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Solfege for church choirs

Many thanks to all who so helpfully responded to my question regarding
solfege training in a volunteer church choir. Here are the responses.
Noel Piercy, 1st Pres, Caldwell, NJ
npiercy(at)comcast(dot)net

ORIGINAL QUESTION:

I have a volunteer church choir with widely varying levels of musical
literacy. I have begun incorporating some solfege into our warmups,
beginning with tuning SOL against DO, for example, and have done a little
work with unison, moveable-DO sightreading of mostly familiar hymns written
on the whiteboard. I also tend to mention the syllables when dealing with
tuning issues in our repertoire ("Altos, in D major, what is your A? SOL!
Tune it high!")

I've noticed that it is getting a little easier, but only so for the people
who had been more musically literate all along. Some of the other people are
getting a little cranky about the whole thing. Would greatly appreciate
hearing others' thoughts. Perhaps I'm not on the right track at all? Or can
you suggest ways to make it seem more painless, and less "educational" &
frustrating?
********************
RESPONSES
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Keep up the good work. Hector Bourg wrote a great little book with humor to
solve just such a problem.
********************
I really like Nancy Telfer's sight singing books, which are solfege based.
They're good because the excercises are SHORT and the teacher's guide is
thoughtful and realistic. Some singers find the examples babyish -- until
they can't sing them. Then they pick up the effort.
*******************
I have this problem with my high school choir. GIA Publications has a
listening CD with solfege patterns. My students listen to a singer sing the
patterns on solfege and then they sing them back....then they play the
patterns on the piano with no words and they have to sing them back. Each
exercise gets more difficult. 15.95! ...they like it because it has kinda
of a jazzy background to it...
*******************
Learning Solfege is easiest with younger singers. Adults who are musically
literate can learn to do it, but mostly it simply confirms what they already
know, or they find it a nifty game,
like shape-note singing. I work with both adults and children, and do all
my solfege work with the younger singers (boys, ages 8-14). For them, we
make a "guy" game of it, making competitive sport out of identifying key
signatures and wirting in the solfege on samples written on the board. Also
"point 'n sing" games with a big scale written on the board. They get very
good at it in a remarkably short time. Adults don't like that kind of game
(usually), and I find that they work best by simply "grinding it out," and
learning to read music by whatever means works for them. If someone has a
really good way of getting previously untutored adults swiftly into solfege,
I too would like to know about it.
By the way, a number of years ago, I switched from syllables to numbers for
the boys' solfege. In a DAILY rehearsal choir, I would do syllables. In a
twice-weekly setting, the numbers give them a quicker sense of the relative
size of the interval. For shaprs and flats, we do as the
syllables do, we modify the vowel of the number, to EE for sharps and AH for
flats. OK so three-sharp is a problem, but that hardly ever comes up.
******************
People often find numbers easier to relate to and remember. So it might be
easier for them to tune the 5th higher. I use the hand signals (Curwin) as
well, and that's good because it has people "doing" something, and also
explains with a gesture the function of the note within the scale. They are
probably grousing because it's hard for them. I would stick with just a
couple of notes at a time, starting with sol and mi as the child's taunting
rhyme, then you can add La. Then re and do. Go slowly, don't do it for too
long at a time.
*******************
Solfege is great, but it is a different language. I use solfege with my
school choir, because you see them almost everyday and can teach this
language to them. I would use numbers with my church choir. They already
know how to say 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 1. It can also be a way to introduce
intervals. You'll have to work on vowel shapes a lot because they'll
instinctively sing numbers with poor vowels.
******************
You might have some luck with what I call the "Two Note Game." I have
taught adults who lack music reading skills to play this game. The "rules"
are simple: whenever you are singing or listening to a note of your part,
hear it AND the next note of your part -- and here's the key -- AT THE SAME
TIME. (As if it were a harmonic interval.) Of course I don't tell them
that it is a harmonic interval. I just get them to hear this, using
reasonable guessing based upon the visual "look" of the space between the
notes. Several adults have told me that this has improved their ability to
sight read and learn their parts rather dramatically.
*******************
I am doing the same thing in all my choirs, from first grade through adult
community. I get resistance, especially from the adults who have no formal
music training, but also from very musically literate amateurs, in
particular, one with perfect pitch. So, I just calmly explain (again) that
the syllables are a way to easily identify and talk about things that we
already do in our ears. It gets easier and easier each time. It becomes an
issue of terminology of things that are common place to talk about in sung
music. All singers learn how to find harmony notes, if they are going to
succeed in a choir. The syllables give us an easy way to name that process
and more easily repeat it each time.

