Sight-singing vs. Memory

NewsBlog Editor’s Note: This post is the fourth of a series written by CMIE Research Fellow Anthony Green, as part of the documentation for Green’s CMIE Research Internship. See other posts in this series here.

NEC is constantly blessed to have such people of note come visit our school as Renée Fleming, Fred Firth, and Steve Reich. Recently, Gustavo Dudamel was one of the esteemed guest, and he presented information about El Sistema, the youth orchestra in Venezuela that has been changing lives and gaining worldwide recognition. The presentation was so highly regarded by Professor Scripp that he cancelled class in order to allow his students to attend the seminars and the performances. More teachers at NEC should adopt such a caring attitude towards their students when such guests arrive. 

In a class prior to his arrival, Professor Scripp presented an anecdote to the class about when he and one of his former students met Gustavo Dudamel. According to the professor, his student was so enthusiastic about solfege that he still remembered (and this is the key word to this whole anecdote) some of the exercises that he worked on with Scripp. I do not remember if Scripp also solfeged for Dudamel, but the highlight of the anecdote is when Dudamel himself waxes poetically about solfege and orally presents his own results of diligent study to his adoring fans: he starts to solfege a fast movement from a Tchaikovsky symphony (I believe it is number 4, the scherzo movement). Amazingly, his syllables were perfect, his pitch was also to be admired – it was obvious that he was a successful student of solfege, and that this technique has shaped his development as a musician.

Gustavo Dudamel story – audio

But something about this charming monologue left a sour taste in my mouth. I had never thought about the real difference between sight-singing and solfege until now. In my undergrad at Boston University, I learned solfege in a “stight-singing” course. We were expected, more or less, to sight-sing. With this in mind, it was strange that Professor Scripp’s former student had learned some of these exercises so well that he remembered them after being away from them for quite a while. I felt the same about Dudamel’s breathtaking impromptu performance. Obviously, these pieces were not sight-read. They were memorized.

It brings up two very important questions pertinent to this course:

  • 1) how important a role should memory play as an element in teaching solfege and why?
  • 2) how does memory reinforce general sight-reading and solfege skills?
  • Before delving into these issues more, in that very same class, the students were going over an exercise that contained a quick passage: mi! mi-re-do-si-la-do-si-la-mi! re! do-mi-do-la-mi – – mi – – la! By the end of the class, I heard the melody so much that I could sing it without ever having seen the notated music. I cannot even mention where the exercise is from and who composed it! This experience is akin to listening to a snippet of a pop-song on someone else’s iPod, and remembering it because the snippet contained one motive repeated many times. I raised the issue in class; if I remembered this and executed the exercise as well as the students in class, yet I did not see the music at all, then what method of teaching is more important? Furthermore, if the only goal desired in the end is to be able to execute the exercise, then what should stop a student from simply applying pure memorization to the exercises, thus inhibiting sight-singing ability?

    Additionally, other comments were made about velocity. One of the students expressed concerns about not being able to solfege a certain group of syllables fast enough. Professor Scripp then proceeded to teach the students how to practice learning how to increase solfege velocity. His method, which is based on grouping and specific syllable emphasis, is a method of practice that corroborates directly with the process of memorization. While the technique is successful, the process of how to instantly recognize groups while sight-singing was never once even mentioned, yet alone taught.

    When I brought up such concerns, Scripp gave me an answer quickly: this is a way of involving the students in the language of solfege.

    Such an answer is great. I strongly feel that learning solfege is similar to learning a new language. The difference between learning a new language and learning solfege, however, is that no one asks you to read in your new language as fast as you can (although, such exercises should be done, as it would greatly improve conversation skills). Furthermore, it is rare to be asked to communicate in solfege, although Professor Scripp did make the students improvise musical questions and answers in solfege. More of these exercises could have been mandatory, however the fault of these exercises lies within the ability (or lack thereof) of the student to improvise a melody.

    Other ways of exposing solfege as a language to students is to force the students to sing scales and arpeggios in solfege at the beginning of each class. Such a traditionally boring approach was hinted at, and I am sure that Scripp strongly advocated such exercises to be done daily by the students on their own. Additionally, the students were advised to create “themes” in each key (see the November 20th blog “Near-perfect pitch” for details). Another process may be to sing a snippet of one’s favorite pop-song and transpose it to each key, and in the opposite mode (major goes to minor, and vice versa). Modal shifts were rare in this class (but they were done!).

