R – This is lengthy even for me, but please stay with me on this. I have spent over 25 years trying to put this into words, so this is not going to be brief. Many times when I have told colleagues that I don’t teach solfege to my students and that I use numbers instead, I have often been met with Baby Ruth Bar In The Swimming Pool Expression. I want to spend some time discussing my choice and why I believe it works.
Bruce Bower is a behavioral scientist who reflected on a study which is profoundly relevant to our work as teachers of musical literacy in general, and sight reading in particular. As he wrote in the Science News, June, 2010, excerpts:
Sight-reading is the ability to play sheet music on an instrument with little or no preparation. Any piano player who practices sight-reading for thousands of hours will get pretty good at it, say study coauthors Elizabeth Meinz of Southern Illinois University Edwardsville and David Hambrick of Michigan State University in East Lansing. But having a strong ability to keep different pieces of relevant information in mind while performing a task — known as working memory capacity — aids sight-reading regardless of how much someone has practiced, the psychologists report in a paper published online June 9 in Psychological Science. In the researchers’ investigation, the best sight readers combined strong working memories with tens of thousands of hours of piano practice over several decades. Working memory appears to be a capacity that gels early in life and can’t be improved much by learning. When sight-reading, a piano player’s working memory capacity may determine the extent to which he or she can prepare for upcoming moves on the keyboard by looking ahead in a music score, Meinz and Hambrick speculate. Psychologist Glenn Schellenberg of the University of Toronto Mississauga agrees. Schellenberg sees the new findings as a challenge to the influential view, championed by psychologist K. Anders Ericsson of Florida State University in Tallahassee, that expertise in sight-reading or anything else depends on skills acquired through extensive practice. Novices at a particular activity rely on general mental faculties, such as working memory, Ericsson argues. But after roughly 10 years of practice at a task such as sight-reading, he suggests, specific mental mechanisms for getting the job done emerge and general-purpose faculties are jettisoned.
In other words, working memory capacity, the multitasking component of the brain when performing a single task which requires compound synthesis, generally cannot be developed any further than what a student already possesses when they walk into your classroom, though after TEN YEARS a difference can be seen. I have been fascinated by this phenomenon for years, long before this study was published. I can work on tone for example, for an extended time in warmups and really cement it. But the moment I switch to an exercise where dexterity or diction or sight reading is concerned, tone goes back out the window because the focus and brain function transfers to a different set of skills or focus. The only way I have found to work around this is to reinforce tone so much and so incessantly that the outstanding tone becomes my singers’ default tone. In other words, my singers have transitioned tone from a “must focus on it to get it right” concept to a default, “it happens without even thinking about it” concept. When this finally occurs, it is called bypassing working memory. I have had colleagues and college professors walk into my rehearsals and comment on my choir’s tone. They often think it’s because my singers are talented or because they are well trained. Neither is true. I do the same thing each one of them do, probably not even as well. The difference is that I have transitioned their tone from the realm of working memory so that it is always in place no matter what. I have presented workshops for years on how to reimagine choral warmups as a way to entrench foundational skills, training our singers to bypass working memory in as many musical elements as possible. I’ve never been able to really articulate the need for this very well, this article does so brilliantly.
Let’s transfer this concept now to sight reading on an instrument. There is a physical dexterity required to manipulate a physical instrument into pitch. It pretty much lies there dormant until a person walks up to it and does something to it. There are four domains required to for an instrumentalist to sight read. The first is the accurate recognition of a pitch on paper. The second is the accurate recognition of the length of that note. The third is the physical manipulation of the instrument, the fourth is to do so for the successful generation of that tone. We know that intonation, phrasing, et al are the ensuing desired simultaneous steps, but for working purposes here let’s just stick with those four. So, these four steps must occur simultaneously. With our understanding of working memory, the stated fact is that doing all this at the same time – while ALSO analyzing HOW to do each of them simultaneously – cannot happen and is in fact virtually impossible for any average person. In other words: doing something while also figuring out how to do that something does not happen simultaneously. It can not. How do we overcome this impossibility? Simple: transfer the first three domains over to automatic pilot. I go back to the researcher’s findings above: the best sight readers combined strong working memories with tens of thousands of hours of practice. That’s why we insist that there is no alternative to practicing in general, and sight reading in particular. I am familiar with the saying and so are you, that you learn to sight read by doing it. This is why. The prerequisite to success is a mastery of those first three domains. If you have to think about what the note is, or you have to think about how to play that low D with the first and third valves in order to do it, you can’t get there from here. The first two domains are music theory skills that must be developed regardless of instrument. The third domain is the application of the instrument. Let’s focus on that now as it relates to the human voice.
