Fixed and Movable Do

Version 2As originally conceived, solfege was a movable do system. Whatever pitch was the tonic would be assigned the syllable “do” and the other syllables, re, mi, fa, so, la, and ti followed upward by step. In today’s usage, these movable do syllables are referred to as tonal syllables. They are called tonal syllables because they identify pitches by harmonic function, not by name or location on the staff. The tonic pitch is always “do” regardless of the key, and so also with the other pitches. Another way of putting is that the function (tonic, dominant, sub dominant, etc.) is always called by the same syllable, but the pitch assigned that function and thus that syllable will change according to the key. The advantage of this system is that it trains the ear to recognize harmonic function, and recognizing harmonic function in a melody line assists in singing in tune. The disadvantages are that one must ascertain or be told what the tonic is before one can begin singing with movable do syllables, and also that accidentals are extremely challenging. To the latter point, because movable do expresses function, when the function of a note changes, the syllable must also be changed. Thus, unlike with the fixed do system, when, for example, the super tonic is flatted, the syllable must be changed from re to ra, whereas in fixed do both super tonic and flatted super tonic are called re in the key of C.

Whereas, at least conceptually, movable do is a functional system, fixed do, or so it has been claimed, is not a functional system. This is because fixed do syllables do not indicate function, but instead indicate pitch name. Fixed do syllables are equivalent to letter note names, but are easier to sing; however, I take issue with those who claim that fixed do precludes functions. People naturally perceive the tonic function in tonal music, regardless of syllables being used, or in fact even in the absence of any syllables at all. My students have no trouble locating the tonic note of a tonal melody, because it is the only pitch that satisfies their ear as a final or resting tone. That being so, it is but a small matter to affix a name to the pitch to which one has intuitively assigned a function. Once the note, let us say fa which is an F, has been established as the tonic, one can easily perceive and understand fa to be the tonic, do to be the dominant, ti to be the sub dominant, and so forth. In addition, one can also be sure of exactly what pitches are being heard, making the bridge from listening to sight reading easier. If anyone should doubt this, let him sing a major scale starting on fa, and then realize that fa already unmistakably sounds like nothing else but the tonic function. Singing a major scale beginning on other syllables will produce the same result. What is more, whether sharp or not, the note is sung with the same syllable. A major scale beginning on re would be re mi fa so la ti do re. The singer must adjust by ear the fa and do to be sharped. This in itself is a worthwhile ear training exercise, which, by the way, Dalcroze was extremely fond of, that the practitioner of movable do never encounters. To him, every key is the same. But we know this is not how the composers heard the keys, or else they would not have described some as bright, others dark or any number of other ways. Having different syllables for the different scales helps one hear each key differently, as they were meant to be heard.

Teaching functional harmony is important. The teacher using fixed do must not overlook teaching harmony because it is essential for understanding tonal music, and for singing in tune. Because the syllables in the fixed do system indicate pitch and not function, C-Major-Scale(though as we have seen function is perceived when using fixed do), the use of fixed do necessitates a separate designation for functions. Renowned teachers such as Nadia Boulanger used syllables for pitch and numbers for function.   Using numbers for function and syllables for pitch emphasizes that pitch and function are two different concepts. A single musical tone has a definite pitch, but no function. A tone can only have function when it is perceived in the context of other tones. For example, fa could be tonic in f, dominant in b-flat, or mediant in d minor. The listener simply doesn’t know until other tones have placed that fa into a harmonic context. As long as the function of the note is unknown, it cannot be sung using movable do, but it can be sung using fixed do.

Using numbers to indicate function is consistent with the practice of numbering the scale degrees, with the tonic being ^1, the dominant being ^5, and so forth. It can be seen that ^1 in the fixed do system is the equivalent to do in the moveable do system. Because the syllables in the movable do system indicate function and not pitch, the use of movable do necessitates a separate designation for pitch. The musician using movable do does not know what the pitch name is unless letter names are also taught, just as the one using fixed do does not know what the function is unless numbers are also taught. So both systems have similar omissions if only syllables are taught. For this reason, it is necessary for the teacher of fixed do to teach syllables and numbers, and the teacher of movable do to teach syllables and letter names. Movable do syllables and numbers is redundant because both indicate function, and fixed do syllables and letter names are redundant because both indicate pitch.

Largely because each pitch is consistently given the same associated label, many who use fixed do often and consistently find that it develops in them a sense of absolute pitch. I have found this to be true for myself. During the school year when I am teaching with fixed do daily, I find myself starting songs with my voice on the correct pitch after reading the notation without much thought. I also find that I am less likely to drift flat over the course of a teaching session when I am mindful of the fixed do syllables. I believe this is how fixed do helps musicians sing more in tune. When relative pitch is relied on, as it must be with movable do, one has nothing to keep the pitch from drifting. But with fixed do, when the mind has secured pitches to a syllable, it retains the intonation of the pitch. Finally, it should be noted that the two systems do not go well together. Both have their attributes, and a teacher is can easily be justified choosing either, but should under no circumstance teach both to students concurrently. The cognitive advantages of associating notes with syllables is lost when the meaning of the syllables is contradictory from one system to the other.