    So, what role does sight-singing play in this class? A LARGE ONE! Many classes throughout the semester were sight-singing classes. The students were asked to bring in works and “teach” them to the class using solfege. Often, Professor Scripp would hold classes of reading Bach Chorales, Palestrina, Victoria, and more. The students were exposed greatly to sight-singing. Not officially having to take the final examination or to put together a portfolio, I do wonder what the faculty expects from the students in this class outside of what was made clear.

    MIE Portfolio Showcase: Multiple Personae and the Artist-Teacher-Scholar

    NewsBlog Editor’s Note: This post is the first of a series in which MIE Concentration students have volunteered to share excerpts of their emergent MIE course portfolios. Graduate student Bianca Garcia has graciously volunteered to be our first portfolio example.

    This blog is a sneak peek of my MIE511 Portfolio entitled, “Multiple Personas”.  In my portfolio I will attempt to define the concept of a “Persona”, describe my own personas as an artist, private teacher, and outreach performer, as well as answering the main inquiry I had throughout my time in the MIE Graduate Seminar with Professor Larry Scripp. 

    The first chapter of my portfolio will feature my mission statement. It also will feature two inquiries: What is a “Persona”? & How does one best divide time between teacher and student activity in performance outreach?  Furthermore, the first chapter will highlight excerpts of my answers to Prof. Scripp’s “Persona Questionnaire.” 

    The second chapter will give a perspective of my persona as a private flute teacher.  Towards the end of the MIE511 Graduate Seminar I obtained a new flute student, which gave me a chance to create a new persona as an Artist-Teacher-Scholar.  The role of the “Scholar” had been revealed to me by an in-class portfolio exhibit by Laura Umbro.  The concept of documentation in private lessons was impressed upon my mind and as a result, I formulated a “Lesson and Practice Notes” guide that would provide documentation of student progress, as well as foster the student’s own persona as an artist-scholar.  It also implements the Learning Through Music (LTM) Five Fundamental Processes that are intrinsic to fully engaged learning in music.  Another reason for my creation of the aforementioned guide was because my philosophy on private lessons had been stimulated by words of Mihalyi Csikszentmihalyi.  Below is part of a Double Entry I had written (with Csikszentmihalyi’s quotes on the right and my words on the left).


    Quotes: Comments:
    “…if an organism learns to find a positive experience in doing something that stretches its ability…you’re likely to learn new things, to become better at what you’re doing, to invent new things, to discover new things.” This quote describes the quintessential pedagogy—one that stretches a student’s ability through positive experience.  This positive working energy spawns other excess work, such as learning more than is required, becoming better than required, inventing new ways to overcome obstacles and discovering on their own, outside of lessons.
    “When you begin to enjoy things that go beyond survival, then there’s more of a chance to transform yourself and to evolve.” Enjoying things that go beyond survival- in terms of a music student’s survival means avoiding being thrown out of a teacher’s studio.  Instead, if a student gets beyond survival and starts evolving and can hear their playing transform—then they’ll be enjoying themselves!

    Finally, my portfolio will feature my persona as an outreach performer.  Again material from my Persona Questionnaire will be displayed, this time including real-life experiences from my many years of performance outreach.  It also will feature a special chart I made that covers outreach performances from 2002 until this year and shows the ratio of performer versus audience activity in each outreach and documents a steady direction I have taken in dividing activity between the two.  The creation of this chart was made in response to my main inquiry and with inspiration from various articles recommended by Prof. Scripp and colleagues in my MIE511 class.  Among these articles was “Crossing Boundaries” by Gail Burnaford in which she describes Music-In-Education as “entrepreneurship”.  According to this simile, Music-In-Education would then require creativity, pioneering, and fulfilling needs.  I believe this description would find a parallel in the Artist-Teacher-Scholar framework as fulfilling needs definitely aligns with the persona of an artist, creativity with a teacher, and pioneering with a scholar.  Another article I read from class suggestion was “The Teaching Artist and the Artistry of Teaching” by Eric Booth.  In this article, Booth quotes an old adage: “80% of teaching is who you are”.  This quote struck me and caused me to reflect on my former collaboration with the From the Top radio show.  I started an internship with the From the Top radio show’s Education department at the beginning of Spring Semester; however, I had formerly been a From the Top “cultural leader” as a teen flutist.  Something about the experience had felt really powerful and meaningful.  I was not a certified educator and had never taught a class, but children in schools that I had visited enthusiastically received my performance- wanting to hear more than I had prepared, wrote letters to me that looked up to me as a person, and expressed their desires to start playing my instrument.  Later, I learned From the Top’s mission through their education program—“we provide a platform for young artists to present themselves, share their passion, and develop into inspirational peer models.”  These aspects of teaching shine through outreach performance.  They both also relate to one’s persona as an outreach performer.  Musicians in any educational setting are role models, as teachers or visitors, and children are imitators and balls of energy; therefore, we must be at the peak of our behavior and musicianship while presenting for them and our presentations must involve them.

