Kodály for String Teachers
I first noticed that I was missing something in my musicianship when I got to my college aural skills classes and discovered that in order to test out of any of them, I was expected to hear in my head the music I saw on the page and recognize intervals by sound. No one had ever taught me how to do these things, even though I was a violin performance major. In truth, the value of those skills was lost on me at first, because no one had really shown me how they related to playing the violin. Over time, as my aural skills improved, I began to attach my ear to the page and the instrument, almost unconsciously. I think that is what happens for most musicians who pursue a music career.
Now I consider good aural skills to be essential in teaching students the violin fingerboard. For example, in sight reading, it’s useful to hear the destination note in your head first as you approach a shift; also, hearing intervals in your head is a must for reading and fingering intervals in various positions. Consider what strategies students resort to in note-finding as they begin to read in positions: pecking it out on the piano, finding the note in first position first, or relying on the teacher’s example. Edgar Willems (1890-1978), Belgian music psychologist and pedagogue underscored the matter with the following quip:
“Bad musicians cannot hear what they are playing; mediocre ones could hear it, but they don’t listen; average musicians hear what they just played; only good musicians hear what they are going to play.”[i]
The question we as string teachers must raise is, “How can I teach my students to have good ears before they get to college?” Most of our students will not choose music as a career, and will not be taking college aural skills classes. Lyman Bodman, retired professor of string pedagogy at Michigan State University, wrote this in his Essays on Violin Pedagogy:
“No one, but no one, who cannot hear melodic intervals can play a violin in tune…This is another string teacher responsibility, and a way must be found to fill this need…The violin teacher must teach much more than the violin. It may be true that our country is now leading the world in training instrumentalists, yet there is a glaring shortcoming, namely teaching children music fundamentals and sight-singing.”[ii]
What is needed, then, is a learning process for teaching music literacy based on educating the ear. I found an answer to this when I studied the work of Zoltán Kodály and his associates. Even though most instrumentalists think that his work was for singers, we should remember that he was also an instrumentalist. He often quoted Robert Schumann, who said, “The fingers should follow the will of the head and not the other way round.”[iii]
In a speech to graduates of the Liszt Academy in 1953, Kodály said:
“The characteristics of a good musician can be summarized as follows: (1) A well-trained ear; (2) A well-trained intelligence; (3) A well-trained heart; (4) A well-trained hand. All four must develop together, in constant equilibrium...So far most of you have met only the requirements of the fourth point: the training of your fingers has left the rest far behind. You would have achieved the same results more quickly and easily, however, if your training in the other three had kept pace.”[iv]
Creating that “will of the head” is one of the pedagogical aims of Kodály’s vision for music education. The goal is to match children’s natural musicality to appropriate music so that children may first, experience the music; second, tease out its individual components based on hearing and feeling; then third, give them a name and a symbol. It is this learning process that I wish to explore in this essay.
By way of comparison, we need to understand the learning processes we are accustomed to using: namely, the Suzuki way and the “Traditional” way. It’s interesting to me that the reason we can lump methods together and label them “Traditional” is because the learning process used is sight to sound. In other words, “Read the note and play it.” The Suzuki way is a sound to sound approach. In other words, “Play what I play.”
Suzuki learning process
In a Suzuki approach, the student hears the song first from a teacher, a parent, or a recording; hence, sound to sound. It is the “mother tongue” approach. Children learn how to speak their own language through hearing it spoken. They perceive it without having to reason or concentrate; it’s just part of their environment. The music is likewise presented through listening and can be perceived at a very young age. The Suzuki “mother tongue” concept of learning is child-developmental and intuitive. Rhythms and bowings begin with small note values, much easier than long ones with extended bow strokes. The principle advantage is that a young child can get to the technique of the instrument very quickly. There are no prerequisites which involve reading. I call it quick technique. The biggest weakness of staying with the Suzuki approach for very long is the lack of literacy. Most Suzuki teachers now find a way to introduce note-reading of some form or other from traditional sources, many teachers creating their own materials.
Traditional learning process
In a traditional approach, the student reads the note and then plays it; hence, sight to sound. Reading language or music notation takes cognitive skill and concentration. The difference between Suzuki and traditional is like the difference between speaking a language and reading it. In past decades, a subject-logic approach was used in traditional violin methods.[v] Rhythmically, it began with the whole note and then proceeded to halves and quarters: certain to kill any enthusiasm for playing the violin. Since those days, several wonderful pedagogues have taken a more child-developmental approach to technique. The work of Paul Rolland was especially significant. However, one needs only to look at the preliminary instructions about music notation and fundamentals given in most method books, to realize that the student must intellectualize certain abstract concepts about music before he can begin to play. Having to decode the page before you can play, tends to slow down the process of acquiring excellent technique. There’s only so much brain available to think of everything. I call that slow technique. Learning by these methods, students who persevere until their technique catches up with their ability to read music notation, usually become great sight readers and independent learners. This is how I learned to play, beginning at the age of eight. Reading notes, however, does not necessarily mean that students will know in their heads what the notes are supposed to sound like without playing them first. I call this visual literacy.
[i] Edgar Willems, Les Bases Psychologiques de L’Education Musicale [The psychological foundations of musical education] (Bienne, Switzerland: Editions “Pro Musica”, 1987), English translation by Jerry L. Jaccard (Provo, UT, Y Mountain Press, 2008), 85.
[ii] Lyman Bodman, “Ear training and sight-singing” Essays on Violin Pedagogy (Lansing, MI: Author, 2002), 21.
[iii] F. Bonis, The Selected Writings of Zoltán Kodály (New York: Boosey & Hawkes, 1964), 191.
[iv] Ibid., 197.
[v] “In a subject-logic approach there is no relationship between the order of presentation and the order in which children learn easily. The subject matter is simply organized in a fashion that seems reasonable in terms of content.” Lois Choksy, The Kodály Method, 2nd edition (New Jersey, Prentice-Hall, 1988), 11.