Firstly, some good news for all of you who’ve been waiting for Little Musician: We’re very close to beta launch now!
In my next blog post, I will give a more detailed update on where we are, and what Little Musician will include.
For this blog post, however, I would like to ‘set the scene’ a little by explaining my musical background, my approach to giving my daughter musical training, as well as some of the thinking that went on behind the creation of Little Musician.
My Musical Background
I started learning the piano at the age of six, along with my two older brothers. Like everyone else I knew learning the piano, I was taught the traditional way: learning how to read and play sheet music, and most of the time learning pieces for the purposes of piano exams. I took exams all the way up to Grade Five.
During those years, despite good exam results, piano was not very enjoyable for me. At one point, I even made up my mind to quit. But, because I never managed to pluck up the courage to tell my mother of my decision (I was ten!), I carried on with it.
I consider myself lucky to have continued because, after attending boarding school in England (age thirteen), I actually started to enjoy playing the piano. One major reason was that I stopped taking exams. Under the guidance of my teacher there, I learned to play pieces that I truly enjoyed, like pieces by Gershwin. (I just loved the rhythm and jazzy feel!) I continued taking lessons until I left for university at eighteen. I would say I became quite good at it, often winning school competitions and playing at school recitals.
Classical Piano Training for Felicity
Now that I’m a dad, would I put my daughter, Felicity, through the same classical piano training? My answer: No.
Firstly, I would take a long hard look at any system which focuses largely on getting exam results. I feel that this can really take the joy out of playing the instrument. Sure, the training and practice will make you a better pianist, no doubt. But what I’m far more interested in is being a better musician.
So, what did my classical piano training actually teach me? In terms of practical playing skills, I learned to look at notes on a page, and to play them on a piano keyboard. I learned to play many such pieces very well. I received great applause and admiration when I played those long and difficult Grade Eight Gershwin pieces, especially since I often played them from memory.
But what about when I had no sheet music in front of me? Or, what happened when, with the passage of time, I could no longer remember the pieces? What was I actually able to play?
The answer: NOTHING!
Surely, I don’t mean that literally, right? How about a simple tune like “Itsy Bitsy Spider”? Come on! If I could play all those piano concerto pieces that well, surely I could play “Itsy Bitsy Spider”!
Nope. I basically wouldn’t have a clue how to play it! Sure, I could give it a good guess. But it would involve a little hunting and pecking, and a lot of praying that I’d play the correct note.
You see, for all those years, I was taught (and taught very well) only how to translate notes on a page onto the keyboard through my fingers. I see a note, and I know which key to push. And even if it’s a difficult piece, if you give me some time to practice, I could do it very well.
But if you don’t show me the notes on paper, then how am I supposed to know which keys to push? Just from knowing what the melody sounds like? Sorry, doesn’t help! I can translate the music notes that I SEE onto the keyboard, but not the notes that I HEAR (whether externally, or internally in my head).
That’s because, even though I can reproduce a very complicated piece of music in my head (complete with all the different parts), I basically have no idea what those notes are. I was simply never trained that way.
Introduction to Solfege
I always admired people who could just improvise and play any tune on the keyboard. This was especially so because I sometimes played in a band and composed music, and not being able to do that was a severe handicap. It dawned on me, when looking down at the keyboard, that despite all those years of learning the piano, I basically didn’t really KNOW it at all! I could operate it mechanically, sure, but without any deep understanding of it.
Many years ago, I had a Filipino singing teacher who could also play the keyboard. He never took any piano exams, and could never play some of the pieces that I could. But he was someone who really understood the keyboard. He understood it as well as he understood his own voice. The keyboard was like an extension of his body. Just name him any song, and he’d be able to play it even if he had never played it before. A song was too high to sing to? No problem! He’d just transpose it down instantly.
So I asked him how he did it. And that, sadly, was the first time I heard about solfege (or “solfeggio”, as he called it).
“What’s that?” I asked.
“You know, like: Do, Re, Mi, Fa, So…” he replied.
“Oh, from ‘The Sound of Music’?” I asked. “Yes! I know that song!” I commented enthusiastically, though I still had no idea how a song from a popular musical could help.
My ignorance on the subject was plain to see. Since the day he enlightened me how solfege works (and that solfege did not ‘come from’ that song!), I have always kept in mind the importance of learning solfege.
Yamaha Music School
Fast forward many years to when Felicity was born. I was already thinking of how to train her musically. I knew only one thing. Classical piano training (at least, the way I was taught) was not the best way to help her develop musicality.
I had heard many good things about the Yamaha Music School, so I enrolled her at age three, in the “Music Wonderland” course. It wasn’t really about learning the piano. It was more concerned with music appreciation and exposure. One year later, the piano-playing began with the “Junior Music Course”. In her first lesson, Felicity was taught to play “Middle C”.
Except it wasn’t called “Middle C”.
It was “Do”.
The other striking difference between this course and traditional piano lessons is that singing forms a big part of it. In fact, the sequence is this:
Yep, playing comes last.
By labeling each of the notes with solfege syllables, students read and reproduce music by singing out the notes. It’s only after that that they play the notes on the keyboard (often while singing).
