BUYC Choir Camp 2017 Recap

Choir camps always prove to be enjoyable, busy, and exhausting weeks. Last week was no exception. We played games, worked hard, learned much, and sang a lot! Our theme this year was Songs of Childhood. We learned about how children are raised in different countries, and we even played children’s song games from all over the world. We will be doing one more this summer in Detroit (July 17-20). If you’re interested, here’s the site you need to visit!

Every year, I am amazed how much the kids can learn in 4 days, especially since some of the children have had little to no musical training! Here’s a quick overview of what I taught them:

IMG_1412Day 1:

First we started out with some fun camp songs. It is a choir camp, after all. You have to start with singing :). We then learned how to sing with good posture and how to sing in tune. We also began working on some songs that we would perform at the concert on Thursday. I made a new arrangement of “A la puerta del cielo,” which they sang pretty well.

Day 2:

We reviewed the words and melody to an Argentinian children’s game called “Caracol.” The game is kinda cool, but it takes a little while to be able to sing and play it at the same time if you don’t know Spanish. The kids played an Indian (from India) game called “Fire on the Mountain,” which they liked a lot.

Day 3:

IMG_1415The kids finally got to play “Caracol.” The word means “snail.” It’s a line game where one side of the line twists the other into “the shell.” Then, the opposite side of the line pulls everyone out again. The group picks up speed, and the children are flung outward onto the ground. Children love these kinds of games; they are played all over the world. Learning these games are a great way for kids to connect with other cultures.

Day 4:

IMG_1418One of our board members also leads a drumming circle at her church. She led a short djembe drumming class. This provided a nice change of pace as we were preparing for our end-of-camp concert later that night. The kids sang four songs. Some had harmony, because it is very important for children to sing in harmony if they want to grow musically. Children need to develop their ability to hold their own part while other parts are happening. This grows their musical hearing and performing skills.

IMG_1416Well, that about sums it up. The kids had a great time. They really seemed to enjoy learning about children from other cultures. They immensely enjoyed playing children’s games from other countries. What a fun and informative trip through the musical world!



The Madness of Our Methods: Part Four: The Tools of the Trade

Methodologies have tools that they use. These tools fit with their philosophy and, more importantly, they work. The basic tools of Kodaly Method are:

  1. Solfege (do-re-mi, etc.)
  2. Rhythm Syllables (ta, ti-ti, etc.)
  3. Absolute Note Names (A, B, C, etc.)

Kodaly method uses these three things to to train the ear and teach elements of elements of theory.

Training the Ear

It is important to train the ear. All musicians need to be able to recognize what they hear. The use of solfege helps them to hear differences in pitch (highness or lowness of sound). The use of rhythm syllables allows them to hear duration (shortness or longness of sound). I know “longness” is not a real word, but it just seems to fit so well in this context.

Training the ear is absolutely crucial to good musicianship. How can the musician tell if they are playing correctly or incorrectly if their ear is not trained?

Teaching Elements of Theory

The basics to reading music on a page start with being able to identify a note, knowing that it needs to be held for a certain amount of time, and played on a certain frequency. Is that note an “A”, a “B,” a “C,” etc.? An “A” on the treble staff is played at 440 hz.

Solfege is used to help musicians know scales. We will get into these later. Music written on a page will almost always be written using scales.

Rhythm syllables will help the musicians read notes and know how long the notes are supposed to be played.

Be All That You Can Be, As a Musician, Teacher, and Student

The fifth tenet of the Kodaly philosophy is that music educators should be the best musicians they can possibly be. They should push themselves to the highest levels of knowledge and ability. “It is much more important who the singing master at Kisvarda (small village) is than who the director of the Opera House is, because a poor director will fail.  (Often even a good one.)  But a bad teacher may kill of the love of music for thirty years from thirty classes of pupils” (Zoltan Kodaly). For this reason, continuing education is very important. There are always people who know more than you. Learn from them. Go to conferences and summer training courses.

