Solfege as a confidence-builder

NewsBlog Editor’s Note: This post is the seventh 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.  

Throughout this process of observing the Solfege for Singers class at New England Conservatory, it has become clear that solfege is simply not just a way for people to sight-sing melodies without words. Solfege transcends many musical processes in that it can be applied to other musical and non-musical aspects of one’s life. Musically, it can be used to solidify pitch relationships, develop a sense of perfect pitch, analyze music in a deep, clear fashion, sharpen intonation either in the voice or on instruments where applicable, fortify one’s music theory skills, provide a foundation in score reading, and much more that I am probably forgetting or have mentioned in previous blogs. Outside of music, it can enhance one’s articulation and pronunciation, enhance one’s development of pattern recognition, quicken translation processes if applicable, sharpen internalization skills, and much more that I am most likely forgetting or have mentioned in previous blogs.

Another non-musical element of solfege that perhaps is overlooked by most students is how solfege can be used to build one’s musical confidence, which will ultimately result in the confidence building of other elements in one’s life. Musical confidence is definitely necessary in every aspect of a musician’s life. When performing, if not confident above everything else, then uncertainty will lead to mistakes. As a composer, if one is not confident about the composed material, then that discomfort will show in the design of the piece, and will most likely result in a poor design and a minimal expression of what the composer originally intended. Lack of confidence as a conductor can ruin the sense of ensemble amongst a group, and create a sense of anxiety that will ultimately lead to a poor performance. In essence, confidence is a crucial element to being a musician.

With solfege, if studied enough, a student gains a sense of pitch confidence. When sight-singing with a group of people – perhaps a motet or a Bach chorale – the sense of pitch confidence leads to a sense of being a crucial, important element of a larger community. This feeling of being needed can easily translate into a desire to be confident in other aspects of life. But it also allows the singer to listen to others, discover relationships within the piece being sight-read, tune to other pitches, work together as a group, and listen to the music as MUSIC! With this idea in mind, extreme concentration while sight-singing in fact is a sign of pitch unconfidence. Extreme concentration leads to a singer not listening to anyone else but him or herself, not tuning to others, and only hearing one part of the music. Yes, concentration is a good thing, but the confidence must be had initially in order for the correct kind of concentration to be had.

The confidence gained from solfege also translates into the confidence needed as a teacher. In the final projects of the class, the students had to choose works from their repertoire or other sources to teach to the class. In doing so, the student had to seriously think about how to teach the musical material to the class using solfege. What methods should be used? What should be worked on first? How does one know when to put the whole piece together? What is the analysis of the piece, and how can that be communicated to the students? Where can contextual conducting be applied in the music? These and more questions should have been examined by the students before presenting their final projects.

While most of these questions transcend the basic idea of solfege, the underlying reason for these questions comes from solfege. If adequately thought out, answering these questions builds an extreme amount of confidence, enough to stand up in front of your classmates and teach them what you have discovered. These projects are directly congruent to matters of confidence in performance, composing, and definitely conducting, and ultimately in job interviews, public speaking, and teaching. Out of this list, one element is bound to relate to one’s own personal goals. But one must ask the question for him or herself: how can I use solfege to gain confidence? In answering the question, one must study solfege in the way that Scripp suggests, and perhaps even develop methods of teaching for oneself based on personal knowledge of what works and what does not.

Professor Scripp has briefly gone over this use of solfege with his students, and articulated it to me in an interview. Throughout the semester, there were students who did have a drastic increase of confidence in solfege ability, and it was pleasant to observe life changing for the better in this fashion.

Language, Culture, and Solfege

NewsBlog Editor’s Note: This post is the sixth 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.  

It is always exciting to observe or be pleasantly surprised by behaviors and phenomena that are unexpected in research projects. With that, it would never have occurred to me before commencing this project to examine the relationship between language, culture, and solfege. This relationship, which made itself pleasantly obvious throughout the semester, is something which, in my opinion, should be explored in a second installation of this guided internship. For now, I can only recall the nucleic observations which will hopefully spawn a larger organism in the future. 

