solfege notes.  It was an easy-way out for us, while simultaneously teaching us how to use Fixed “Do” should we ever teach in a conservatory that used it.  I’m sure our musical understanding would have been better improved if we had learned a-tonal music in Movable “Do”, but Aural Skills was only a one-credit course and we all had a lot of other things on our plates.  Besides, how often does a performing musician really need to transpose a-tonal music on the fly?  Yuck.  That’s what music software is for.[4]  Yes, I just offered an apologetic for movable do, but this fixed-do proponents often cite a-tonal music as a plus.  Honestly, I have rarely sung a-tonal music outside of my ear-training courses.  20thcentury music, with it’s sharp dissonances and unusual harmonies, yes, but a-tonal music, not so much.  Acting as an instrumentalist, I find that a-tonal music is much easier to reproduce and enjoy when I use letter-names.  A-tonal music is most certainly easier to plunk out on the piano than it is to sing.

The other disadvantage to Movable “Do” is the need for a different system for minor keys.

Application of Movable Do for young singers:  Back to square one.  I encourage you to emphasize is in-tune singing.  The ideal key for young voices to be singing in is “D” major.  Hence, if you have a piano or other instrument for reference, the best pitches to use is “A” for “So”, and “F#” for “Mi”.  This is because these notes are the easiest notes for children to hear and sing.  Again, Movable “Do” reinforces relative pitch.  This means that a song, such as “Twinkle, Twinkle”, will be sung as “Do, Do, So, So, La, La, So…” no matter what key it is in.  Learning to recognize the intervals between each scale degree is also valuable.  For example, from the first scale degree (“Do”), to the second (“Re”), is always a major 2nd.  As the student advances, the chordal harmony also becomes easier to sing in movable do.  For example, the primary chords of “I”, “IV”, and “V”, would always be sung as “Do-Mi-So”, “Fa-La-Do”, and “So-Ti-Re”, respectively.  Changing keys (a.k.a. modulating) is much easier to internalize when the same syllables and intervals are used.
By catering to the instrument they are learning, we can foster earlier and easier success.  The average child speaks at or around an “F#”.  For this reason, “Movable Do” is preferable for instruments that modulate the easiest, with the voice being the key example.  The Kodaly method uses Movable “Do”.

Advantages to Fixed Do:  Fixed “Do” can reinforce absolute pitch.  If a parent desires to teach a young child to have perfect pitch, Fixed “Do” is a great way to go about it.  Many young children struggle with the idea that the easiest key to play in is “C”.  Why not “A”?  By learning Fixed “Do”, they begin with “Do, Re, Mi, Fa, So, La, Ti” instead of “C, D, E, F, G, A, B”.  This is more intuitive, and so it is easiest to learn in the beginning.  There is plenty of time to learn letter-names later.  Also, where Movable “Do” helps with sight-singing, “Fixed Do” can help with music dictation (writing down music that you hear exactly).  Personally, I am better at relative pitch, and so when I dictate music, I subconsciously compare difficult pitches I hear to the tonic note and then reason in my mind what that note must be.  I did well, but the process was more meticulous and slow.  My friend who had perfect pitch immediately knew what the pitches she heard were, quickly wrote them down, and generally scored very well.  However, while her pitches were always correct, she struggled more with how to spell the notes, for example, writing a Gb instead of an F# (different names for the same pitch).  She simply needed to apply more music theory to her assignments for a perfect score, but there is no doubt that straight dictation was much easier for her.

For a vocal student, using Fixed “Do” lets the singer sing with easier syllables than by simply using letter names.  Traditionally, all “C”s are “Do”, so “C#” and Cb” are all simply “Do”.  The sight-singer should know the difference and intuitively make the change in their heads.  This means that they have fewer syllables to learn- it’s simply “Do, Re, Mi, Fa, So, La,” and “Si” (“Ti” is usually only used in Movable “Do”).  The reason why this system is more common comes back to the countries that use “Do, Re, Mi” as note names.  A song in France may be in “Do-sharp minor”.  They name sharps and flats, but for ease in sight-singing, the “sharp” and “flat” is taken off, leaving a simple syllable that is easier to learn.  All of these “Do”s are only a half-step off from each other, and this closeness helps to build an overall pitch memory for those without perfect-pitch.

The other advantage to using Fixed Do is that, while a student may learn to operate their instrument based on absolute pitch, they will not necessarily develop a perfect-pitch memory if they don’t reproduce those pitches with their body.  Consistently singing the same pitch with the same name can help develop perfect pitch.  Because of this, ear training practice should be done with a tuned instrument, whether you use Fixed “Do” or Movable “Do”.

Disadvantages of Fixed Do:  Unfortunately, by eliminating the chromatisisms (names for sharps and flats), the intervallic differences between two notes is no longer consistent.  In Movable “Do”, “Do” to “Mi” is always a major third, but it may be a minor third or major third, and even a diminished or augmented third with Fixed Do.  To eliminate this problem, there are some conservatories and methodologies that apply the same chromaticisims of Movable “Do” to Fixed “Do”.  With this method, “C” is always “Do”, and “C#” is always “Di”.  Now the intervals between the notes, or applicably, the solfege syllables, are always consistent.  “Do” to “Mi” is a major third, and “Mi” to “Fa” is always a minor second (half-step).  However, this creates a new problem; some keys become incredibly complicated to sight-sing by virtue of the syllables used alone.  Consider the difference between the “Ab” major scale and the “A” major scale:

If the singer was using “Movable Do”, the syllables to both would be “Do, Re, Mi, Fa, So, La, Ti, Do”, the singer only needs to hear the tonic note and know where “Do” is located on the staff.  If they used unaltered Fixed-Do, both would be “La, Ti, Do, Re, Mi, Fa, So, La”.  Singing with these chromatics, on the other hand, is a far more advanced study, but certainly one with merit.  They are, after all, different scales.