If you go to a Kodaly education summer training course, you will take part in several different segments. Trainees learn methodology, conducting, and musicianship. Methodology is the part where they tell you how to teach using the Kodaly approach. The conducting part is meant to help you wave your hands around more capably. Musicianship is, essentially, your old sight-reading and ear-training skills class from your undergrad years.

However, I enjoyed my musicianship classes in Kodaly better, and I use those techniques with my singers. Why did I enjoy my musicianship classes better than my aural skills classes? For several reasons:

  1. The purpose was spelled out to me.
  2. It was far less intimidating.
  3. It drastically improved my musicianship.

The purpose was spelled out to me.

The purpose of sight-reading and ear-training classes is not to take a grade. The purpose of those classes is to teach the student how to be able to perform and aurally identify music. The end goal is mastery. Grades help with assessment, but they are not the point.

I try to teach my singers this. Self-improvement is more important than getting high marks. I often tell them, “I don’t expect you to be perfect; I expect you to do your best.” I am interested in them becoming better music readers and thinkers.

It was far less intimidating.

As a music major, I dreaded sight-reading and dictation. Each session was a new form of agony. There was so much musical information for which I was responsible to read and transcribe. It was like trying to drink from a fire hose.

I teach musicianship differently. I try to make it as stress-free as possible, and I try to break down the elements into manageable chunks. For instance, sight-reading is taught thusly. When I put a sight-reading exercise on the board, I tell the students to read through the rhythms in their mind. Reading rhythms–I have found–is more easily and quickly learned than reading pitches. Anyway, they can usually read the rhythms after short while.

Students then sing the notes inside their head using solfege. We call the process of reading music in the mind “Audiation.” This technique is very important for musicianship. Only after they have done both steps do we sing it out loud as a solo or in small groups.

It drastically improved my musicianship.

The musicianship courses I took actually accomplished what they were trying to do. I became better at reading and thinking. I could more efficiently sight-read and identify musical elements.

I have also used the techniques I learned in these musicianship classes to great effect. If you spend around 10-15 minutes a rehearsal teaching sight-reading and ear-training, you will be surprised at how drastically they will improve.

The Voice Is the First Instrument

Music teachers approach music literacy different ways, often depending on their strengths. Piano teachers will teach using the piano, violin teachers teach with the violin, etc. Methodologies have sprung up to service this. I have known piano teachers to often use Alfred or Faber.  String players will often use the Suzuki method, although I have met some who really don’t like it. Most string teachers I have met either really like it or they really hate it. To my recollection, I have not met any that were ambivalent. Percussion and band teachers will often use Orff.

As a voice teacher and choral director, I use a voice-based approach. This works well, for a voice-based method has some strong advantages. Interestingly, music schools and conservatories here in America have a course called “Aural Skills,” which is essentially voice-based sight-reading and ear training. All music majors and minors have to take it.

The reasons for this are two-fold. First, everyone owns a voice. They don’t have to go and buy one. It is built in. Second, they don’t have to study the voice for months or years in order to sight-read with it. There is no steep learning curve with the voice, unlike some other instruments. It would not be cost-effective to have all musicians in a conservatory buy and learn a new instrument when they already have one (the voice) that is fairly simple to use.

The voice is the first instrument people play with as children. Before they can move, they can start matching pitches. That is because the voice box is used for both singing and speaking, and the line between speaking and singing is a very thin one. That is why tonal languages (e.g. Chinese, Thai, etc.) are able to be learned.

People have told me that they or others are tone deaf. If that were true, then people who live in areas with tonal languages, such as Thailand and China, would not be able to speak or understand others in that language. The ability to match or identify pitch is present in almost all humans.

There are several reasons I use a voice-based method (Kodaly). I used a voice-based method even as a general music educator.