I have had 21 student teachers in my career. To varying degrees, they each had one thing in common: their biggest challenge was hearing multiple voice parts independently when performing simultaneously. The mere act of “hearing” a written note is complex. It gets even more complex when determining issues of intonation. Not whether or not something is in tune or not, but the degree to which it is out of tune. Throw in the qualifier of understanding and being able to articulate WHY something is out of tune, and you have on your hands a very complex working memory issue on your hands. Running a rehearsal is that difficult. Why is this relevant to the discussion around solfege? Because if accurately hearing a written pitch is a difficult skill, I would argue that the actualization of transferring a visual cue to a specific frequency of sound coming from your own mouth, and analyzing its accuracy for the purpose of constantly adjusting that pitch, is one of the most complex acts a human brain can facilitate. It is akin to rubbing your belly while tapping your head on command…. aaaaaaaaand you’re an octopus. Tap dancing.
How then do we get our students to learn how to do this most complex of functions? Simple. I didn’t say “easy”, I said simple: remove every possible domain from working memory. It’s as simple as it is for an instrumentalist, even though just as difficult. But it’s crystal clear that this is how to accomplish it. And guess what? The person who realized this first did so over 1,000 years ago.
Now we’re getting to get to the heart of the matter. Solfege used to work. As a matter of fact, there was a time when it worked brilliantly. Here’s how. Guido di Arezzo (ca. 995-1050) was a monk from a monastery in Arezzo, Toscana. In 992, Guido noticed that the chant, Ut Queant Laxis contained sequential rising pitches to begin each phrase. He began pointing out this fact to his fellow monks and soon the syllables UT RE MI FA SOL LA were used on a regular basis to indicate specific sounds. With the help of this system he could notate all of the churches melodies. Henricus Glareanus in his landmark music treatise Dodecachordon (1547) expanded the standing system of church modes to accommodate the increasingly common major and minor modes, and this system known as solfege was applied to what we now know as the Major Scale.
Here’s why it worked: Guido D’Arezzo applied syllables from a musical selection THE MONKS ALREADY KNEW. It required NO working memory whatsoever. NONE. There is absolutely no scientific proof that “Do, Re, Mi Fa” works better than “Ho Yu Do In”. None at all. The REASON it worked for Guido was simple: because the chant was already familiar to his fellow singers who used it, which meant that,
it did not require working memory capacity to recreate pitches.
Got it? Guido D’Arezzo’s contribution to sight reading was not solfege, it was the discovery that bypassing working capacity memory allowed singers to recreate pitch with accuracy. Do, Re, Mi wasn’t the great, grand discovery, it was his culture-relevant application of it. But my concern is that this is egregiously misunderstood even to this day. Want proof?
If you have taken so much as a rudimentary ear training course in college, you are familiar with the concept of utilizing familiar tunes to accurately hear specific intervals. Tri-tone = the opening notes to Bernstein’s Maria, right? Here are a few more as they relate to the major scale: 2nd scale degree = happy birthday, 3rd = mor-ning has broken, 4th = A-ma-zing grace, 5th = Twinkle, twinkle, 6th = Dash-ing through the snow, 7th = Take On Me (if you are a child of the 80’s…). In other words, you were taught that if you can HEAR the note in one context, you can apply that sound in a different context automatically (starting to connect the dots here yet??). In other words, if you already know the initial context, the application is a snap. Well, Guido applied this application in a way appropriate for his day. Let’s apply mine based on what a person already knows from the songs above: Ha, Buh, Ni, May, Twink, Ing, On. But that would be crazy, right?
How is this crazier than Do, Re, Mi, Fa, Sol, La, Ti???
Answer: It’s not. It’s just that solfege has been so ingrained in us over ten hundred years that this has become the “correct” way to learn to sight read. We don’t question it. It’s been defended as being more pure to sing. Well, no kidding Sherlock, it’s from a latin text which has all pure vowels – – – which in no way whatsoever translates to the demands of texts which we sing today. Solfege has names for the chromatic variations as well, “ee” for raised, “ah” for lowered. But this is a Kodály-method intended for that specific approach. Nothing wrong with that, but it demands instruction from childhood age in it. And if that training didn’t occur?? Uhhh…..
