SOLFÈGE AND SORCERY

CHANGING VOICES: THE JOURNEY FORWARD
11 November 2021
COLLABORATIVE ENCOUNTERS
11 November 2021

SOLFÈGE AND SORCERY

On any given weeknight during the school term, outsiders peering through the windows of Choir House might well wonder if the ABCI had ceded its place and purpose to a class in mime.

Solfège, also called solfa or solfeggio, is a system whereby each note of the musical scale is assigned an individual functional syllable; for example: any note on the piano known as ‘C’ might be designated as the syllable ‘doh’. The origins of solfège can be found in eleventh-century Italy, when music theorist Guido of Arezzo invented a system of notation that linked notes to the syllables of a Latin hymn.

The ABCI uses ‘moveable doh’ solfège, combined with the corresponding hand-signs, both of which are key to learning in a Kodály-inspired environment. “We specifically use this method,” says Tim Mallis, Choir alumnus, current member of The Vocal Consort, and long-time ABCI Music Staff member, “because it reflects the way children learn naturally by exploring musical elements in singing games, folk song, and creative development through the senses.”

Tim notes that this specific use of solfa provides a consistent framework for internalising musical processes and functions. “While Julie Andrews employs a whimsical manner to describe her do-re-mi to the Von Trapp children, she managed to explain it surprisingly well,” he says. “In essence, solfa establishes a relationship between pitch intervals and syllables. This allows one to sing a million different tunes by mixing them up (with jam and bread).”

The benefits of solfège, as a foundational skill, extend beyond the realm of Choir. Tim says that solfa helps children develop their auditory imagination and processing. “When children learn audiation through solfa it opens their minds to a whole new way of learning. They can then transfer the skill to sight-reading. It’s fundamental in the same way that multiplication remains essential to learning mathematics, despite the advent of digital calculators.”

Of course, Tim Mallis was brought up in the Choir community and has used solfège as a musical tool from an early age. He does find, however, as with any approach, that its many uses sit alongside several shortcomings. “When you reach an almost professional level of aptitude, you encounter more complex musical ideas. An example of this might be some of the more esoteric, atonal music of the last century that would struggle to fit the mould. However, by this stage in their music education, students will develop different strategies to reconcile any initial pedagogical shortcomings.”

Nevertheless, the use of solfège and the Kodály Method remains consistent across all ABCI levels, from Early Learners right through to the Kelly Gang. “The combination of solfa syllables with hand-signs allows children to absorb musical material visually, aurally, and kinetically,” says Tim.

“It is amazing to watch gatherings of the various Choir groups that are able, magically, to learn a song together using the exact same techniques. It seems extraordinary for a single teacher to stand in front of a group of some 200 children, wave a few hand signs in front of them, and impart a song without singing a single note. If parents have ever witnessed this sorcery on an ABCI Weekend Workshop or Summer School, they will know exactly what kind of wonder this can inspire.”

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