It is a well-known fact that learning a language is best done at a young age, when the mind unconsciously soaks in information without formally “studying” it. The mind is simply immersed in a new, unfamiliar environment, and is forced to adapt to its surroundings for survival. In this case, when you are young, and you are hungry, and you are in an English and French speaking household, you know that you can say, “I’m hungry” or “J’ai faim”, and something will come of it. The best part about learning a language through immersion at a young age is that you do not “study” the grammar, the article agreement (if any), the tenses, the cases, the vocabulary, the idioms, and the other idiosyncrasies of language. You just learn it. You speak it. People correct you, and you rarely make the mistake again. This is how fluency is gained. 

When studying a language for the first time as an older person, especially after the age of 12 or 13, it is harder to keep everything together. Learning a language then becomes more of a process of memory rather information-soaking and internalizing. When speaking, the learner more often then not thinks of what he or she wants to say first in English and then translates. The learner doesn’t simply know how to think in that language. When learning a language at the university level (at least this has been my experience), immersion is attempted by having language classes three times per week. A language student should have as much exposure to the new language as possible to guarantee the highest amount of immersion necessary. 

One can easily start to find parallels from the above. At Boston University where I learned solfege (in a rather haphazard way because the “ear-training and sight-singing program at BU, which teaches “fixed do” solfege, is mostly ignored and taught by ill-trained graduate students), I did not even think to relate learning a language to solfege. But retrospectively, I can truly say that my lack of immersion in solfege before BU has definitely hindered my ability to truly internalize it as a fluid language. At BU, I used a process of translation to get through my exercises. This process may actually be beneficial, and it is popular: whenever I sang my melodies, I played the piece on the piano in my head while singing it, and figured out the solfege syllables in that manner. This is nothing new or unique. Students use this technique all the time, most of the time developing it on their own, such as myself, Eric Smith (a student at NEC) and many of my friends, and perhaps some of you readers. 

But is this a good thing or is it a process that truly blocks the internalization process? If personally this process is quick enough for a sight-singer to execute melodies at correct tempi, then this process should be utilized. In essence, this translation process is not, nor ever will be, the same as being able to look at a note on a staff (or ledger line) and say its correct syllable without visualizing an instrument, hands, tables, etc … The translation process becomes even more demanding when reading in different clefs. Not only is the language of solfege getting in the way, but the pattern-language of the clef is shifted. This can perhaps be related to reading books in written in different accents, like Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston. Or better yet, being a native of Korea, learning English for the first time at the age of 15, and attempting to read The King James version of The Holy Bible. 

When a student is immersed in solfege, then the ability is completely, COMPLETELY different! There were students in the “Solfege for Singers” class who learned solfege at an early age. These students were not American. This is where the cultural element comes into play. In my student interviews, so far all of the Americans had little next to no exposure to “fixed do” before post-secondary instruction. Additionally, the little solfege exposure received was usually in passing, and of course in “moveable do”. Admittedly, my only exposure to solfege was singing that annoying popular song from The Sound of Music. Culturally, English is one of the only languages where the names of the notes are letters rather syllables. Other cultures, when it comes to solfege, do not separate between ‘a’ and ‘la’. In other languages, ‘a’ is just a letter and ‘la’ is the pitch. That’s that. 

In other words, other cultures internalize the syllables naturally. There is no process of translation occurring. Listening to the students in class who have internalized these syllables was a source of inspiration to other students, and me as well! It is always magical to see people solfeging at superhuman levels of speed. At the same time, observing these students really made it clear to me how much solfege is linked to language and culture. I have heard stories about the rigorous solfeging exercises at the Paris Conservatoire, and have thanked my lucky stars that I did not have to undergo such training. In the same breath, I wonder why America has not yet picked up on this solfeging tradition. I wonder what type of musician I would be if I was as good at solfege as the students who have internalized the syllables. But I must say, I am not questioning my musicianship, just my solfeging abilities.