Keep hanging in there! What I have done to help is give a half hour to 45
minute music reading session before rehearsal for 4 weeks in a row. I am
always amazed at how much people really want to learn about what they have
been doing for years. I also gave a two-hour session at church one Saturday.
People loved it and want to do it again.
*********************
My music minister at my home church in Columbus, Ohio was having a similar
problem. As a Sunday
School elective during the Sunday School hour, he offered what was basically
a "Reading Music for Dummies" class. The class didn't deal as much with the
use of solfege, but more with the boosting of music reading ability.
************************
Why are you bothering?! I just concentrate on getting the job done! I do try
to mention the names of the intervals. "You go down a 'Beethoven's 5th' -
No, a major third......" It's hardly worth it with amateur choirs in my
opinion.
*************************
I have written my own sight reading method book that I use in my high school
teaching. I have marketed it and sold it to over 500 schools in 35 states.
I also direct a church choir and have had male choruses where I, too, tried
to teach sol-feg. Once a week is not enough. I ran into the frustrated
singers who thought we should be spending that time on the music and
granted, they were the older members, but they were probably right. No
matter how hard I tried, they were not going to learn to sight read. My
church choir today reads really well, partly because we have a lot of people
that read, and partly because they sing a lot of music throughout the year.
We sing three or four times during the service. They love to sing and never
complain about too much music. Now, I don't give them the most difficult
Bach Cantata material I can find but I try to mix it up so they have some
pieces that challenge them while others are easier and "more fun to sing."
My advice to you is to go gently with the sol-feg. Have them read hymns -
singing their part. Have them sing a lot of music. You will probably teach
them how to read without them knowing it and without making a conscious
effort.
Good luck as this is a never ending battle.
**********************
I advocate moveable numbers. Solfege adds an unnecessary step in thinking.
Numbers relate directly to scale degrees, Roman numeral chords, and
intervallic thinking.
*************************
Perhaps approach them as intelligent adults (who all want to sing well and
add to worship)... explain that solfege is just a system to help us read and
sing better... it has been around since Guido and has a sacred
origin...Kodaly uses it even with young children... it is a "tool" and
should not be painful. My church folk laugh at it WITH ME when I use a piece
from my school library that has the solfege written in it, but they
understand the value. Do you have any Anglican editions that have the
solfege in the published score? I would just keep referring to it, but not
belabor the point. SOME of the singers may find it fascinating, others
helpful, others no value - but we need to use a variety of approaches to
reach our multi-level singers.
************************
u're on the right track. I teach high school choirs, and most kids in these
choirs are not musically trained. However, I incorporated sight-singing and
warmups with solfege, and given time they will improve. Be patient, u'll
definitely see results. u could try using Nancy Telfer's sight-singing
curriculum. I use that with my choirs.
*************************
I prefer to use numbers with younger kids and those less tolerant (that is,
older!). For H.S., college and others, they should learn solfege as well.
I learned both and felt that they are both useful, but numbers are much
easier. The purpose, after all, is to help people learn to read music, and
in your case, I would recommend using numbers. (3 and 6 are used for both
major and minor.)
**************************
Oddly, I have found that the more musical kids (I teach HS) have a tougher
time with it. The musically illiterate kids just go with it and tend to
sing things more in tune than the instrumentalist. Either way, I think you
are on the right track. Even though it may be painful for a while. Make
sure you give those less-literate singers the tools they need to figure some
of it out on their own. Also, don't give them too much info. With my kids,
at the beginning at least. I do solfeg hand signs, board work, then write
it into the music. Then I give them the following poem

Sharp it Ti
Flat if Fa
Major's DO
Minor's LA

This way they can find DO in any song and figure out their solfege on their
own. Don't bog them down with names of lines and spaces, learning key
signature, or anything else. That will really frustrate them. You will
have to get to sharp, flat, and natural functions so they can do
accidentals.
***********************
I consider myself a musically literate singer, and spent many years in
church choir, but never had anyone approach it in the way you describe. I
understand what you are doing, but I
can see why the less musically-literate folks would get cranky. I suspect
they do not think much about the musical training outside of rehearsal or
worship time. (I'm extrapolating from what I'm seeing in our community
chorus -- those who are trained or have knowledge of music theory catch on a
lot faster than those for whom chorus is mostly a social activity. The more
the conductor tries to raise the bar of musical standards, the more people
at the "bottom" of the pile get angry. They feel they are being eased out.)

This sounds like a lot of work for you -- perhaps it's easier than it
appears. I suspect it will take a long time for this to become a regular
and accepted part of the choir's training. If you begin to lose the less
talented/literate singers, back off and think about what you are trying to
accomplish, and the nature of the choir. It's frustrating when people are
resistant to these gems of training, but it would create much more ill will
if the choir becomes one of elite
singers and the less-elite feel they have been pushed out. Then you get
into the question of "what is this choir all about?" -- do you think that
the choir has to be high quality, in order to honor God properly, or is this
about letting people express their joy/reverence through whatever quality
voice they have?
*********************
Teaching sol-feg to adults is dear to my heart. I've always taught sol-feg
to my high school, then college choirs but never to an adult choir until
about 5 years ago. Then I decided it was time to do that. I started very
slowly - one thing I did was to start using scales as
warm-ups rather than the usual stuff we do....so now my choir can sing a
major scale, 3 forms of the minor (la based in moveable do) scale, the
chromatic scale, pentatonic scale, and whole tone scale. We do them in
unison or in canon and in many other ways.