So let’s go back to our accepted goal in developing sight reading skills: to remove as many domains from working memory capacity as possible. Today, we do not have a song which everybody knows, save for Julie Andrews singing “Do, a deer…” which, trust me, everybody does NOT know. So we must take a different approach than Guido who, after all, was only working with Monks (I can use flowery descriptors to describe my wonderful students, but “Monks” is not one of them). Instead, my hypothesis is that we are best served by using a different symbol to identify the 3rd note of a scale. Or the 6th note or the 2nd note. My solution is to use terminology that is both transparently obvious and deeply entrenched in the part of the brain which stores memorized items so working memory is not required. It’s called… wait for it…. numbers. It may be a leap for some to think that the 4th scale degree is better identified by “4” than by “Fa”, but I have five case studies to support my convictions about this.
1. When I student taught at Keene High School in the Fall of 1987, I watched Jean Nelson utilize numbers, not solfege, to teach sight reading. The results were astounding. The state of New Hampshire had to limit how many students were allowed to audition for All State each year because at Keene High School, the acceptance rate was 100%. Why? Their sight reading was better than that of a typical college. But there as an essential detail at work in making this happen. Jean constantly – and I mean constantly – referred to the notes in the students’ music by number. She referred to them as letter names too, but she called them what they were by scale degree. When a note was raised or lowered, students sung them for what they were: sharp 4, flat 3, and so on. They applied this technique and could read with a proficiency I have never seen surpassed at the High School level.
2. My overt goal in coming to York High School in 2000 was to create a culture of musical literacy at the High School. In June of 2004 the school board unanimously approved a graduation requirement specifically for music and it was first applied to the graduating class of 2008. In the 8 years since, an average of 71% of all graduates have performed in concert as a member of one of my choirs. This is relevant only in that my chorus is a semester class with the vast majority singing in High School for the first time, most of whom did not sing in 7th or 8th grade either. Many know the note names for one clef or the other, virtually none for both. Their pitch matching skills are all over the place. By the end of the first day of class, 100% (not 92%, not 47%, 100%) are accurately sight reading melodies on the first three scale degrees. On the second day they are all accurately sight reading melodies on the first five scale degrees. How? They do not need to access working memory to know what a note two above the first one is called. They do not need to access working memory to know what a note four above the first one is called. Literacy. I do have students who sang solfege in Middle School, many quite successfully. When they ask if we can sing solfege I always do this test, and it has never deviated in its result. I say, “Please raise your hand the milisecond that you know the correct answer to these next two questions, ready?”. They nod. First question: “What solfege symbol comes before la”? It takes them a moment. Some take a quick yet thoughtful glance up at the ceiling looking for their answer. Hands slowly go up. A few right away, but most after a few seconds. Some longer than that. Then it’s time for my second question: “What number comes before 6”?
If it REQUIRES YOU TO THINK to get the answer, you’re making my point for me; if it takes time for you to to come up with the answer, you cannot POSSIBLY simultaneously utilize that information to sight read a line of music. It isn’t possible. Try asking those same two questions to your choirs – not just your honors kids but ESPECIALLY your foundational entry level choirs, the ones we are purportedly “training” to become better musicians – and watch what happens. See if I’m wrong about this.
3. My Portland Community Chorus. A remarkable thing happens each Monday night. As we are learning music, invariably we come across difficult intervals (I’ll talk more about that in a minute but I have always said that there is no such thing as “Difficult Notes”, just difficult intervals and harmonies…) which a section has difficulty getting. I routinely have the section stop, sight read my fingers (hold up 2, then 6, then 4), and they have successfully sung the difficult passage, write in the numbers, and they cease to have the issue again. Once they know what they are hearing, then they can accurately match the pitch. This is a choir I am extraordinarily proud of, but they are largely not classically trained. They generally show up on my doorstep not knowing solfege (they are auditioned). If they were required to learn that language as well, the gears would start grinding in rehearsal quickly. The numbers would also drop. Instead they are functionally literate in numbers: they have a system of reading music which they can apply successfully to help them perform their music.
4. One of the bravest things I have ever seen was Jarika at her first concert as a music teacher actually teaching the audience to sight read. But she did. I was there and the effect on that audience was astounding. They actually sight read music. I replicated this a year and a half ago when I went onstage 10 minutes prior to the concert. The audience had a sight reading example in their programs and I went through the steps to teach them how to read it (hearing the numbers, identifying them on my fingers, transferring that skill to a staff). At the end of the 10 minutes the audience sight read the selection together. When they finished, a lady in the second row literally let out a yell – I’m not making this up. And she said, “I just read music!” Trust me on this: unless that audience already knows solfege, they can’t learn to sight read in less than 10 minutes. People already “hear” what a 3 sounds like in our culture. If you don’t believe me, watch this video at 42 seconds into it. We already KNOW the third scale degree. Are we going to confuse the matter for our entry level students by giving it a random name like “Mi”?