    To find my “Practice and Lesson Notes” guide, its basis in the LTM framework, and the Ratio of Student/Teacher Activity chart, look at the attachments below.

  • Lesson & Practice Notes Guide [DOC]
  • LTM Five Processes in “Lesson & Practice Notes” Guide [DOC]
  • Chart of Outreach Activity Ratio [DOC]

    -Bianca Garcia

    Bianca Garcia is a graduate flute performance major. An alumna of the Curtis Institute of Music and NPR’s “From The Top” radio program, Bianca has long been involved with performance outreach and is finishing her first year in New England Conservatory’s Music-In-Education Concentration program.

  • The Enterprise of Music and Learning

    From the Journal for Music-in-Education:

    This first section of the Journal for Music-in-Education tells the stories of several musical artists at different points in their careers: a promising young composer, a celebrated concert pianist, an extensively recorded improvisation artist, and a recent conservatory graduate embarking on a career in world music.

    These portraits are not intended to foreground the impressive trajectory of their musical accomplishments, but rather to draw out a clearer understanding of how a life in music can be defined by the deep yearning to learn, teach, serve, and connect with others. These portraits show—in the words of the artists themselves and in commentary from their mentors and peers—that musical endeavors take on greater depth through a broad range of social encounters, role modeling, reflective thinking, and community involvement, all of which are becoming better understood as essential to the successful education of the performing artist in society today.

    Thus, the enterprise of learning music for the highly trained artist, as represented in these chapters, takes on a particular significance as a “transformative”model for public school education. Time-lapse documentation of Julia Carey’s childhood notations presents an intriguing mosaic of how children’s understanding of music evolves over time. Yet her simultaneously expanding interests in academic excellence and role modeling through community engagement provide the larger picture of a musician preparing herself for rich and mutually satisfying connections to people and thus for meaningful contributions to society itself. Lorin Hollander’s precocious sense of music’s interdisciplinary association with physics,literature,and psychology and his depiction of personal transformation through mentorship can help educators appreciate the potential contributions of musical understanding to young children’s cognitive, aesthetic, and social-emotional wellness and to the solution of systemic social problems, such as the disillusionment ofour youth,cultural intolerance, or violence in our schools and among nations.

    The divergent roles musicians play in society is also emphasized in the reflections by Michael Cain and Randy Wong. Both provide extensive detail of their experiences sidestepping their early classical training and choosing to “take delight”in exploring other forms of musical genre and culture. Here again, the evolving models of musicians and music in education are seen from the perspective of how engagement in ensemble improvisation and world music outside the conventions of classical traditions can support our youth, who yearn to connect contemporary modes and media of self-expression to our changing society,as Mr.Cainputs it,“around the world and around the block.”

    Former MIE Student Returns from U.S. State Department Tour as American Musical Envoy

    Drummer and percussionist Richie Barshay graduated from NEC in 2005. Originally from West Hartford, Connecticut, Barshay has spent the last few years touring and performing with jazz icon Herbie Hancock’s project, “Gershwin’s World,” and as the newest member of Hancock’s quartet. Barshay just returned from a U.S. State Department tour of India, Pakistan, and Bangladesh.

    What was your impetus for getting involved with MIE?

    I taught private lessons [while] in high school, but I basically had aspirations like a lot of musicians to do some teaching at some point. My freshman year [at NEC], I was just interested in learning more than I already knew and getting some ideas. I took one MIE class each semester, with Larry Scripp and Warren Senders. Those classes were really mind-opening, and I’m still in good touch with Warren.

    Tell us about what the outreach portion of the trip looked like, and how your MIE studies contributed to your experiences abroad.

    The toughest part was that there was a big variation of the kids we were performing for. At the American School (Dhaka, Bangladesh), we worked with students from 3rd grade up through 9th grade. The students had only a little exposure to the type of music we were playing, but they had pretty much no knowledge of clave rhythms of Afro-Cuban/Afro-Caribbean music. We’ve been playing together for close to 10 years, and we’ve done a fair number of workshops at schools, so we know from experience how important it is to stay open to playing things by ear. I’d say that we improvise as much while playing as we do when teaching different concepts.

