During the first month of probationer rehearsals I set 3 goals, one of which is for them to become fluent in the use of diatonic solfege. Some children (although not nearly as one might presume) are familiar with the song “Do, Re, Mi” from The Sound of Music, which is a useful little ditty for introducing solfege syllables to children. I have the boys and girls sing this song during our first practice before we work more in depth on the first five syllables, do, re, mi, fah and sol. After we sing up and down those five notes a few times, we play any number of little games to help make them second nature. One of the probationers’ favorite games is to play “Around the World with Solfege.” Hopefully you are already familiar with the game “Around the World.” Basically, children compete against each other one-on-one until one child goes “around the world” and beats all their classmates. In my version, I give the name of a solfege syllable to the two students competing and they have to name the syllable higher or lower (depending on what we have established beforehand) in order to beat one another. This gets them thinking on their toes.
The second week I review sol, la ti and high do, and go through the process again. This time I draw middle C on the board and have them sing the note as Do, after which I add another note and another note until we sing up the major scale. I use these and various other games over the next two weeks to help the children reach fluency, both forward and back. For those who have tried solfege and didn’t seem to get anywhere, remember that this is only the first step. The ultimate goal is not to have children be able to parrot back nonsense syllables, but rather for each one to understand and hear how every note functions within the scale. The probationers will be working on this in the coming months.
This ultimate goal is why I use solfege. Simply put, I feel that solfege is the fastest and most secure route to establishing the scale (whether major, minor, or the variations of the minor scale) and the way its notes function within the scale in the minds of singers. If a student learns what the home note (do) of a scale sounds like, he will be able to hit that note every time it comes along in his music. Likewise, a singer who struggles with distinguishing between descending fifths and fourths within the context of a given work no longer struggles if he understands how those notes function within the scale.
In my previous post, I wrote about the three main goals I have for new choristers during their first month of rehearsals:”1) to ingrain a healthy vocal technique in the students (while getting rid of any unhealthy singing habits they have picked up), 2) to teach proficiency in solfege (only the diatonic notes of the scale) and finally, 3) to teach a proficiency in reading basic rhythms (eighth note through whole note, no dot) and their corresponding rests.” Today I would like to talk about the first goal.
I find it interesting to watch each new student standing in the choir room immediately before we begin the first rehearsal. Each one is breathing from his diaphragm in the most normal and healthy way possible, but as soon as we begin to sing, the weirdest things begin to happen. Shoulders raise and tighten, the mouth opens and tightens, the jaw juts forward and the neck muscles begin to bulge, and all I asked of them was to take a breath. Nothing is ever easy! I imitate the children so they can see how silly they look. After the giggles have died down, I have them lie on the floor with one hand on top of their stomachs and ask them to breath normally. No deep breaths or shallow breaths, just breathe. Most of them are able to breathe normally in the prone position and feel the rise and fall of their stomachs. The key is getting each child to become aware of what happens during relaxed breathing. I ask them to feel what is happening to their stomachs? What is happening to the shoulders (their shoulders should simply be relaxed)? Ultimately, the only thing necessary is for the stomach to fill up with air like a balloon and then to exhale. Finally, I ask for them to stand up and replicate good breathing in a standing position. This does not happen automatically, but must be worked on for 5-10 minutes at the beginning of every rehearsal. I use a number of techniques employed by Frauke Hausemann, who was a legendary vocal coach at Westminster Choir College. I would recommend her book (co-authored with Wilhelm Ehmann) entitled Voice Building for Choirs. I have also found the RSCM Voice for Life to contain useful information regarding vocal training. If there are only two concepts you are able to instill in a child in the early stages regarding breathing, they would be 1) fill and empty the stomach with air just like a balloon (don’t use the chest) and 2) keep the shoulders down and relaxed.
Chorister rehearsals are currently underway and the children are working on some exciting repertoire. At the same time, I am in the middle of auditions for new choristers (probationers) and looking over plans for their weekly rehearsals. As I have posted before, we are in the process of integrating the Schola Cantorum into our parish school, so the new students will be receiving a solid music education in the school as well. Still, I like to cover (or re-cover) all of the basics with the boys and girls. I thought I would share my goals for the lessons and some general lesson plans in hopes that they might be of benefit.
Because of current time restraints, I meet with the probationers only once a week, for two hours immediately after school (yes, a number of shorter rehearsals would be better, but this is how it is). I first take them to the gym for 10 minutes to run out pent up energy from being in a seat most of the day. During the rehearsal, I make sure that no one exercise lasts more than 8-10 minutes, otherwise I loose them quickly. I also give them a 10 minute break in the middle of the rehearsal when they can eat their snacks and talk. This is the basic overall outline of each class.
In the first month of rehearsals (4), I have only three main goals: 1) to ingrain a healthy vocal technique in the students (while getting rid of any unhealthy singing habits they have picked up), 2) to teach proficiency in solfege (only the diatonic notes of the scale) and finally, 3) to teach a proficiency in reading basic rhythms (eighth note through whole note, no dot) and their corresponding rests. There are other musical items the students learn in the first month, but those are only secondary to these three goals.
Next week I will give a basic outline of how I approach the teaching of the three main goals.