Pitfalls and Remedies to Teaching Instrumental Music

2011Symposium_1_2Learning to play a musical instrument is one of life’s joys and one that many children enjoy, and many adults wish they had taken advantage of when they had the chance in school. Beyond the enjoyment of playing music, learning an instrument is also an excellent way to learn most musical concepts. For example, students can learn most of what there is to learn about music from a well designed curriculum for a piano lab. Keyboards are a popular musical instrument with students, including children in the middle school years, when engaging and connecting with students in general music can be challenging. If you are like me, you do not have the budget to purchase a piano lab, but many of the benefits are still available by utilizing piano keyboard apps for mobile devices. While these apps can never replicate the feel of true weighted keys, they do provide enough simulation to be of use in teaching keyboard and music concepts. Recorder and guitar are also a popular instruments for achieving the same goals. I prefer the “Real” series of apps. There is Real Piano, Real Guitar, and Real Drums, all of which are excellent, with enough options and reasonably realistic sounds, even on the free versions. Real Guitar is of less use, because there is no provision for fingering chords or notes: they are selected with a push of the button. But the strumming and sound is realistic. The drum and piano apps are more useful, because they leave all of the playing to the user.

With recorders, there is less of a need for apps because the instruments themselves are affordable. Students can purchase working recorders for under five dollars, and can progress form beginning levels to highly proficient and advanced levels playing Renaissance and Baroque repertoire. Although students take a while to achieve a characteristic sound on most of these instruments, once they do, they are less prone to being self-conscious about performing in public, because not everyone can play and most friends, teachers and adults are impressed with proficiency on a musical instrument. Playing music develops confidence that carries over into other areas. These are all important benefits of instrumental music instruction.

There are pitfalls, though that must be kept in mind. People who play piano tend to have a less accurate musical ear than those who play violin. This undoubtedly is because  there is no possibility of tuning individual notes as one plays a piano, whereas a violinist must be adjusting intonation constantly. If intonation and developing a musical ear is ignored when teaching non-tuneable instruments like the piano, or semi-non-tuneable instruments like most wind instruments where real time tuning is necessary but restricted, then playing becomes a mechanical task; no more than operating a machine that happens to make musical sounds. To avoid this deficit in instruction, music teachers of instruments must include singing and ear training as part of their curriculum. Keyboard and wind instrument students must be required to sing their parts, learn solfege, and audiate what they are about to play, and then play fully, informed by their prior singing and audiating what the music will sound like if they play it correctly. This is a method that has often been taught in teacher preparation programs, occasionally included in instrumental method books, but too infrequently carried out by teachers. The value of sight singing for instrumental students cannot be overstated.

A second pitfall is that too many students do not receive enough experience being expressive and interpreting what Ensemblethey play. They often either spend hours practicing alone for solo auditions to music festivals, or practicing ensemble parts, or they are spending their playing time in large ensemble rehearsals where everyone is trying to execute the conductor’s interpretation, and where experience may not exceed playing the right notes, dynamics, and tempos. The real training ground for building musicianship on a musical instrument ought to be in chamber music ensembles. This can take the format of frequently practicing a solo with a pianist, or playing music in ensembles of popular instrumentations such as a trio, quartet or quintet. In these settings, every player is easily heard, and each player’s accuracy and expressiveness is apparent. The feeling of becoming lost in a large ensemble is replaced with the excitement and even thrill of hearing every moment of one’s playing combining with other timbres to form a vibrant, musical performance. Not only do chamber groups develop musicianship more effectively, but the added musicianship gained then goes back into the large ensembles in which those same students play. Ultimately, instrumental music programs must place a greater premium on building musicianship, and not stop at merely achieving note, dynamic, and tempo accuracy.

What Solfege Is, And What It Is Not

2011Symposium_1_2The use of solfege syllables in teaching singing and music reading is one of those things that music educators cannot seem to come to a consensus on. some use solfege, some do not. some prefer to use letter names, some numbers, some no note names at all, just a neutral syllable. Some try using solfege, expecting quick or immediate results, and then when their students struggle to remember the syllables, or don’t sing or sight read any better, they abandon them altogether. While some of this disunity over solfege is a matter of personal choice, some of it is the result of misunderstanding what the use of solfege is supposed to accomplish. Solfege syllables are the labels with which verbal association learning takes place. Let me explain.

Anytime a human learns music or language, the person learns first through hearing. A word or pattern of musical notes has a particular sound to it that the person remembers, so that the same word or pattern of musical notes can be recognized if it is heard again. At this point the word or pattern of musical notes has no meaning attached to it; it is merely recognizable when heard. They can be compared to hearing a noise in the distance every day without knowing what is making the noise. We recognize that it is the same noise we heard yesterday, but we cannot identify it or associate with meaning or a source. Contrast this to hearing, for example, thunder in the distance. We not only recognize the sound as thunder, but the sound has meaning for us: a storm is coming and it is time to take in the laundry, close the car windows, and come inside before the storm hits.

