Video Solfège: Creepy, But Effective!

Nobody practices solfèggio

Guido d'Arezzo
Guido d’Arezzo apologizes to a thousand years of students

Students don’t practice solfèggio for a panoply of reasons, most of which are good ones:

  • Practicing it is boring
  • They find it easy (they have good ears, good voices, and learn the syllables with little effort)
  • It is difficult for them and they are not motivated to do well (the “I’ll take the C” crowd)
  • They want to succeed but don’t have clear indicators to discern improvement. Some of these students practice a little, but not enough because they think they have “completed” practicing by running through exercises or because they give up in frustration.

Most students share the classic experience of sitting outside an office door, cramming melodies before performing for their professor, which is likely the only practice they put in before the exam. And, regardless of a student’s level of preparedness, many students will choke on a solfège exam because of bad nerves.

I’m going to take the following positions, which might not be shared by all music professors (but I imagine many of the points are common):

Melodic Orientation vs. Dictation

Melodic Dictation

If ear training textbooks with CDs and various online musical trainers fairly represent standard practice, “traditional” melodic dictation is typically a four-bar exercise in which a starting pitch is given, a count-off is sounded, and a series of notes that resemble a melody is played on piano. I have some problems with this…

  1. If there is no accompaniment,  students miss out on a valuable asset for orienting metrically and tonality. How many melodic dictations have I seen that get “off” by a beat or are consistently a step (or two, or three) too high after a leap is missed?
  2. The best students are bored silly waiting for the rest of the class to finish.
  3. The most challenged students struggle with the first notes and never get to the end; they are discouraged seeing the top students wait and are likely hampered by the pressure of holding up the class.
  4. Dictation takes a long time and leaves little opportunity for giving/getting feedback. Even when I walk around looking over students’ shoulders, it’s hard to guide students without revealing details to others nearby.
  5. Little mistakes (a skipped beat, a missed leap, a chromatic step written as a diatonic step) can cause big trouble and a lot of wasted time.
  6. Dictation doesn’t build some basic skills (most important among them, I think, being how to orient tonally without being given a tonic or starting pitch).

Melodic Dictation Orientation

My favorite type of dictation activity turns many of these problems on their head. I call these elegant little exercises melodic orientations, and they look like this:

Notate the first eight tones of this melody, adding all necessary information for notation. The key signature has four sharps.staves

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Orchestration project peeves

…a.k.a. “Has this student ever seen a page of printed music?” These things should (but do not) result in immediate failure and/or being made to sit in the corner.

Because a student isn’t thinking with their ears

  • When there is no tempo marked
  • When there are no dynamic markings at all. Or a tempo indication. Or articulations and slurs…
  • When an effect only lasts for one note

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Syllabus boilerplate: Guidelines for email correspondence

mailNote: since I began including this in syllabi (and pointing it out at the beginning of each semester), emails from students have become… slightly… better. The good ones remember this when emailing me. The others can be ignored and referred back to the syllabus. Any other good solutions out there for elevating the tone of student/teacher e-correspondence?

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Theory Class Rocks!

Who doesn’t love the same music you do? Your students, probably.

None of your students cares what this man sang forty years ago.
None of your students cares what this man sang forty years ago.

First of all, let’s address the elephant in the room: popular music brought into the classroom by a professor will never be a student favorite. If a timely hit is brought to class to illustrate a point, it will soon enough be out of date. A classroom of students represents a spectrum of tastes, so while you are reaching the Zeppelin fans of the class, you are making the Beyoncé fans roll their eyes.

I think, though, that students appreciate learning from a variety of sources (rock and pop among them) since this illustrates an important concept:

Music theory embraces universal principles, not just irrelevant techniques of long-dead, elite composers.

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