12/10/07 Sight-singing vs. Memory
NewsBlog Editorâ€™s Note: This post is the fourth of a series written by CMIE Research Fellow Anthony Green, as part of the documentation for Greenâ€™s CMIE Research Internship. See other posts in this series here.
NEC is constantly blessed to have such people of note come visit our school as RenÃ©e Fleming, Fred Firth, and Steve Reich. Recently, Gustavo Dudamel was one of the esteemed guest, and he presented information about El Sistema, the youth orchestra in Venezuela that has been changing lives and gaining worldwide recognition. The presentation was so highly regarded by Professor Scripp that he cancelled class in order to allow his students to attend the seminars and the performances. More teachers at NEC should adopt such a caring attitude towards their students when such guests arrive.Â
In a class prior to his arrival, Professor Scripp presented an anecdote to the class about when he and one of his former students met Gustavo Dudamel. According to the professor, his student was so enthusiastic about solfege that he still remembered (and this is the key word to this whole anecdote) some of the exercises that he worked on with Scripp. I do not remember if Scripp also solfeged for Dudamel, but the highlight of the anecdote is when Dudamel himself waxes poetically about solfege and orally presents his own results of diligent study to his adoring fans: he starts to solfege a fast movement from a Tchaikovsky symphony (I believe it is number 4, the scherzo movement). Amazingly, his syllables were perfect, his pitch was also to be admired â€“ it was obvious that he was a successful student of solfege, and that this technique has shaped his development as a musician.
But something about this charming monologue left a sour taste in my mouth. I had never thought about the real difference between sight-singing and solfege until now. In my undergrad at Boston University, I learned solfege in a â€œstight-singingâ€ course. We were expected, more or less, to sight-sing. With this in mind, it was strange that Professor Scrippâ€™s former student had learned some of these exercises so well that he remembered them after being away from them for quite a while. I felt the same about Dudamelâ€™s breathtaking impromptu performance. Obviously, these pieces were not sight-read. They were memorized.
It brings up two very important questions pertinent to this course:
Before delving into these issues more, in that very same class, the students were going over an exercise that contained a quick passage: mi! mi-re-do-si-la-do-si-la-mi! re! do-mi-do-la-mi – - mi – - la! By the end of the class, I heard the melody so much that I could sing it without ever having seen the notated music. I cannot even mention where the exercise is from and who composed it! This experience is akin to listening to a snippet of a pop-song on someone elseâ€™s iPod, and remembering it because the snippet contained one motive repeated many times. I raised the issue in class; if I remembered this and executed the exercise as well as the students in class, yet I did not see the music at all, then what method of teaching is more important? Furthermore, if the only goal desired in the end is to be able to execute the exercise, then what should stop a student from simply applying pure memorization to the exercises, thus inhibiting sight-singing ability?
Additionally, other comments were made about velocity. One of the students expressed concerns about not being able to solfege a certain group of syllables fast enough. Professor Scripp then proceeded to teach the students how to practice learning how to increase solfege velocity. His method, which is based on grouping and specific syllable emphasis, is a method of practice that corroborates directly with the process of memorization. While the technique is successful, the process of how to instantly recognize groups while sight-singing was never once even mentioned, yet alone taught.
When I brought up such concerns, Scripp gave me an answer quickly: this is a way of involving the students in the language of solfege.
Such an answer is great. I strongly feel that learning solfege is similar to learning a new language. The difference between learning a new language and learning solfege, however, is that no one asks you to read in your new language as fast as you can (although, such exercises should be done, as it would greatly improve conversation skills). Furthermore, it is rare to be asked to communicate in solfege, although Professor Scripp did make the students improvise musical questions and answers in solfege. More of these exercises could have been mandatory, however the fault of these exercises lies within the ability (or lack thereof) of the student to improvise a melody.
Other ways of exposing solfege as a language to students is to force the students to sing scales and arpeggios in solfege at the beginning of each class. Such a traditionally boring approach was hinted at, and I am sure that Scripp strongly advocated such exercises to be done daily by the students on their own. Additionally, the students were advised to create â€œthemesâ€ in each key (see the November 20th blog â€œNear-perfect pitchâ€ for details). Another process may be to sing a snippet of oneâ€™s favorite pop-song and transpose it to each key, and in the opposite mode (major goes to minor, and vice versa). Modal shifts were rare in this class (but they were done!).
So, what role does sight-singing play in this class? A LARGE ONE! Many classes throughout the semester were sight-singing classes. The students were asked to bring in works and â€œteachâ€ them to the class using solfege. Often, Professor Scripp would hold classes of reading Bach Chorales, Palestrina, Victoria, and more. The students were exposed greatly to sight-singing. Not officially having to take the final examination or to put together a portfolio, I do wonder what the faculty expects from the students in this class outside of what was made clear.