One final thought: the Solfege for Singers class at New England Conservatory is held three times a week.

Syllables without pitch?

NewsBlog Editor’s Note: This post is the fifth 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.

To continue with the idea of “teaching” the language to students, Professor Scripp has utilized some methods that almost seem contradictory to the goals. Other than exercise memorization, exercise “rehearsal” or “practice”, and contextual conducting, another questionable pedagogical method is having students speak the syllables of a sight-singing exercise without pitch.

Initially, this sounds like a great idea. One of the biggest problems for most Americans learning solfege (as I have mentioned before) is getting around our non-use of syllables from childhood or switching from the American “moveable do” system to the more ecumenical “fixed do” system, which both have their own problems. Therefore, any way to simply expose Americans to syllable practice should ideally be a good thing. Secondly, this sounds like a good idea because it rids sight-singing of a difficult element – pitch. When sight-singing after not having been exposed to solfege in childhood, associating pitch with syllables can be a confusing, daunting task. Any method which simplifies elements of sight-singing should ideally be a strong pedegogical tool. Lastly, this sounds like a good idea because, without the pitch element, one can work on syllable-recognition velocity, which is difficult to do when simultaneously singing. By isolating the element of syllable-concentration, then the ability to rapidly internalize and enunciate pitches should ideally develop via strict syllable practice. When isolation occurs in any type of practice, the subject of the focus should ideally be elucidated.

Such is not the case with everyone. People, no matter how much public education strives to view students as learning equals, learn at different paces, on different levels, and in different ways. The strengths of one person might not neccessarily be the strengths of another. Therefore, this method may work for those for whom pitch does not pose a problem. On the contrary, if pitch is a problem for a student, then does this method hurt or hinder that student?

As stated before, the two most popular solfege systems – “fixed do” and “moveable do” (other methods exist, for ex. numbers) – present their own problems. In “moveable do”, the tonic syllable “do” can be applied to any note, and each chromatic step has its own syllables that relate to the “fundamental” diatonic syllable. I’m not completely sure of the correct syllables, but an example of this phenomenon can be seen in the syllables “fa” and “fi”. Either “fi” is “fa” sharp or flat, but in any case one can see that it is a variant of the fundamental syllable. In “moveable do”, each syllable has a sharp or flat variant. But what happens when one encounters double-sharps and double-flats? And what happens when one modulates or tonicizes? Should a new “do” be created, or should one solfege using the variant syllables? Furthermore, it is wonderful that “moveable do” solidifies the relationships between chromatic intervals and their fundamentals, but what does one do when solfeging serial or atonal melodies and harmonies? This is the year 2007, and solfege should incorporate the difficult, atonal melodies that can even be found in works from composers such as Wolf, Scriabin, and late Liszt, to the composers of today.

“Fixed do” assigns one syllable to each note of the C major scale. For example, C is “do”, D is “re”, E is “mi”, etc… When sight-singing, any chromatic variant of the note is sung with the syllable of the fundamental note. For example, C, C-sharp, and C-flat are all “do”. The best thing about this system is that each key area is seperated. The key of F major or minor is the key of “fa” major or minor. The tonic, therefore, would be “fa”, and the distinction between the key of “do” and other keys is maintained. But chromaticism is not fully honed. Having a system where one syllable can be 5 different pitches (double flat, flat, natural, sharp, and double sharp) can be quite confusing when dealing with pitch relationships. For example, the interval of a perfect fourth uses the same syllables as the interval of an augmented fourth (tritone) and a diminished fourth (major third). As a student of solfege, singing “do – fa” as a perfect fourth, a tritone, or a diminished fourth can really negatively affect one’s sense of interval relationship. But, this system does allow for sight-singing atonal melodies with facility.

