Kodály musicianship training

If you’re looking for general musicianship training, consider a Kodály course this summer, which may be offered in a city near you. The Organization of American Kodály Educators (OAKE) has chapters in many major metropolitan areas. Certified instructors run the “levels” courses to teach the Kodály method of music education. In the broadest terms, this method incorporates singing (especially folk songs), solfège, and games to teach music to children. There are 4 levels of certification, with each building on prior levels. In addition to coursework, Kodály students must submit a video of themselves teaching a class using the principles of the previous level to advance to the next. The curriculum consists of methods and materials, choral conducting, singing in a choir under the direction of a master conductor, solfège, and music dictation.

Some chapters offer each level only as a single course, which runs all day for two weeks (or the equivalent). The Seattle chapter offered the course in modules for those interested in specific classes, without certification. I signed up last summer for choral conducting (which included singing in the training choir) and musicianship (which covered solfège and music dictation). The Seattle chapter also offered a 3 day sampler at a reduced rate, with the option to credit the fee toward the remaining course. There was also an option to pay for clock hours or college credit, for those needing continuing education. The full course costs about $750 without continuing education credit, plus a small materials fee. I paid about half that for the modules I took and attended every afternoon for two weeks, Monday to Friday.

The organizers allowed enrollment with no prerequisites, and I was told the only skill required was ability to match pitch. I later learned that the teachers expected everyone to have completed at least a music minor in college. All the other students in my class were music teachers, mostly in elementary and middle schools. Several had not only an undergraduate degree but also a graduate degree in music. It seemed to me that these abilities and knowledge were assumed:

• Sight-sing in solfège using movable do, all major and some minor scales
• Recognize and sing intervals of M2, M3, m3, P4, P5, P6 in solfège
• Recognize written chords: I, IV, V, 7
• Take dictation in stick figures, noting both pitch and rhythm (first dictation)
• Hear and record harmonic intervals, building in sequence (second dictation)
• Read treble and bass clef pitches fluently
• Read note values and rhythms fluently
• Play a single musical line on the piano
• Understand simple and compound time signatures
• Sing in parts in multiple languages, including Eastern European languages
• Recognize 4 beat and 3 beat conducting patterns
• Use Curwen hand signs
• Sing in canon, while signing the other part or playing it on the piano
• Use rhythm syllables (ti ti ta ta, syncopa)

Since I had signed up specifically to learn some of these things, like sight-singing in solfège, it was baptism by fire the whole two weeks. As the only student who had signed up for modules instead of the entire course, I missed key information that was announced in other classes. For example, materials had been handed out, and students paired up as “solfège buddies,” before the time I had been told to register the first day. A local music vendor had brought both required and supplementary materials, and several items were sold out before I arrived. The course was nearly over before I got my copy of the choral music, so I couldn’t study the music on my own. If you sign up for only part of the course, I suggest showing up at the same time as everyone else the first day and bringing a book to read while waiting for your class to start.

Once I got over these obstacles, I found the course extremely worthwhile. It filled several gaps in my music education. I had been looking for a way to learn solfège, and this course helped me get started (albeit in the middle, not the beginning) and gave me a path forward. Solfège is a method of singing using syllables like “do re mi sol fa” (hence the name, solfège or sol fa). Kodály teaches movable do, where do is the lowest and highest note in the scale, rather than fixed do, with do = C, re = D, etc. Different syllables are used for sharps, flats, minor scales, and different modes (like Dorian). I practice solfège regularly at the piano using a book called 333 reading exercises, a little book that was a text for this course.

I use solfège to sing while memorizing; it provides single syllables to communicate two syllable terms like “F sharp,” which is “feese.” (You can read more about this in my article on Memorization.) I also use solfège to learn counterpoint. It provides an anchor for singing one part while playing the other, more than just singing every syllable as “da.” Improving my musical ear helps me know what a bell will sound like before I ring it, and where the musical line is going in relation to the bells on the table, which are key performance and recovery skills. I could also envision using solfège and other Kodály methods to teach handbells to children. As I learn more about it, I’ll probably find other applications.

Kodály also teaches some of Curwen’s pedagogical principles, such as:

• Teach the easy before the difficult.
• Teach the thing before the sign.
• Teach one fact at a time.
• Teach the general rule before exceptions.
• Proceed from the known to the related unknown.
• Never tell a pupil something you can help him discover for himself.

Many of these concepts are intuitive, and I had been using them in various teaching contexts most of my life, but you can see how useful they are in teaching handbells. For example, in teaching ensemble ringing, I don’t spoon-feed to the students the differences between choir and ensemble ringing. I show a video of an excellent small ensemble, and ask the students to watch it and then tell us what differences they noticed between a small ensemble’s approach to ringing and a bell choir’s. They’re more likely to remember if they discover it themselves. In teaching weaving, I don’t leap into the 3 bell weave. I first take students step by step through changing bells, table damping, and 4 bell weave. They’ll have greater success with the skill broken down into manageable steps, one step at a time. I teach rhythm by rote. Nearly anyone can join me in beating out a rhythmic pattern, then learn what it looks like on paper (the thing before the sign). I’ve had much better luck with that than the other way around (the sign before the thing). I see many applications for these Curwen principles in teaching handbells.

Besides solfège, I had been looking for a way to improve my conducting skills. Although I wanted to take a handbell conducting class, there were two problems. First, the classes available required a significant commitment of travel time and expense, to take a crash course. I learn better with instruction in smaller doses spread out over time, and my training budget is mostly tied up in private lessons. I also realized to my horror that one handbell conducting course I had planned to take assumed all participants could sight-read bronze level music, at tempo, at any position in a five octave choir, under the baton of another student. (This expectation was never explicitly stated, which also worried me: what else might the instructor expect?) Since I wanted to improve my conducting skills, not choir ringing skills, I looked for other options.

Although it’s impossible to know for certain about the road not taken, I was extremely satisfied with my choice. My conducting teacher in the Kodály course sings in the Mormon Tabernacle Choir and is an excellent teacher and conductor. Singing under her baton taught me a lot about running an efficient and effective rehearsal. The conducting class itself focused on the mechanics of conducting, not rehearsal techniques. I learned how to cue breath releases both on and between beats, as well as dynamics, fermatas (with and without a break), legato vs. marcato vs. staccato, prep beats, accelerating into release, and melding. The class also covered posture, stance, and simple beat patterns. We were videotaped often, and encouraged to videotape our conducting practice at home. I realized that, by using the camera in my iMac, I could both videotape myself and use the computer as a mirror. That meant I could make minor adjustments in real time, then critique the recording.

The other valuable aspect of this course was expanding my musical network in Seattle. My group bonded over the two weeks, and we hope to take the next level together when it’s offered here. Our concert at the end of the course (where we performed the songs we’d been learning as a choir, and demonstrated solfège for our families) was as much a celebration as a final exam. I highly recommend this Kodály experience.

Resource: Organization of American Kodály Educators (OAKE) – oake.org

Copyright © 2012 Nancy Kirkner, handbells.com