  1. It is cheaper. I did not have to buy any extra instruments. We did have some various percussion instruments that I used, but I did not buy them. More importantly, I did not have to buy them. The instruments were not intrinsic to my method. They were the gravy, not the potatoes.
  2. I did not have to teach a new instrument. In my years of teaching, there were only a handful of students who required special attention to be able to match pitch. Most could sing pretty easily once they were in a judgment-free environment where they could just play with the voice.
  3. The voice is my instrument. I have trained in it since I was a child. I have taken private lessons in it since I was in high school. It was my major in college. I have a master’s degree specializing in voice performance.
Source: Grufnik Creative Commons License

Don’t Patronize Children

Source: Grufnik Creative Commons License

Jean-Joseph Vinache’s sculpture “Enfants jouant avec des fleurs” (Children playing with flowers). Source: Grufnik Creative Commons License; https://www.flickr.com/photos/grufnik/2391851978

When my family sang concerts in Ireland several years back, we were put up with different families. The families I stayed with were excellent hosts. I greatly enjoyed getting to know the Irish. They were extremely warm and friendly. Unfortunately, my sisters had a different experience for a couple of nights. They were hosted by a family that can only be described as “a little odd.”

On the way home on the first night, the family drove to the local market. The hosts proceeded to walk in and buy a large amount of candy, sweet cakes, and chocolate bars. This did not arouse any suspicion in my sisters. The family was given the benefit of the doubt. But, as they all entered the family’s house, the candy was dumped onto the table. “Here’s supper,” my sisters were told, and the rest of the family dug into the mound of sweets. My sisters thought that maybe the host family had purchased this junk food because it was late. One would hope this was not a regular occurrence. However, the same thing happened on the next night.

I am going to get onto a favorite soapbox of mine. Please indulge me for a little while.

It never ceases to amaze me how often folks say, “They are just kids, they can’t do or won’t like ‘x’.” In music, this happens when music teachers and directors give kids a steady diet of silly songs instead of exposing them to great music. Now, don’t get me wrong, I firmly believe music should be developmentally appropriate. “Fun” songs should be part of their musical growth. I learned that lesson the hard way during my first few years of teaching. Some of the music I chose was much too difficult, and the texts did not always appeal. I have since striven for balance in this regard.

The brilliance of the Kodaly Method is that the music chosen for training does not patronize children and yet is accessible. “Only the best is good enough for a child” (Zoltan Kodaly). The two commonly used sources for music in this method are folk songs and great art music. Both folk music and art music have stood the test of time. They have been tested by a sort of natural selection. Songs that were of insufficient quality were not performed after a while and, consequently, died out.

These tried-and-true songs can be used extensively for music education. Folk music tends–in a simple way–to address the human condition. Love, joy, fun, fear, sadness, faith, freedom, longing, dancing, and death are all covered in folk music. Because of this, it can prepare children for life, which will include all of those things. Folk music is typically less complex than art music, so it can be easily used to teach the basic rhythms, pitches, and other elements of music.

Kodaly teachers have collected folk music from children as well. These songs and games are for children by children, and can be used with music classes. I can attest from extensive experience that they work well with kids. I’ve taught these kinds of music games to kids in North Carolina and Michigan. They’ve always been great hits.

Art music has also stood the test of time. Lesser composers have disappeared. Their works are no longer performed. Great composers’ works continue to be performed because people want to keep performing and listening to them. Should we not feed children the work of these masters? How will kids appreciate art music if they are not exposed to it in an enjoyable and accessible way?

I will get off my soapbox now.

The Madness of Our Methods: The Kodaly Method, Part 3: Philosophy

When building a house, the first thing needed is a blueprint. When speaking of music education, a blueprint is also needed. Philosophy is that blueprint. A philosophy gives the reasons why something needs to be done, as well as tells us how the end product should look. It is, therefore, incumbent upon music educators to have an end goal, a final product, in mind. What do I want my students to say about music when they leave my classroom for the final time? What do I want them to be able to do?