With this being said, consider the following: student A has pitch problems, but his syllable-recognition is strong. Student B has perfect pitch, but has many problems with syllables. If student A sings syllables without pitches, then he is just developing his strength. But in doing so, his pitch problems actually get worse because of “fixed do”‘s problem of the lack of chromatic relationship distinctions. Student A will sing the syllables, and get used to the feeling of articulating the syllables with velocity. But adding the pitch relationship afterward will be very difficult. Student B, on the other hand, will get used to singing the syllables without pitch, and acquire a grounded knowledge of how these quick syllables feel. When adding the pitch at the end, the syllables may improve his pitch accuracy because of the association of pitch with sound. In observing Professor Scripp’s class, I have found that this is the case.

In conclusion, pedagogical methods – especially for solfege – have both their faults and their attributes. What is important is not necessarily the methods themselves, but the order in which the methods are introduced to the students. In other words, students should be at certain points melodically before working on the rhythmic or syllabic aspects of solfege. In my observations, pitch problems have been the biggest deterent in a student’s ability to complete a sight-singing exercise. Once a student is unsure of the pitch, that is when the hesitation happens, the rhythmic problems arise, and the syllables begin to be replaced with “lah” or “doo” or “ah” or some incomprehensible onomatopoeia. In the end, any method that develops an aspect of solfege should be exposed to a solfege student. The question is simply “WHEN?”

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.

    Contextual Conducting – pros and cons

    NewsBlog Editor’s Note: This post is the third 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.

    It is truly extraordinary how conducting encompasses a vast range of approaches, techniques, and styles not only from what certain musics and instrumentations need and do not need, but also from people’s personal preferences, interpretations, and biases. For example, a conductor should not approach orchestral conducting in the same way one approaches choral conducting or big band conducting. Because of the different instrumentations and the needs that these ensembles imply, one will usually find different conducting courses for these ensembles (Intro to Orchestral Conducting, Wind Ensemble Conducting Techniques, Choral Conducting II: emphasizing the ictus, etc…) Furthermore, one person’s style of conducting a Beethoven symphony can completely differ from another’s. This is one good reason why there is not one definitive recording of each symphony. In my opinion (as well as others), the ensemble is the conductor’s instrument.

    But can the same be said about contextual conducting as it is used with solfege? As stated in a previous post, contextual conducting is a method in which the conductor chooses hand gestures and specific subdivisions that best represent the music. To further elaborate on this idea, contextual conducting prompts the “energy” of subdivisions (energy is a term of Professor Scripp). For example, if one is conducting a sight-singing exercise in a 3/4 time signature, and encounters a beat one containing a dotted-eighth rest and a sixteenth note, if the conducting before this measure only required a normal pattern of quarter notes, then the pattern will change to include the eighth-note subdivision for the beat one of this particular measure. Additionally, whenever the music implies a need for a foundation from which a new energy should spring, one should change the pattern to reflect this energy. In essence, the conducting pattern changes to reflect the diverse contexts that the music implies. Hence, contextual conducting.

    Professor Scripp emphasizes the importance of not only conducting while sight-singing, but also utilizing contextual conducting to further understand the placement of notes that may be slightly irregular (quick notes coming from a tie, syncopated, etc…). Also partly acting as a student, I have had the opportunity to try out the methods that Professor Scripp advocates and uses himself. Of course he has had much more experience than his students as he has been working in this realm for a while. He also teaches solfege, which is a great way of strengthening any knowledge that you already posses. I am amazed at his use of contextual conducting because, after trying it, I realize how difficult it is! It is hard enough to conduct in regular patterns and sight-sing simultaneously, but applying the changing patterns of contextual conducting along with sight-singing is a circus act to me!

