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Last month, I wrote about using fixed do solfege in my music classes (Another Try At Fixed Do). At that time, I reported early success with fifth and second grade students sight singing using the fixed do system. Since then, I have continued to be pleased with the results, and do not at this point miss or intend to go back to, moveable do. As I have used fixed do, I have realized that there really isn’t as much difference with moveable do as I first thought, and the advantages of fixed do are compelling.
Fixed do differentiates between different keys. This is something composers have always done. Some keys are brighter, some darker, or even duller. Composers tend to favor some keys and avoid others, includicng C major. The fixed do system retains those distinctions, making it possible to learn the subtle tuning differences between notes of the same scale degree in different keys. For example, re mi is sung differently in D major than in C major. Because the syllables are the same, the ear must make the adjustment. In moveable do, the syllables would dictate the differences, being do re in D and re mi in C, and less discrimination is left to the ear. Fixed do teaches that the same pitches in different contexts are supposed to sound different.
I have also found fixed do more effective in improving pitch. While I cannot claim that using fixed do results in acquisition of absolute pitch, I continue to find improvement in my sense of where pitches are. I have also observed my students’ improved overall sense of pitch while singing, and a heightened awareness of when we have drifted flat. My hunch is that through verbal association, consistently calling a given pitch by the same name allows our brains to link the name with the pitch so that it can be recalled.
Previous to using fixed do, I had not found much success having my first and second grade students sing two-part music. Even singing tonal ostinati with a melody was more than most of these students could do. After spending a month practicing fixed do, last week nearly every student was able to sing an ostinato part or a melody part in two-part singing. About one quarter of them, and most of them first graders, were able to successfully sing in three parts, with two ostinatos and a melody. They did this all with fixed do syllables. It appears that after a short time, the childrens’ ears adjust to where the tonic is, and the tonal benefits associated with moveable do are also present with fixed do without tonal function needing to be taught.
Gordon Music Learning Theory espouses singing tonal patterns using moveable do to children in order to teach them a musical vocabulary that is then built upon to develop musicianship. Feierabend’s conversational sofege, and the several Kodaly training institutions in the United States also train teachers to use moveable do and to avoid notation in the early stages of acquiring music literacy. Fixed-do teachers also begin training without notation, but tend to bring music reading in sooner. For example, the Yamaha Piano School takes an approach similar to Gordon and Feierabend, but with fixed do. According to their web site, in the Yamaha program, “teachers sing melodic patterns and chords that children imitate. Solfege sessions at the teacher’s piano account for approximately 15 to 20 minutes of a 60 minute class. . .By the end of two years in JMC, students have built a substantial vocabulary of solfege, having sung 50 melodies and numerous chord progressions using the I, IV and V7 chords in the keys of C major, G major, F major, D minor and A minor. Aside from developing musicianship, these solfege experiences prepare children to play in these five keys. In fact, children experience singing in a key for approximately one semester prior to playing in that key.” Without the restrictions of notation, students are able to negotiate keys they would not be able to read. In addition, if they have used fixed do, when they are ready to read, the notation will be familiar to them by syllable name, no matter what key they are playing in, making the transition to notation smoother. Delaying reading until a moveable do system can be transferred to reading in multiple keys impedes literacy progress.
Having said all of that, it must be mentioned that research has not proved either moveable do or fixed do as more or less effective in ear training. Advocates and users of both systems claim advantages, and success of either system is difficult to evaluate because individual teachers’ proficiency in using and teaching each system is inconsistent. From my experience using both, I have found that fixed do is more effective for me and for my students.