5. A few years ago I came up with a warmup that trains students to hear and accurately sing difficult intervals. We all know the pattern on 8th note/quarter note, “1, 1 – 1, 2 – 1, 3 – 1, 4, etc where the reference number is “1”, or Do. What I do is then change it up and make “2” the reference number (2, 1 – 2, 2 – 2, 3 – 2, 4 etc) and so on. Up and down the scale, making different scale degrees the reference number along the way. It happens pretty rapid fire so there’s no time for thinking, you actually automatically sing what you already hear. It works well I believe, exposing the intervals my students have the most difficult time hearing and allowing me to train them. But I have always done this on numbers. I have had some teachers try it themselves on solfege instead and you know what happens? It’s more difficult to sing the correct solfege symbol. This is teachers we’re talking about now. Hmm. I wonder why singing on solfege makes this more difficult?
For students who are high achieving, those who have taken private lessons, those who are highly motivated to learn these skills on their own outside of class, solfege rocks their world. They are ones who don’t look up at the ceiling to figure out what symbol comes before La. They are the ones who get amazing sight reading scores. I can hear teachers involved in NATS screaming at me right now through their computer screens, “Of COURSE solfege works you stupid man! What are you talking about? I’m not saying that solfege doesn’t or can’t “work”. But I am asking what we are doing in our schools that provides literacy to the greatest degree. The answer for some IS solfege. A few years ago I spent a day shadowing a valued colleague of mine at Goffstown High School in New Hampshire, Josh Desrochers. I worked with his choirs a bit and I observed him working with them. One of his choirs did their usual morning routine sight reading, and they did so on solfege. Brilliantly. And it wasn’t the typical case of a few strong singers in each section carrying the rest of the weak readers along. Every member of that ensemble sight read brilliantly. But as Jean Nelson did on numbers in Keene, the students at Goffstown learn all their music on solfege before they are even allowed to sing on text. Is it a wonder that they read so well? And Josh has worked to see to it that his students recognize notes by solfege as a normal function. Ask those students which solfege symbol comes before La, and their hands go straight up. Cathy Murray at Thornton Academy is another brilliant example of a teacher who has made a commitment to solfege and her students and alumni are functionally literate and tremendous sight readers. I could easily name more.
I do not buy for a moment however that solfege needs to be learned for the benefit of future music majors. I have very successful alumni of my own who have gone on to teach music and become very accomplished singers. There are two common threads between all of them as they have reported out to me, progressing through their undergraduate training. The first is that they all had a difficult time learning to sight read on solfege. It was a new language for them and they immediately fell behind the 8 ball. But here’s the second: virtually without fail they also arrived as being among the best sight readers in their classes. Got that? Their college professors weren’t terribly concerned with whether or not my kiddos could sight read well, only that they “knew” how to do so on solfege. I will save my rail against higher ed music education programs for another day, but for now I will simply say that MY priority remains developing foundational sight reading skills in all my students. Contrary to the belief of many in higher ed, style points do not count. My alumni who did have to learn solfege? They did it. Do they report being better sight readers for using it when they were already trained how to identify pitch without accessing working memory? Take a guess.
So what is my point in writing this blog post? Embedding effective musical literacy in our students must be our A-1 priority as educators. It is irrelevant how we do it, so long as we actually and authentically do it. Research and Guido D’Arezzo make the case that removing more working memory components equates to greater success. I have yet to have anyone make the case that learning the language of solfege itself accomplishes this to a greater degree NOW than a system which incorporates terminology our students have memorized and utilized every day of their lives since the age of two. Solfege was not sent down as the 11th Commandment. It is not, in any way whatsoever, scientifically superior to any other system of reading music. Every study – and I mean every study – that has been published on sight reading has discussed variables that positively and negatively impact abilities and success. The specific use of solfege has yet to be reported as one of them. The biggest factor is finding a process and sticking to it, not whether a student sings “Mi” or “3”. I have heard the effective argument that solfege, especially movable Do as Kodaly envisions it, has unique benefits that assist the development of musicianship in any student. I buy that. But what population are we talking about? Do YOU work in a school district in which every student receives music instruction in every grade including High School? In which you never have students transfer in with a gap in their music knowledge? In which students are given enough time in the semester to master these skills to the point of properly applying them? That’s the population Kodaly is referring to, how about yours? Let’s stop kidding ourselves, buying into the collegiate myth that if you don’t know solfege you’re not musically literate. It’s merely my suggestion that we individually reflect on, and do some deep digging into, our literacy strategies to see if they are in fact attaining our most desired outcomes for all our students. I am convinced that of all people, Guido D’Arezzo would have wanted it that way.