    For the sake of establishing a better context, most Americans do not grow up with solfege syllables as notes, and when Americans do, they usually learn a moveable-do system with “ti” instead of “si” for the note B. Therefore, when solfege is studied in American institutions, not only are the students required to learn a most-likely unfamiliar system, but also they are expected to become fluid and adept in this system while conducting. To perform an adequate sight-singing session, the student’s mind is required to sing with good pitch (which is rather difficult if you are not a singer, and do not have a good vocal range, and do not have good vocal technique), sing with correct syllables (which becomes tricky with key modulations, accidentals, transpositions, unfamiliar clefs, and of course quick notes), sing with correct rhythm, and conduct at the same time. The mind must be applied to four different processes simultaneously! Without contextual conducting, this process is hard enough. The idea behind conducting is that eventually one is supposed to know the patterns well enough to not think about them. The pattern serves as a metronome. However, when contextual conducting is applied, then the conducting and the rhythmic element of the sight-singing should become one entity.

    What happens for me, however, is that I cannot apply all four elements simultaneously – pitch, syllables, and rhythm while singing, along with contextual conducting. It is difficult for me sometimes to concentrate on the syllables alone, let alone concentrating on the additional elements. Before continuing, I must admit that I do not actively practice these techniques. While I participate in the classes, I am officially not a student of this class, and am not required to keep a journal, take a final exam, practice the exercises, sing in class, and do other student tasks. Therefore, from my perspective, it is difficult for me to see how contextual conducting aids in the sight-singing process.

    Sight-singing, by definition, is something that should not be “practiced” per se. Sight-singing is like sight-reading; the musician should be able to more or less reproduce certain notated musical ideas instantaneously. Like anything, sight-singing, as well as sight-reading, should be developed via hard work and study. However, the main goal should be to see a piece of music and play or sing it, nothing more, nothing less. Working on this goal leads to forward-motion on the paths towards other goals as well. But working on sight-singing should mean that the student wants to become better at instantaneous music production on his or her main instrument.

    The added element of contextual conducting creates uncertainties for me. Firstly, in class, Professor Scripp has mentioned that there are different ways to execute contextual conducting. The method is not standardized, which creates one element of confusion. Secondly, even after practicing the contextual conducting, most of the students in the class still have not fully understood this concept. Thirdly, the students in this class practice their exercises to the point where their “sight-singing” coupled with contextual conducting is at a high-level. However, how much is memory involved in these “sight-singing” performances? Can the student produce an equally great performance of a difficult “sight-singing” passage without practicing it? Most of these concerns will be examined deeper in other blogs.

    On the other hand, almost everything in music is possible if practiced long enough and correctly. Contextual conducting solidifies rhythm by placing difficult rhythms in an easier context. Imagine a piece of graphing paper with a complex line running horizontally across. The smaller the boxes are on the graph paper, the less complex the line becomes. Contextual conducting is a musical way of reducing the “size of the boxes.” Furthermore, contextual conducting strengthens normal conducting by adding an extra-musical element to an otherwise repetitious, emotionless pattern-beating routine. When Professor Scripp demonstrates his understanding and application of contextual conducting, he shows the students variations on how the different “energies” can be represented in the pattern. He also shows how they can be represented in other ways which corroborate with the expressive elements of music in general (for example, a breath, the widening of the eye, a sigh, a twist of the hand, etc…) The students consequently improve as singers, sight-singers, and conductors in the end; they improve as all-around musicians.

    Another wonderful element to contextual conducting, which has not been examined at length in the classes that I have observed, is it can be used to change one’s rhythmic perception. For example, if difficult rhythms of a sight-singing exercise are mostly found in the second half of the measure, assuming the exercise is in 4/4, then the student may find it easier to imagine the exercise in a combined meter of 2/4 plus 1/4 plus 1/4. This altered rhythmic perception not only makes the contextual conducting easier, but it does not change the result for the listener. In fact, it will strengthen the accuracy of rhythm, and ultimately the execution of the exercise. Such a skill is just another version of reducing the “size of the boxes”, and it can be applied to any piece of music. This skill will prove helpful for vocalists singing Crumb, Berg, Ligeti, for pianists playing Carter, Boulez, Stockhausen, Ives, Nancarrow, and for any other musician performing works with complex rhythmic elements that are not found in most music before the 20th century.