I think sing scales in sol-feg gets people use to using syllable names.

I still have some cranky people in my choir that can't understand the value
of sol-feg however, the results have proven me right. We can sing almost
any "normal" tonal piece of music at sight without the piano. Only pieces
with very difficult interval leaps need help. We are able to accomplish so
much more music and the biggest benefit has been improved intonation and
just improved musicality in general. I'd never go back to the old way.
Forget about the cranky ones and press forward - you'll be glad you did.
************************
Teaching older folks new tricks is good for their memories but they don't
like the stress. I'd rather teach them new and beautiful literature that
feeds their hearts and minds. I personally do not care for the solfege
system. My question is why use another system when we have notes and music
and can teach people about scales and scale steps using numbers which they
already know. So, in your case, they are merely learning new applications
for old
information. I think it's more important to reinforce and teach what is in
front of them
than to create a barrier with something for which they cannot see the
purpose. First rule of teaching is to create awareness of the "need." I
think you will have an uphill battle that ultimately isn't the hill you want
to die on anyway. ... I know some folks are very passionate about solfege
but I have not seen any use for it in nearly 20 years conducting and
teaching.
It's a nice system but not universally applicable.
*********************
I too started teaching my group to sightsing. I have found that what is
working best (so far) is that I began by teaching them where DO is in a
particular key: eg in G, G is DO and have them put a box around a few to
remember where it is in relationship to the staff in that song and they
write it at the top of their score. Then, I taught them syllables in the
pattern: DO MI SO MI FA LA DO LA SOL TI RE TI DO SOL MI DO whereby
everything has an eighth value when a quarter0 and the last SOL-MI are
sixteenth values. This gives them the basic I-IV-V-I pattern, tonal center
from which to find a pitch and allows them to learn syllables....now, I am
starting to incorporate the syllables with notes. First will be SOL which
they will circle to realize the relationship between DO and SOL. The
biggest thing is to do it consistently and slowly. Some will get harmonic
relationships immediately. It may be something you choose to explain in
each piece (when the key changes, explain that in G, G and D sound the same
distance as when in A, A and E share the same distance...) you can also use
familiar tunes to helpt them remember distance. The tuning will be best
solved by adjusting the vowel production and text pronunciation rather than
"singing SOL higher". To me it is very important to get my singers
educated, so I took time from rehearsal to explain the history behind it and
inform them that it was an expectation, not an option. In the long run,
myweaker singers realized that they are better than they thought, many have
been in music ensembles for 40+ years and no one showed them.
***********************
How good do they want to be? The best choirs sing in tune. Solfege helps
that. You know that, so you teach it to them. Since you being paid to make
the choir as great as possible, you get to make that decision. They should
be thankful that I'm not in charge. I would have kicked out those that don't
already know solfege. (Well maybe not, but you can tell them that's what I
said so you can look like the nice one.) End of discussion.
************************
The problem as I see it is that this is all a lot of mental work for the non
readers. I think that's why they're cranky. What to do? For years in US
public schools I used (was trained on) movable DO, but after teaching basic
skills at IU Bloomington and here to non-majors (all
students w. varying backgrounds, fixed DO if any system), I've come to the
conclusion that numbers are easier to get people engaged with. Everybody
can count to sev'n, and have done for their whole lives. The concept and
system of solmization syllables has to be taught, and the learning curve can
be long when you're dealing with adults. Try numbers - I think it will be
easier for all of you.
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END OF COMPILATION
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--
on January 29, 2004 10:00pm
I have to say, I agree with them. Don't try to teach your church choir solfege, it isn't worth it. You are talking to one of the biggest advocated for solfege -- I use it every day with my students, I couldn't believe they didn't use it at my undergraduate (IU), and I think it can work wonders in teaching sightsinging for both kids and adults. But church choir isn't the place to teach it. There are people volunteering because they love to sing. You have varying abilities in there. I can tell you that if my church choir conductor attempted to teach the group solfege (and I already know it, while there are people who can't even sing in tune) I would be pretty bored, and annoyed. I think solfge is great in an educational setting, but it is a long process and takes time that you don't have.

If you do use it, I would reccommend just doing some very short sightreading passages at the beginning -- very easy solfege. They'll catch on. However if you have members coming and going, it's going to be a difficult road.