Conversational Solfege – But Can They Read Music?

This post is a few month overdue, but as the sayings go, “better late than never” and “better published than perfect!”

Previously I wrote about a new (to me) method I was incorporating with my beginning band and orchestra students, Conversational Solfege. The Conversational Solfege method is based on the concept, sound before sight. Students are taught to be musical from day one, but reading music is not the primary focus right away. If you haven’t read that post yet, check it out here: Singing in the Band Room: Adventures in Conversational Solfege.

Conversational Solfege: But Can They Read Music?

The beginning of the year went very well! Students were singing and playing folk songs they had learned previously in vocal music class. They could even sing each song using solfege! The students had fun, felt confident, and made great music. I am excited to report the second half of the year went just as well! During this time I focused on teaching students to read music. In Conversational Solfege, reading does not occur until students can successfully sing, decode, play songs and create (improvise).

The Reading Steps

When teaching Conversational Solfege, each step is very specific. Once students have mastered the create step, they are ready to read. You always begin by reading patterns, either rhythmic or tonal. The first unit in Conversational Solfege is a rhythm unit (quarter notes and eighth notes), so that is where I started. Here is a typical progression for teaching students to read rhythmic notation:

  1. Read patterns by rote – I would show students the rhythm pattern notation and have them echo me first speaking, then playing the pattern on a single pitch.
  2. Decode familiar patterns – I would show students a familiar pattern (one we had done before) and they would speak the rhythm syllables and then play the pattern.
  3. Decode unfamiliar patterns – I would show students unfamiliar patterns (patterns they had never seen before) and they would speak the rhythm syllables and then play the patterns.
  4. Decode familiar songs – same as patterns
  5. Decode unfamiliar songs – same as patterns

Since the students had already done this in vocal music class, speaking the rhythms only, they could quickly transfer the knowledge to their instruments. When it was time to introduce tonal reading the process was the same. We began with patterns using do, re, and mi. Students looked at the patterns on a 5-line staff with a clef, but only saw note heads, so no rhythms were associated with the patterns. Every pattern or song the students read was sung and decoded first, before playing. After going through the process with non-rhythmic patterns, I repeated everything with patterns that also utilized the rhythms we were working on. Finally, the steps were repeated using songs, both familiar and unfamiliar.

The Method Book

You may have noticed, I still haven’t mentioned a method book! At this point students were only looking at the Conversational Solfege materials I had created. The CS curriculum contains rhythm pattern sheets that I could distribute to students. The tonal patterns and songs were more challenging, since they had to be in the correct key for each instrument. I could re-create these sheets quickly in Sibelius to make that work. It wasn’t until students were comfortable reading songs with do, re, and mi that I distributed method books and showed students how to find additional music containing these pitches.

It Works!

I was concerned about this process. Students started reading tonal music almost three months later than in previous years! I was sure by the end of the school year this would be an issue and students would be far behind their peers in the school district. This was not the case at all. While I don’t have data to prove it, I believe at the end of the year students were reading music better than other students had in the past. And, not once did a student look at a new piece of music and ask, “but how does it go?” They already knew how to figure that out.

As with anything there are bumps along way and things to tweak for the future. One thing I need to work on is making sure students remember that all notes have two names – their solfege names and their pitch names. They know the pitch names, but many still default to the solfege name. I have a feeling middle school band directors won’t appreciate this!

Looking back, I could have introduced music reading earlier. I was very nervous about it, and continually second guessed myself instead of jumping in with both feet. Now that I’ve tried it once (and created all the resources in the correct keys) I’m not as worried. As long as it’s done with integrity, the method works!

Another reason I feel this system worked so well for me and my students has to do with our schedule. Fourth and fifth-grade students only have instrumental music twice each week. One 30-minute group lesson with like instruments, and one 45-minute full ensemble rehearsal. For a nine-year-old student, this is not much time to learn to play a new instrument! Introducing music literacy in a way that builds upon the students’ prior knowledge increased the likelihood of success.

Give Conversational Solfege a Try

I highly recommend beginning band and orchestra directors look into this method more, or at the least, take into consideration some of the main ideas:

  • Sound before sight
  • Patterns before songs
  • Sing first, then move fingers, then play
  • Familiar songs and patterns first, then unfamiliar
Conversational Solfege: But Can They Read Music?

This school year I will be teaching middle school, and plan to use many of these concepts with my sixth grade students. This adventure continues!

Still curious? Subscribe below and I will send you the patterns I used along with Unit 4. These contain do-re-mi patterns for each band and orchestra instrument. Have you tried this method? I would love to hear about your thoughts and successes!

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