Kodály and solfège applications to handbells

I wrote previously about my experience taking Kodály training in conducting and musicianship. I recently completed Kodály Level 2 musicianship, though I opted not to take conducting because of time constraints. I’ve been thinking about how to apply these concepts to handbells, and I offer the following as food for thought.

There are many methods to teach music to children, including the arguably more familiar Orff, Suzuki, and Dalcroze. The basic principle behind the Kodály method is to teach music with folk songs, games, and solfège. Solfège (or solfa) is the use of the syllables “do re mi fa sol” etc. instead of absolute pitch (C, D, E etc.). Kodály uses movable “do,” where do is always the tonic note of the scale, as opposed to fixed do, where it equals C. In Kodály, we also use Curwen hand signs to represent solfège syllables. It’s a way of cuing children who may not read yet, and allows the teacher to cue them on the fly, instead of having to prepare sheet music for every song or exercise. Children can also learn to improvise and lead others, as they master the signs and basic music principles.

There are systems besides solfège for learning sight-singing, including numbers or intervals. Learning solfège produced a breakthrough in sight-singing for me, so I’ll talk about that, though there are other avenues to develop this skill.

In Kodály level 1, we did a little part work (e.g. signing a song while singing it in canon, or playing one part on the piano while singing another). In level 2, it was a major emphasis. For a school teacher (everyone in the class except me) this skill is used to lead the children in a canon or a round. Tracking multiple musical lines is an extremely valuable skill to develop. It’s the same skill that an organist develops to follow all the lines of a fugue, or any musician uses to hear and execute counterpoint. Some people can even sign different parts with each hand while singing a third part! To my great relief, we didn’t have to do that.

I must confess that my piano teacher has tried for years to coax me to play one hand’s part while singing the other, and I feel like I finally made a breakthrough in this course. It was a combination of peer pressure (completing the assignment wasn’t optional), concentrated practice time on this skill, and developing a vocabulary to anchor the notes in a way that made them easier to remember than just singing ‘da da da.’ My coping strategy: memorize the part I chose to sing, follow the sheet music to cue what I wanted the class to sing, and ignore them so they didn’t throw me off my part. Obviously a classroom teacher would need to take it to a higher level and actually listen to the children! Some of my classmates found it easier to sing first and sign behind that, and others to sign first and sing after. I imagine the first would be more useful as a classroom skill, allowing the children to mimic what the teacher just sang, instead of asking them to start singing (at heaven only knows what pitch) while the teacher kept silent.

We had 6 such assignments to complete over the two week course, and were assessed on each assignment. We had 2 songs to sing and sign in canon (leading the class), 2 songs to sing and play in canon (including one very easy one and one with awkward intervals to play while sustaining the right pitch), 1 to sing in canon with a partner while signing our own part, and 1 to sing in canon with a partner while signing her part. In addition, we had daily music dictation and songs we learned to sing in 3 part canon, as a group, for the final “graduation” ceremony.

Applying these skills to handbells – I’m still looking for applications to handbells, especially solo handbells, but have already thought of several possibilities. For my fall concerts, I’m playing a piece with a six-in-hand ostinato while the piano takes the melody. If I get off, it’s nearly impossible to get back in. I must conform my notes to the piano, instead of hoping the accompanist will rescue me, because deviating from the melody would only highlight the error. I find it hard to match my part to what’s happening in the piano, because the phrasing has a recurring pickup and a 4/4 measure in the middle of mostly 3/4 time, plus I travel with the six-in-hand. So I’m learning to sing the piano part while playing the bell part, and also working at the piano to play one part and sing the other. My goal is to be able to come back in if I make a mistake, not just play my part by rote. It has the side benefit of improving my listening skills, which should help the ensemble of this piece.

I mentioned in a previous article on Kodály musicianship training that solfège syllables for sharps and flats allowed me to reduce two syllable terms like ‘F sharp’ to one syllable. This helps me sing my part without distorting the rhythm. I’m also improving my inner hearing; increasingly, I can “hear” the pitch I want to play and use it to choose from the bells in front of me. In particular, it’s easier to recognize when I’m about to play the wrong bell, before I play it. I was also surprised to see that the current solfège class somehow unlocked my brain on piano pieces I’d been working on for a while. When I started playing them again, I could hear the scale patterns within the pieces in a different way, though not consciously singing them in solfège, and they improved dramatically.

I wouldn’t say I’m at a point where I can sight-sing reliably. Standing at vendor booths at a recent handbell conference, leafing through bins of solo sheet music, it would have been great to immediately “hear” the music in my head. I’m still at a point where I need to take it to the piano and sight-read through it there to decide what I want to add to my repertoire.

In solo handbells, we often encounter pieces that don’t ‘fit’ the keyboard layout well. Sometimes we invest a lot of time in a piece before we realize it would be much more playable in another key. It would be helpful to use solfège to transpose to a different key and preserve at least some of the work done previously. If really adept, we might transpose on the fly to test several different approaches to choreographing the same piece, keeping the version and key that seems most playable.

A bell tree solo in my repertoire calls for an optional C instrument to play a counter-melody. I’ve been chided for not including this, though my choice seldom comes down to playing with or without the C instrument – it’s a choice between playing the piece without the C instrument, or not playing the piece at all. I just realized it might be possible to play the other part as a handbell duet, either with another handbell tree, or as a duet with myself on the same bell trees. I’ve heard of a bell tree soloist who can play a duet with herself, which requires the skill of tracking two musical lines, so it is possible. I’ll need to figure out whether to play one line in each hand, as I would on the piano, or to play each bell with the most convenient hand, mentally connecting it to the surrounding notes.

Kodály training gives a good foundation in pentatonic scales, and many of the folk tunes used are pentatonic. This knowledge of pentatonic can help when looking for material to arrange for bell trees. We spent most of our time in level 1 using pentatonic material, and level 2 with diatonic (and some chromatic) scales.

Some other applications for this training:

The pedagogical principles taught in Kodály have wide application. One of my favorites is “teach the thing before the sign.” I’ve always considered rhythmic patterns easier to learn by mimicking than by reading, and I also teach handbell techniques before teaching notation. I’ve had good results with this approach. You can read more about the pedagogical principles in my previous Kodály article, or on Wikipedia.

The Kodály levels program provides an excellent local resource for conducting and musicianship training. Though the conducting taught is for choral work, many of the cues (e.g. breathing) have direct applications to handbells. I also think any conductor can learn a lot from an excellent conductor in any discipline: musical interpretation, rehearsal management, signaling, leadership, etc. Handbell-specific conducting courses are available, but not everyone has the resources to enroll, especially if travel is required.

Teachers of children (or others) who can’t read music sometimes use color-coded charts to teach them to ring chimes. It seems like Curwen hand signs would also work for this, using fixed do.

I have a hunch that Kodály training has lots of applications to our instrument. If you’re using Kodály methods to teach (or play) handbells, I’d love to hear from you!

Copyright © 2013 Nancy Kirkner, handbells.com