Conversational Solfege and the National Core Arts Standards

Version 2Conversational solfege is a curriculum for teaching music literacy developed by Dr. John Feierabend. It is a literature based curriculum that is grounded in Music Learning Theory and the Kodaly philosophy for music education. It is not a method that one uses to the exclusion of all others, but rather an effective way of teaching tuneful singers to read, write, and create music.

Given that Conversational Solfege (CS) was developed during a time when music educators were using the original NAfME (MENC) content standards and before the introduction of the National Core Arts Standards (NCAS), it is natural to ask if CS is conformed to the NCAS. Here, I will discuss the performing and creating artistic processes included in the NCAS, and how well CS articulates the NCAS for each of those processes.

Music teachers should begin Conversational Solfege only when students are able to sing in tune by themselves. For most children, this occurs at at or close to 7 years of age, second grade in school; so we must begin by limiting our discussion to the NCAS for second grade and above. For performance, according to the NCAS, second graders when analyzing music will “demonstrate knowledge of music concepts (such as tonality and meter) in music from a variety of cultures selected for performance.” They will also “read and perform rhythmic and melodic patterns using iconic or standard notation” when “analyzing selected music.” The term “demonstrate” is to “show musical understanding through observable behavior such as moving, chanting, singing, or playing instruments.”  When interpreting, second graders will “demonstrate understanding of expressive qualities (such as dynamics  and tempo) and how creators use them to convey expressive intent.” Expressive intent is “the emotions, thoughts, and ideas that a performer or composer seeks to convey by manipulating the elements of music>” Finally, after repeating repertoire during the coarse of instruction and rehearsal, the second student grade student will “perform music for a specific purpose with expression and technical accuracy.”

It is interesting that the only mention of reading music notation in the NCAS is for the purpose of analyzing. Nowhere in the standards is reading music included in ochetanconnection with actually performing or rehearsing music. This would seem to be a major omission in the standards, and would position Conversational Solfege to go beyond the standards in developing literacy as part of musicianship. At the same time, because CS is essentially an application of the Kodaly philosophy for music education, singing remains the primary means by which students learn to read and compose music. Being able to sing tunefully, beatfully, and artfully, which is the goal of Dr. Fierabend’s First Steps in Music, the preparatory curriculum for CS,  is necessary in order to be able to demonstrate understanding as it is defined in the NCAS. So in that sense, we could say that CS makes assessment of performing under the NCAS possible.

The other piece to music literacy in addition to reading is writing. For this, we must consider the NCAS for creating. Here we find many parts of CS, and of First Steps in Music. To begin, we find in the NCAS that second grade students shall “Improvise rhythmic and melodic patterns and musical ideas for a specific purpose.” In CS, “students begin developing improvisation skills which will enable them to later compose. Creating aurally “develops the ability to think and bring musical meaning to original musical thoughts.  Students create original rhythm or tonal patterns or melodies using rhythm or tonal syllables.” Take particular note of this next statement.  “Reading notation should not be introduced until students have achieved success at this.” This is often expressed in the phrase “sound before sight” yet it is so often violated in the common ways in which music is taught.

Later in the NCAS for creating, we find that a second grade student will “convey expressive intent for a specific purpose by presenting a final version of personal musical ideas to peers or informal audience.” Here we come to the area of interpreting music; what Feierabend refers to as “artful” singing. Dr. Feierabend wrote that “one of the mysteries of notation is that the subtleties of expression cannot adequately be represented in notation.  It is the inherent expressiveness, however, that is the art part of music. What appears in notation is merely the skeleton of the music.  The interpreter of the notation must breath life into the skeleton.  This expressive sensitivity development must be assimilated from good musical models and from quality literature that embodies expressiveness.”  So just as reading and writing must be preceded with aural experiences with musical ideas, so to the ability to interpret music expressively must be preceded with models of good musical expression found in performances by great musicians. In responding to such performances, students learn what musical expression is, and what can be expressed with music. They then assimilate those experiences with hearing the models into musical expressiveness of their own. Once again, CS provides the means for teaching students how to accomplish what is called for in the NCAS.

This impacts responding as well. The NCAS includes a standard concerning interpretation. Second grade students will “demonstrate knowledge of music concepts and how they support creators’/performers’ expressive intent.” We have seen that demonstrating understanding is done through moving, chanting, singing, or playing a musical instrument. This is in fact how we would present models of artful musical performance. By responding to expressive music with movement, or by imitating artfully performed musical phrases or ideas, students acquire the knowledge of music concepts, and how those concepts are manipulated by performers and composers, to create an interpretation that is expressive. Just as music can be read and heard through inner hearing, music can also be interpreted through inner hearing using notated music. Dr. Thomas Duffy, Director of Bands at Yale University, stated that, and I paraphrase, when sight reading, everything must be included, not just pitches and rhythms. All expressive markings must be included. The musically literate person can silently read a musical score with all the expressiveness that is notated and with the additional expressive nuances that are suggested by the musical context but which are not explicitly notated or able to be notated by the composer.

For the artistic process of connecting, we find in the NCAS that second grade students will “demonstrate understanding of relationships between music and the other arts, other disciplines, varied contexts, and daily life.” The literate students, trained in Conversational Solfege, is able to experience and understand music in written form as the conveyance in that form of ideas preserved in music for their benefit, in the same way that a poem, novel, play, short story, or piece of non-fiction is a written record of ideas preserved in language. Music literacy and therefore Conversational Solfege makes possible connecting music with language arts. Music literacy also builds connections to visual art, as concepts common to both are interpreted from examples of both. And of course, the very interpretation of music brings into play dance, storytelling, and drama; interpretations that often are only possible from written music, and that require musically literate interpreters. Taking all of this into account, it becomes clear that Conversational Solfege is both the development and at the very core of the National Core Arts Standards.

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