    In the end, what can be done about contextual conducting? Standardize it and teach it one way? This will not prove useful. Conducting itself is not standardized, so contextual conducting cannot be either. Completely eliminate it from the curriculum? That would prove detrimental to the sight-singing program at New England Conservatory, to Professor Scripp’s work (as well as other professors), and the students who have adopted this technique into their practice. Perhaps contextual conducting should be taught in a manner that provides students with an option to use it. Therefore, the student will gain what the student can gain from it without having it affect his or her grade if this technique is not fully internalized.

    Solfege for Singers – Near-Perfect Pitch

    NewsBlog Editor’s Note: This post is the second 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.

    Perfect pitch, absolute pitch, relative pitch – all terms thrown around meaning basically one thing: if someone says to someone else, “Sing an ‘A’!” this person can probably do it. Of course, some can do it more accurately than others. More often than not, such a skill is used by those born with this unique ability. For instance, some of my friends have such a sensitive perfect pitch that they can name the notes of the partials of a tire squeaking as it skids. These very same friends of mine have great intonation when performing, and can tune guitars and other string instruments without a piano, a tuning fork, a pitch pipe, an electronic tuner, or other devices which may or may not be readily available when tuning. 

    Can solfege be a step in developing such a unique technique? According to a study done by the University of California, San Francisco, absolute or perfect pitch is defined as thus: “Absolute pitch, commonly referred to as perfect pitch, is an intriguing cognitive trait involved in music perception and is defined as the ability to identify the pitch of a musical tone without an external reference pitch. To be considered an absolute pitch possessor, an individual must have the ability to identify pitches accurately and instantaneously.” It is a purely cognitive ability, which implies that it is a trait relating to one’s process of perception and memory. 

    In Professor Scripp’s Solfege for Singers class, the students are asked to remember “themes” – the beginning tonic excerpts of popular, tonal works – in different keys. Over the course of this semester, most of the sight-singing exercises used have been in the key of C-major. For this key, the student used a Mozart theme from the Marriage of Figaro – sol-sol mi, sol-sol mi, sol-sol fa re, fa-fa re, fa-fa re, fa-fa mi do. Such an easy melody, whether known before the class or learned in less than 10 seconds during class, has made for an extremely accessible C-major theme for one’s memory. Without having heard a note in the class, Professor Scripp will pull out an exercise, have the students examine it, then ask the students to “sing our theme in C-major.” Without fail, every student will more or less begin on the same note. And during the 3 or 4 seconds of singing the theme, the tonic is eventually established and agreed upon. All of this is done without playing the piano, using a tuning fork, a pitch pipe, an electric tuner – in other words, “without an external pitch reference.” 

    These observations have lead me to believe that a goal of solfege, relating to the one the class has already established of reinforcing one’s relative pitch, is to develop or discover an absolute pitch ability within oneself. I have not observed any discoveries in the class as of yet, but I have observed the development of an excellent pitch memory in a couple of students in the class. Knowing that absolute pitch is a cognitive ability, solfege can greatly aid in pitch memory to a point where one can ask someone else, “Do you have a G memorized?”, and this person can respond by singing the Marriage of Figaro theme’s first pitch. After this very basic step, two steps can be taken: 1) the solfege student can develop a excellent relative pitch, which would not only include the ability to sing any interval up or down from the memorized pitch, but also include the ability to reduce intervals to their shortest distances. For example, when I sing an A, I am inclined to sing an A4 in a falsetto. However, if I hear a E-flat2, then I need to either hear that note two octaves up or hear my A two octaves down. Such an ability has been worked on by the students in this class without directly naming this ability. (Professor Scripp encourages the students to jump octaves and sing different parts when sight reading polyphonic works.) And 2) the student can eventually memorize every pitch, and exercise this pitch memory to perfection. In a way, Professor Scripp advocates this method above others, but his method is very subtle, and works on a subconscious level. While the students have not yet sang exercise in every major and minor key yet, Professor Scripp feels it is best to memorize pieces in every key. When this was stated in class, I thought that this would be difficult. But has a music student ever contemplated the amount of repertoire stored in his or her brain? Finding tonal repertoire in each major and minor key might not be as hard as one thinks, if one is a music student. Pianists – if you have played through the beginning of each prelude of the Well-Tempered Clavier, book I or book II, then you can easily develop absolute pitch. 