In the Yamaha Junior Music Course, there is a huge emphasis on learning solfege. In every class there would be solfege singing exercises, like what you see here:
(As an aside, here’s something interesting to note for all of you familiar with the right-brain flash card method for teaching babies skills such as reading and math. Often, when Felicity’s Yamaha teacher plays out the notes, it’s all very fast, and the children are expected to repeat or guess the notes very quickly following her demonstration, with no time to think or analyze. This reminds me of the right-brain flash method where information is delivered rapidly in order to be accessed directly using the intuitive right brain without the logical left-brain’s interference. Maybe whoever designed these exercises in Yamaha compared notes with Shichida?)
The Most Important Instrument
You see, solfege is designed for singing. Compare singing “C, D, E, F, G” (See, Dee, Ee, Eff, Gee) with singing “Do Re Mi Fa So” and it should be obvious which system is more practical for singing.
And that’s one of the great things about learning solfege: It encourages the use of the most important instrument that we will ever have—our VOICE. Frankly, I’m now astonished that a lot of music education completely ignores this vital instrument and, instead, just focuses on teaching traditional instruments like the piano and violin.
Ignoring the voice seems to go hand-in-hand with ignoring solfege, and I think that has partly got to do with the fact that many music teachers today themselves were never taught solfege and therefore would not be comfortable (or even know how) to teach solfege. And I think that’s such a pity, because teaching children to sing solfege is so easy and natural – which little child has reservations about singing out loud, even if it may not be in tune? If using the voice were encouraged and fostered from young, I believe children would grow up to being less self-conscious about singing. (And I would probably invest in karaoke bars!)
Anyway, just by sitting through so many of her Yamaha classes, I’ve already picked up a lot myself, and can easily ‘map’ most melodies into solfege now. So, too, can Felicity, to some extent. When she sings a tune, I would sometimes ask her, “Now sing that again in do re mi.” (She has never heard of the term ‘solfege,’ even though she knows all the syllables.) She would do so, sometimes with amazing accuracy.
When I show Felicity a simple piece of written music, she can often sing out the melody. Some of you may have seen the video where I wrote out words like “clap” on a doodle board and Felicity (at 12 months) would read out the words. Now, in a similar manner, I would place black dots (representing notes) on a magnetic board with the musical staff lines, and she would sing out the notes for me.
Like Teaching Children To Read
That brings me to an interesting metaphor that I’ve noticed about teaching solfege.
Imagine looking through a musical score and being able to ‘read’ it (by singing it out, or having the melodies reproduced in your head) as easily as you’re able to read a book (aloud or in your head). Knowing solfege is like being able to read words.
Conversely, not knowing solfege is like not knowing how to read out words. It’s like all you’re able to do when encountering words is to type them back out on a computer, and let the computer read the words out for you. In both cases, you have become dependent on that machine / instrument to be able to hear the words or music. By having focused on training our fingers to operate an external instrument instead of training our own musical instruments (our ear and voice), we’ve effectively outsourced the most crucial part of musicality, with dire consequences.
And similarly with writing. Knowing solfege is like being able to write out the words that you speak or hear. When listening to music, you know what notes are being played (at least relatively), so you’re able to write them out. Without solfege, the chances are, you’d be quite lost. It’s a bit like listening to someone talk but not being able to take dictation because you have not mastered the alphabet.
I am, therefore, thoroughly convinced as to the benefits of solfege towards developing musicality and a good ear. That’s why I consider any musical training (for any instrument) that does not include the teaching of solfege to be severely lacking.
Don’t Get Me Wrong
Just so that I’m not misunderstood and people don’t go away with the wrong impression, let me say a few more things about my beliefs:
- Not all classical piano courses were created alike. It may well be that the teachers I had were simply not very good and if I had had the fortune of having had a better teacher I might have a different view or experience. I must say, though, I thought I had good teachers at the time although I now quibble with their methods.
- Classical piano training, even though it has the shortcomings mentioned above, did give me other benefits. From it, I got a solid grounding in music theory, great dexterity with my fingers, and good hand-eye coordination.
- Even with classical piano training without solfege, one can still be reasonably musical and develop a good ear (though in a different way). Despite not knowing solfege, I, for example, still managed to compose musicals in college as well as pop-songs that were sung by Asian pop-stars, among other musical accomplishments I’m proud of.
- I’m not saying that classical piano training cannot help a student acquire skills such as playing by ear, or having a deep sense of understanding of music. Indeed, I know of people who were trained classically, without solfege, and who can play by ear. It just appears to me much harder to do so than with a solfege-based system. I believe those people I mentioned had natural talent that enabled them to do so despite not having the benefit of solfege.
- I’m also not saying that learning solfege is a panacea for all problems. Solfege itself has problems. For example: Should one use the ‘fixed-do’ or ‘movable-do’ system, and how do we apply solfege syllables to accidentals (like C sharp and E flat)? However, these problems (to me) are minor compared to the benefit that solfege brings.
- Solfege is probably not the only way to develop a good ear and musicality. However, it’s the easiest and most fun way that I know of.
Solfege in Little Musician
So, after this lengthy exposition, let me come back to Little Musician.
Here’s a surprise for you: solfege training forms a very important part of the program!
When the curriculum is written, the emphasis on solfege will also be quite prominent. In the beginning, I believe it is more important to call notes by their solfege syllables rather than C, D, E, etc., so that in addition to identifying notes using their names, children can also sing them out.
I will talk more about this in my next blog post about Little Musician. (Subscribe to this blog to be notified!)
Feel free to leave comments here or discuss this topic in this Forum thread:
KL Wong is the Founder and CEO of BrillKids, and also father of Felicity, aged 5. He can be contacted at KL(at)brillkids(dot)com.