by Lynn Bruce

What is Solfege?

This is not an easy question to answer without a personal demonstration, but I'll try. I'm no expert, but I have taught a few children's classes in shape-note singing, and I get bonus points because my parents met at a week-long summer solfege singing school. <G> I was pleasantly surprised some years ago to find, while reading the series, that Charlotte Mason advocated it. It's a wonderful thing to know.

In short, solfege or sol-fa can mean one of two things, or a combination of both . . . It can refer to singing, usually acapella, by reading music that uses "shape notes" (rather than the usual oval notes) and where each note of the scale has its own name: do-re-mi-fa-sol-la-ti-do. It can also refer to using hand-signals for each note of the scale (using those same names). Either way, it's a method of giving the singer a visual cue for which note to sing . . . one way, each note of the scale has its own shape on the staff, and the other way, each note of the scale has its own hand signal.

Look at an ordinary piece of music. Every note head is oval, right? Well, for solfege singing with shape notes, every note on the scale has a different shaped head, and each shape has its own name (remember Maria singing "Doe, a deer" to the Von Trapp children?). When you see a triangle, you sing the word "do" (long o sound) on the correct tone for "do", when you see a diamond shape you sing "mi" on the correct tone for "mi" and so on, a different name and note for each note of the scale. (Later, when you've learned the tune this way, you can progress to singing the lyrics instead of the note names. For example, let's say you picked out a tune by sight-singing "do do sol sol la la sol" strictly from the shapes of the notes. If you know what the notes for do, sol and la sound like, it's a piece of cake. You could then sing those same notes with the words "Twinkle, twinkle, little star . . .")

Hand signals are similar. When the song leader gives the hand signal for "do" you sing the word "do" on the correct tone for "do" . . . and so on. Yes, you have to think fast!

Charlotte Mason refers to the Curwens in a passage on music in the series. John Spencer Curwen developed the hand signals for tonic sol-fa, based on earlier work by a woman named Glover. His son carried on his work, expanding the method into widespread use in schools all over England, and he developed the family musical interests into a large music publishing business. This was during Charlotte Mason's lifetime. This son was married to Annie Curwen, a piano teacher whom CM mentions by name. Charlotte Mason implemented solfa training at the PNEU schools, apparently using the Curwen method. Nowadays, the hand signal method of solfege is more strongly associated with Kodaly (pronounced "ko-dye") than with the Curwens.

When Charlotte Mason refers to "tonic sol-fa" (Vol 1, p. 314) she seems to be referring to the hand signals. However, it is my understanding that shape-note hymnals were much more common in her day, so I suspect that a useable knowledge of shape notes was also a more common skill then than now.

Solfege is a powerful tool for developing cognitive skills, and very demanding to the powers of attention. It is also an exercise of math skills in a very abstract way. The act of transferring the shape of the notes on the page (or the hand signals for each note) to tones and intervals in one's head, and then transferring that again into vocalization - quickly, with proper rhythm, and without the aid of a musical instrument -- is a very complex skill, and one that has the tremendous advantage of being a blast to practice, especially when there's four-part harmony involved. <G>

If you search the internet for shape note sites, you're likely to get confused. That's because there are two styles of shape note singing: the English style with four syllables (fa-so-la-mi), and the Italian style with seven syllables (do-re-mi-fa-sol-la-ti-do). While most shape note hymnals will follow the 7 syllable style, most of the internet sites I have seen are devoted to the 4 syllable style, because that is the form used by the enthusiastic contingent of "Sacred Harp" singing hobbyists in the US and abroad, and they seem to be the ones with the websites! (A wonderful family hobby, BTW! But that's another topic. <G> )

You could also do an internet search for the Kodaly instruction method -- I know there are sites out there but I don't have any bookmarked.

If you want to strike out on your own, Rod & Staff offers a shape note hymnal in their catalog, and I am almost certain that it would have some "Rudiments of Music" instruction in the front. Most shape note hymnals do. I could try to describe a few simple solfege lessons I've used with children, but I'm not sure that it would make much sense without hearing it . . . sort of like describing an elephant to a blind man. <G>

Perhaps others on the list can give you pointers for teaching children music when your own skills are rusty. There are some notes on our website that may help you as well -- look on the Composer study page for links.

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