I have known of too many music teachers whose seemingly only goal was to have kids “enjoy” music through the teaching of silly songs, cool music, and cheesy musicals. This shallow approach will not encourage students or parents to believe music is a serious field of study. Because music is not taken seriously, it may also be quickly put on the chopping block when the time comes for budget cuts.

As we saw in the last post, Zoltan Kodaly did not like the product (i.e. the musicianship) of the students entering the top music academy in Hungary. He set about changing that with a new philosophy. The bedrock philosophy of Kodaly is as follows:

  1. Humanity is inherently musical. Making and appreciating music is a natural function of the human soul.
  2. Just as language literacy is taught to everyone, so also music literacy should be taught.
  3. Music literacy (reading, writing, analyzing, creating, playing, enjoying) should be approached through singing, as this is the first instrument the child has.
  4. Students learn through folk songs and great art because only music of enduring quality (artistic merit) should be used. “Only the best is good enough for a child” (Kodaly).
  5. Music educators should be the best musicians they can possibly be. They should push themselves to the highest levels of knowledge and ability.

Some educators might add or subtract points on this list. Nevertheless, this is the Kodaly philosophy as I understand it. You can see that these statements are fairly short, but will take a while to unpack. I will do so in the next post.

The Madness of Our Methods: The Kodaly Method, Part 2: Background and History

To truly understand something, it is important to see the why’s and the wherefore’s. Context is king. This is certainly true concerning the Kodaly Method. In this post, I aim to give you some of that background.

Zoltan Kodaly–or Uncle Zoltan as I like to call him because I am a big nerd and think it’s kinda funny–was born in Hungary on December 16, 1882. He died in 1967. He is known for several things: a love for music, a love for children, a love for philosophy, and a love for Hungary. Because of this, he was very passionate about teaching children to love music. He wrote music for them, much of which is based on idioms of Hungarian music. Much of the music he composed is meant to help the child transition between their folk music and great art music.

Kodaly was very unimpressed with the state of music education in Hungary. The musicians who were entering the top music school in the country were deficient  in their training. The music education component for those who wished to teach music to youngsters only took half of a year.

This state of affairs was intolerable to him. By founding a music conservatory first, Hungary had placed the cart before the horse. The following is a quote by him: “We put up the fancy spires first.  When we saw that the whole edifice was shaky, we set to building the walls.  We have still to make a cellar.  This has been the situation, particularly in our musical culture. If in 1875 instead of establishing the Academy of Music, we had laid the foundations for the teaching of singing in schools, today’s musical culture would be greater and more general.”

Kodaly correctly understood that in order to change a culture’s valuation of music, one must enhance the culture’s knowledge of music. Music literacy should be as ubiquitous as language literacy. Understanding often creates ownership.

Just as with learning a language, music education needs to begin at a young age. With this philosophy of music education in mind, he then sent his minions all over Europe to find effective techniques. That is why much of the techniques can be found in other systems. Moveable-do (I’ll explain this idea in later posts) had been around since old Guido d’Arezzo in A.D. 1025. The Kodaly solfege hand-signs are actually the Glover and Curwen (British) hand-signs. The rhythm syllables the Kodaly Method uses are taken from the French.

The result was a system that stressed the philosophy first and the techniques second. This attitude is still prevalent in teachers of the Kodaly Method today. My level one teacher spent several days on philosophy before we started digging into the techniques. Because of this, the Kodaly Method encourages flexibility. New techniques and tools are constantly being added to the core ones. I’ve know of several Kodaly practitioners who are also certified in Orff-Schulwerk.

I will close with the following quote by Kodaly. Keep in mind that he is very quotable. Google “Kodaly quotes,” and you will find many pithy statements.

“Music is the manifestation of the human spirit, similar to language. Its greatest practitioners have conveyed to mankind things not possible to say in any other language. If we do not want these things to remain dead treasures, we must do our utmost to make the greatest possible number of people understand their idiom.”