With words and music, we next learn to associate a word for the thinkg or action it signifies. “Table” is the object we eat dinner on, and “cat” is the animal that sits on our lap and purrs. Although a person has learned this much, they will not know what the word “table” or “cat” looks like written down, or they will recognize the word but not know that it refers to the flat surface with four legs, or the soft furry purring animal that lives in our house. In order to be able to recognize the word and understand its meaning, the two must be associated. We see the word “table” written down, and we learn that it signifies the thing our dinner plates are on; we see the word “cat” written down, and we learn that it signifies the animal on your lap. This is association.

In music, notes and patterns of notes don’t have literal, explicit meanings the way words in language do. What weC-Major-Scale hear, and what we think and feel about what we hear, is what the music means. Musical meaning comes from the structural relationships we find between notes. Through relationships, notes form motifs, themes, and harmonic progressions. These are all made of notes, and the notes, like words, have meanings—meanings like tonic, dominant, leading tone, passing tone, or suspension. To be able to read music, there must be a name for each of these notes through which we can associate the sound with the meaning. That is what solfege syllables do. They give us labels or names for musical sounds that make it possible for us to understand them in a musical way. A key will give these names, these solfege syllables a context in which to be understood. A melody in fa major has fa as a tonic and do as a dominant. The tonic chord is fa-la-do and the dominant chord is do-mi-sol. Knowing these names, it is possible for me to instantly know, audiate, and even sing exactly the notes be referred to by the names, and if they are written down by the published notes. Fa always has the same pitch, as does do, la or any other syllable, regardless of what key the music is in. When solfege is used in this way—to name what is already known aurally, then it is of great benefit to the music student. On the other hand, trying to memorize solfege syllables as an end unto itself without knowing the sounds to which they refer will result in confusion and unsatisfactory results—the very thing that happens when teachers, with the best of intentions, misuse solfege in this way.

What is Musicianship?

2011Symposium_1_2Musicianship is one of those words that is used frequently but thought about rarely. As music teachers, we want our students to acquire musicianship, but we don’t necessarily spend much time specifically teaching it. Much of the time we are teaching skills, and then assuming musicianship will automatically follow. But it is often the case in education that the transfers of knowledge we think students will make on their own go unnoticed. Often, it is necessary for us to guide students through the transfer of knowledge from one application to another, or from one level of proficiency to the next. So it is with transferring skills to the practice of musicianship.

When I was an undergraduate at a major music conservatory, there was one weekly class I had to attend every semester for all four years. The name of the class was “musicianship.” Students signed up to play for a master class taught by a distinguished professor with the whole school watching. Several students would perform each week, and through it all we saw and heard how to shape musical phrases into performances that were pleasing, expressive and even passionate. What we did not learn in that class were fingerings, bowings, and what notes to play. That was not part of learning musicianship. Learning to play musically was the purpose of the class called “musicianship.”.

Implicit in this view is that musicianship is the highest level of musical thinking and performing—it is what elite players domusic_words_large to cause their performances to be outstanding above the rest. Musicianship cannot be thought of as only what a musician does, because some of what a musician does cannot be considered practicing musicianship. Knowing how to play, and practicing fingerings, notes, and other things must precede practicing musicianship, but technical matters of playing an instrument do not come up to the bar of what musicianship is. Knowing what to play is not included in musicianship, but knowing how to play and playing that way, does demonstrate musicianship.

So far I have defined musicianship in the realm of musical performance only, but musicianship can also be demonstrated by any act of music making. These include composing, improvising, and listening. In our Western art music tradition, composers create the master plan that the performers will follow during rehearsals and concerts. Because the composer imagines what the work will sound like when performed, all of the benefits of musicianship must come into play during the composing process. Phrasings and expressive details must be planned and executed in the writing of the music, and so requires musicianship. The composer builds a musical structure that the performers will animate with physical sound. Listeners then receive that sound, and must apprehend the structure and all that the composer and performers have expressed, and come to a hearing of the piece that includes the composer’s intent, the performers’ intent, and through the listeners’ own experience and musicianship, understandings of both. Listeners’ musicianship is apparent from the way they recognize musical patterns, respond emotionally to music, and remember motifs, themes, phrases and melodies. Musicianship is practiced wherever knowledge, skill, and artistic sensitivity, to borrow from the Random House Dictionary, are brought to bear on an act of music making.

When we are teaching students solfege, ear training, instrumental technique, sight-singing or any other musical skill, we are not teaching them musicianship, but instead preparing them to make music with musicianship. There is nothing particularly musical in an artistic sense of the singing that is done in an ear training class, or the music that is played in an early level instrument lesson. Though music is being made, it is not necessarily musical. This is because musicianship has not yet been applied to the skill of producing pitches and rhythms. Musicianship is a synthesis of music skills, accomplished in a single act of music making. We teach someone musicianship when we teach them to bring all the necessary music skills together into a performance of artistic excellence.