But while there may be conservatories that use this system in their ear training courses, the fact remains that there is not an actual culture that uses this system.  No orchestra in the world will tell you that your “Fi” in measure 7 is flat.  There are no “Te” clarinets.  In France there are “Ti-flat” clarinets (''une clarinette en si bĂ©mol''), and in the USA there are “B-flat” clarinets.  Fixed “Do” with altered chromatics is easier to learn in the beginning, but it becomes unnecessarily complicated when you start to sing in multiple keys.

Fixed “Do” also builds a strong connection with the key of “C”, but unless they have perfect pitch, a student may struggle with sight-singing in other keys because mentally they are relating every note in every key they are singing back to C, instead of the tonic note.  (In “A” major, the tonic note is “A”).

Ultimately it boils down to this:  If your country uses these syllables anyway, there is no debate, of course you want to use “Fixed Do”.  On the other hand, if your country uses letter names, can you not accomplish the same goals of pitch memory by using them?  Ear training exercises can be done with letter names!  Pitch memory can be built with letter names, and an instrumentalist will get plenty of exposure to them.  “A-flat” is not as easy to sing as “Le”, but it is consistent with what they will be hearing at orchestra rehearsal, and the method of naming the chromatics is more consistent overall.  Consider “C#, D#, E#, F#, G#, A#, B#” as opposed to “Di, Ri, Ma, Fi, Si, Li, To”.  (“Ma” and “To” occur often for altered Fixed “Do”, and rarely for Movable “Do”) Instrumentalists do not even need to think “A-flat” when they are quickly sight-reading a piece, they only need to build a physical relationship with the black note on the page and the fingering/location of that note on the instrument.

By focusing so much attention on absolute pitch, with letter names andFixed-Do syllables, absolute pitch will certainly be reinforced, but often at the cost of developing a sense of relative pitch.

Application of Fixed Do for young singers:  On the piano, children often begin instruction in the key of “C” because there are no sharps or flats, making it the easiest key to begin with.  Children’s voices are a different instrument altogether, but if you have a piano in your home, Fixed “Do” on the piano can be used to reinforce your music lessons.  “So” is on “G”, “Mi” is on “E”, and “La” is on “A”.  For the beginner, Fixed “Do” has many advantages.  It gets your foot in the door, so to speak, and the value in that should not be understated.

In Summary:  What method should you use?  Well, it depends on what resources your students have, what your goals are, and what you feel most comfortable teaching.  There is no real right or wrong method.

If all of this talk of “Movable Do” vs “Fixed Do” has got your head spinning, I have some good news for you.  For both of these methods and all of their variations, the key of “C Major” is sung the same.  Put simply:

That’s right: No matter which system you use, this scale is correct for all of them.  If you are at all undecided, I recommend you start here.  Within the framework of the “C Major” scale, students can learn and master so many concepts, such as high and low, line notes and space notes, how to read music generally, and a host of other things.  The “C Major” scale is relatively easy for young voices to sing, and it is the easiest scale to play on the piano.

Then of course you can do what my high-school music teacher suggests, and simply use "Play Do".

For Further Reading:
Everything you need to know to teach your young child music (a free e-book by BrillKids, highly recommended)

Solfege Battles (chosen for the lively discussion in the comments section)

Ear Training and Musicianship (written by a Fixed “Do” critic)

Perfect Pitch vs Relative Pitch (I have not used his product, nor do I necessarily endorse it, but this article is perhaps the best explanation I have read on the subject.  His object lesson is especially effective)

[1]Technically, Aeolian only refers to the natural minor scale (no chromatic alterations).  When we raise the 7thscale degree, it becomes the harmonic minor scale.  The harmonic minor scale is much more common because the raised 7th acts as the leading tone.  Resolving that leading tone up to the tonic is very pleasing to the ear.

[2]Think “Scarborough Fair” or “Lovely Joan”.

[3]“Old Joe Clark”, or “Norwegian Wood” by the Beatles.  The nerd in me demands that I point out the “Star Trek” theme song as well.

[4] I only say that because I’m jealous of the musicians who can.  If you are one of them, I commend and admire you for it.  I know you put a lot of work into developing that ability.  Did you use Movable “Do” to gain that skill?

Oct 1, 2012

Announcing "The Solfege Train"

This week I am excited to announce that my big project is finally done, and I will be releasing it this Friday!  I've been working on it for more than a year.  Yahoo!!

Here is what you can expect this week.

Today:  The announcement
Tuesday:  Movable "Do" vs Fixed "Do" (the product is compatible for both)
Wednesday: Video tour of the content

Thursday:  My favorite part of the program was too good to not give away for free.  I want everyone to have the resource that has helped my 3-year-old transpose simple melodies into any key on the piano easily, as well as play any scale.  I wish I would have had this resource when I was taking keyboard harmony in college.  My husband and I discovered it almost by accident.  It is so simple, I wonder why no one else has thought of it, and if they have, why isn't it common knowledge?  Once people see the idea, it will be easy to replicate, so I'm going to give it away and save everyone some time in photoshop.  It's my own little "Egg of Columbus".  Look for this giveaway on Thursday!

Friday:  The big release!  (pssst!! I will also post a nice coupon on my facebook page.)

The CD data version will not be available until later this month.

Have a great week, everyone!
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