    I must emphasize, however, that this was never directly stated in class, and it is not ever worked on directly in class. If one uses solfege as a method of pitch memory to develop a mild to strong absolute pitch ability, I highly suggest working with an external pitch device extensively in the beginning. I emphasize this because the “sol” in the Marriage of Figaro theme sometimes is a “sol-flat.”

    Aside: throughout the semester, I have also briefly participated as a student. The class has helped me memorized an A, a G, an E, and a C. Consequently, when one of my choirs in Providence recently sang a cappella at an elderly person’s home and I did not bring my pitch pipe, we survived.

    Solfege for Singers observations – intro and week one

    NewsBlog Editor’s Note: This post is the first 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

    Recently, I have been assigned to be apart of the research process observing the ear-training component of New England Conservatory. As one small cog in a machine of parts, my responsibility is to observe Professor Scripp’s Solfege for Singers class, which meets Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays from 5 to 6. Time is noted here because vocal chord quality is affected by many things, including time of day.

    Just a bit of background about myself, I am a 2nd year Masters student, studying Composition. I also have a 5-student piano studio, and I am a vocal coach to a local singer (who is not a student), an accompanist, and a music history and theory tutor. More about me can be found on my website:

    Week One

    My first week of this class actually started during the second week of the school year. The students and Professor Scripp were still getting acquainted with one another, and new introductions of not only me but also another MIE intern were made. This initial class began with a recap of what was discussed in the previous week, which was a general introduction into solfege.

    The students along with teacher determined that solfege is the use of syllables assigned to pitches to facilitate the ease of sight-reading, especially when singing. It can be used for different goals, such as re-enforcing one’s relative pitch, improving sight-reading, re-representing and re-articulating familiar songs, proving the accuracy of pitches during sight-singing, and more. Students solfeged “London Bridges,” and professor Scripp encouraged the students to learn from the moments of “pause.” He also established the rule that it is most important in this class, when solfeging, to get the syllable correct.

    Conducting was examined as a way to verify rhythm. Students observed what information is portrayed through conducting and how, how subdivision can solidify information in a conducting pattern, and how subdivision can aid and correct rhythm. Two main questions were reflected upon:

    1) What is rhythm?

    “Variation of beats within a given time.”

    “Beats arranged in a pattern.”

    “Placement of a note in a given time, meaning duration.”

    “Proportion, ratio, grouping.”

    “Patterns governed by periodicity.”

    and …

    2) Why do we conduct?

    “To verify where a beat should lie.”

    Professor Scripp introduced the class to contextual conducting, which is a method in which the conductor chooses hand gestures and specific subdivisions that best represent the music. Such conducting can be used not only when sight-singing, but also in warm-ups and perhaps themes.

    The breadth of information in each class is extensive, but is usually in the form of discussion rather than lecture. The students show quite a bit of enthusiasm for participation, and the atmosphere is such that mistakes are welcome and fear or embarrassment is rather low. Another wonderful aspect of this class is the varying backgrounds that the students have in music. The class is approaching a point where it can be a forum for each of the students to draw on each other’s various histories and experiences.