Solfege as I hear it

Ah, solfege …!

What pains have you not been accused of causing ?

Let us go meet some folks in the street and talk to them about this.

Madame ? : «Oh me, I loved piano but the solfege was so unfriendly, it just turned me off… I ended up stopping playing piano altogether. »

Sir ? : «For me, it was worse! At the conservatory, I was fairly good on the clarinet, but I ended up pushed aside because I failed the solfege classes three times : the class of Mr. Michu… I must admit that the teacher’s timed speed note reading exercise was always my greatest nemesis and was the origin of my mediocre results. »

How about you, young man ? : «Bah, I wanted to learn piano but only those who did well on the music rudiments test could. So they gave me the bassoon to learn instead. However, if I get better marks on the next tests, they’ve told me I could choose a second instrument 2 years from now, if a spot is available. »

 Far from being easy and popular caricatures, these examples abound when we look at the general public perception of so-called classical music training. Solfege is felt as an obligation, a necessary evil of practical successful training; an obligation found in an environment of cold classrooms with rows of well-aligned tables and chairs, with the best students sitting in the front and the mediocre ones sitting close to the radiator, whether they are lazy or singing  »out of tune ». When grouping together some other comments, we see that the teachers of this form of solfege suffer a clear case of an attachment to an obsolete past, along with, not so long ago, their use of the recorder during music lessons, starting at the college level.

Of course, many teachers have gone against this practice by regularly refuting these biases, but we must admit that the overall public opinion remains negative or even hostile.

How did we get this far ?

This calls for a little bit of background history :

The Italian Solfeggio corresponds more or less to learning how to read music notation. From a theoretical point of view, solfege implies also the field of music theory as a whole, with the notation and the hierarchy of sound parameters, whether they involve :

1. rhythm (the recognition of various rhythms, understanding the mathematics behind the concept as well as the theory of harmonic and formal rhythms)

2. pitch (note names, clefs, scales, mode constructions, key signatures, chords and their symbols or degrees, intervals, etc.)

3. volume (learning the range of dynamics, types of attack, agogic accentuations, and expressive markings)

4. the parameter of timbre is not historically dealt with in traditional musical theory. This could be because it simply requires a direct connection with sound that the auditor or the performer can only acquire through actual practice. Therefore we sometimes content ourselves with the presentation of tables showing the range covered by different instruments with other details for the transposing of instruments.

In my opinion, this lack of basic understanding comes from an erroneous interpretation of these definitions. In the past, when musicians read music, they did not think for one minute about separating the act of reading notes from the sound they represent. The eye had first and foremost to hear everything, to directly connect to the sound picture. But this Musica Pratica served to teach technical and theoretical knowledge through direct musical practice, whether it was vocal or written. And in this last case, the pencil also had to  »hear ». The practice of Chant sur le livre, for example, allowed contrapunctic and vertical hearing to grow along with a sense of anticipation. To them, this idea, inherent to human nature, that theorisation comes after sensory perception, was self-evident.

It is true that as time went by, this form of solfege became disconnected from the sound matter. It has separated theory from the musical parameters, going against the sensorial memory, an essential condition in the construction of an internalized sound picture. This was done without much proper judgement and self-criticism. Note reading (without hearing them), rhythm exercises (with onomatopoeia dissociated from a vocal or an instrumental gesture), learning theory (such as knowing how many diatonic and chromatic semi-tones are in a diminished sixth), excelling in dictation (which involves having the highly revered  »perfect pitched » ear without which you cannot be a musician)… is still how, currently in some places, students are assessed and, at the same time, how solfege courses are constructed. This has been the course of musical training for the past 30 years or so. Musical ?… Not always…

Besides, this new name materialized the fact that music had to be at the centre of the learning process… so, was music not found in solfege ? In the typical French spirit of doing things, we assumed that a simple change of name could also change the content of what is identified. Furthermore, it would make us believe that solfege teaching, from the times of the foundation of the Conservatoire de Paris in 1795 until the seventies of the last century, did not include a direct connection to sound (big mistake !) and that, since the subject was newly named, all was well in this best of all possible worlds.

Such is not the question ; it is not a problem restricted to a small and closed group nor about a name or a program… it is a question of meanings. With a wink at Sir de la Palisse, I personally think that our solfege or musical training is only musical when music is at the heart of its teaching. This means that each course unit must offer a direct connection, sensorial, physical, even intellectual, to the sound matter. Do we learn to play football without touching a ball, through watching videos and diagrams, while quietly sitting in a chair? Do we learn to dance without trying to move first, feeling the motion within ourselves ? It would seem that there are still people who think that we can learn music through books, that it is hidden deep down in those exercises devoid of music, with obsessive fear of the year-end exam hanging above their head.

Now please allow me to express my anger at the irreplaceable loss of former music students, disgusted, discouraged, and disillusioned, who, once they reach adulthood, will continue to promote this image of the solfege we have described above in this article. Here, the victims become the judges, and we cannot blame them. Are not those responsible the ones who, while they do not wish to hurt, or worse, think that they are doing some good, believe that they are training musicians while in fact they never bring them anywhere close to an actual sound ? Often, these teachers hold on to what they are left with ; exams and theory; having forgotten that to become teachers, they had to have been musicians themselves at least once before in their lives.

It is my sincerest desire that this series of articles will light up or light up anew this little flame within.

 Benoît Menut
Translated by Josée Vaillancourt


Photographie: Helena Peixoto CC BY – NC 2.0