    My [MIE] classes with Warren (Senders) are what have influenced me the most as a teacher, especially as far as the mental aspects of my teaching are concerned. Warren teaches that being open-ended with lesson plans can help to deal with expectations within a classroom; for example, thinking of (and treating) an hour-long lesson as if it were a free improvisation.

    We did a workshop at Brac University in Bangladesh in which we asked students to come up and play some of the rhythm instruments we were talking about. But instead a university student came up with his rock guitar and said he wanted to play “Hotel California,” so we ended up using some of our Afro-Caribbean rhythms in an improvised version of that song.

    What specific aspect(s) of the MIE program have most informed who you are as an Artist-Teacher-Scholar?

    Again, my work with Warren Senders and Jerry Leake have proven the most influential. In Warren’s “Cross Cultural” [MIE 351] class, I learned about the difference in the vibe between attending an Indian classical concert vs. hearing someone play at the Regattabar. [In an Indian setting], musicians take 15 minutes to tune their instruments, all the while sitting on the floor with no shoes. Warren showed us how different but how still valid other cultures and their musical techniques are. In other words, you and your students can use these different techniques to do something, but aim towards the same kind of expression. I learned from Warren and Jerry that, through aural training and oral tradition, there is no ‘right vs. wrong’ way of doing things. And naturally, when we were in India we would compare roles of instruments in the Latin jazz context to those in an Indian classical context.

    What place do you think the MIE program has in the culture of NEC, and in the larger community of training future professional musicians?

    I did both the MIE program and Tonja Maggi’s Performance Outreach program at NEC. Tonja Maggi was incredibly helpful as well, and doing her program helped to build on what I had already learned in my MIE classes.

    MIE is really about knowing how and when to be asking questions. It really helps performers to develop a personality–ways of speaking and communicating [to audiences] that are really accessible. The program helps you get to a point where you don’t have to think about talking to a specific audience, you just speak and act like who you are..

    Interview by Randy Wong.

    Schweitzer Fellow Reflects on MIE Program Experience

    Mezzo-soprano Monica Soto-Gil, recipient of a Albert Schweitzer Fellowship, is a senior at NEC and is highly active in the MIE Concentration program; in fact, she designed her Schweitzer outreach project so that it could be integrated with the MIE Concentration. Monica’s Schweitzer project involved teaching preschool music classes for a year at the Hattie B. Cooper Community Center in Roxbury, MA. As music teacher, Monica introduced basic musical concepts, different genres of music, and various instruments to youth from just under three to age six. We caught up with Monica and asked her to reflect on her joint Schweitzer-MIE experience.

    What aspect(s) of the MIE Concentration Program have most informed your work at the Hattie B. Cooper Community Center during your Schweitzer Fellowship?

    The open relationships with MIE teachers and students have been very helpful. The MIE department is an environment where there is a lot of room for sharing and discussion. The community is very supportive, and I can always rely on teachers such as Paul Burdick to bounce ideas off of. It has given me the liberty to really establish my goals and objectives and get the most out of my project.

    How has your work as a Schweitzer Fellow informed who you are as an artist, and as an MIE student?

    The Artist-Teacher-Scholar model has been a great source of inspiration. The idea that the three concepts are inextricably linked has helped me in all three areas, especially while working in a school in the community. I am able to use the knowledge I have gained in the field in class and can bring more to discussions. . As an artist, I feel more focused. I have a better understanding of why I pursued this field–of how I can help the community through my art and how the community can help me become a better artist as well. It has been a humbling experience.

    To what extent do you see your involvement in the MIE program as central to your work as an artist?

    If nothing else, being in the MIE department shows that one more person is interested not only in practicing and winning a job, but in education,, in fortifying the relationships between places like conservatories and their communities. Sharing music with a wide variety of people makes me a better artist; when I hear music through varied ears, I can understand it better, gain different perspectives on it. Showing that this is an essential part of being a performing musician is important to me as an artist, central to my work. Music, especially classical music, is not reaching a very large part of our community. Very often I hear complaints that it is dying.. Education is one of the most effective ways of bringing music to our communities, showing kids how music is accessible and fun. Without us sharing our enthusiasm, they have no reason to see the versatility of music and its place in their lives. They can’t miss what they don’t know is there. I think the MIE department is supportive of that.

    What are your future plans in music and education?

    After graduation in May, I plan to continue teaching voice and choir at Zumix, an arts organization in East Boston, and will get a teaching certification before going to graduate school for a Masters in Performance. I hope to one day be a part of an opera outreach program.

    Interview by MIE Advisor Randy Wong