Kodály Learning Process
In a Kodály approach, the student’s model is his/her own singing voice. A song is taught by rote from the teacher’s singing, often in singing games. The rhythmic and melodic elements of the song are derived and given a name and a symbol, which the student will recognize later when it is placed on the staff; thus, sound to sight. Singing is intuitive to all children. According to Kodály, the first instrument is the singing voice. Learning to play an instrument is easier and more musical if the songs are sung first and then transferred to the instrument. Next, reading the newly-learned symbols on a page of music calls upon the child’s cognitive skills. First, intuitive, and then a smooth transition to cognitive, one element at a time.
There are actually two learning tracks going on simultaneously. The intuitive one, starting from sound, transfers to the instrument very easily, and results in quick technique. The reading track is going on at the same time to create literacy. The two tracks are concurrent with each other, but independent of each other. This separation of tasks allows a teacher to customize a student’s program according to his/her strengths and needs. It’s important for teachers to have their objectives clearly in mind: “Am I working on technique or am I working on literacy?” Gradually, the students’ ability to play and their ability to read merge until they match.
One of the primary objectives of a Kodály approach is to educate the ear and achieve music literacy based on hearing. Students with such a foundation become even better sight readers than traditional students because they hear in their head what they are about to play. I call this aural literacy. With careful step-by-step learning, students can achieve a high level of musicianship which this type of literacy makes possible.
Sol-fa: One of the principal tools employed in Kodály music education is the study and use of relative (moveable do--not fixed do) solmization:[i]
“To teach a child an instrument without first giving him preparatory training and without developing singing, reading, and dictating to the highest level along with the playing is to build upon sand…Only the well-conducted teaching of sol-fa can develop the ability to connect tone-image with written note to the point where the one will evoke the other instantly.”[ii]
In other words, sol-fa helps students to hear what they see and see what they hear. It simultaneously reveals tonal relationships and gives them a name and symbol. It is quite simply the thousand-year-old original, easiest, and best means of comprehending the architecture of music. We are not talking about singing everything before playing it on an instrument, but we are talking about helping a child connect singing based on accurate musical hearing to their instrument, especially in the crucial first years of study.
Hand signs: Another tool is the use of hand signs. They present a visualization in space of the high-low relationship among notes being sung in sol-fa. It is amazing to me the difference the use of these hand signs makes in teaching children to sing in tune. When they learn to sing in tune, they learn to play in tune. (See Lois Choksy,The Kodály Method, Prentice Hall, for further information.)
Rhythm syllables: For teaching rhythm, Kodály and his associates chose rhythm syllables which express duration. They are voiced, never written as words. Their written representation is stem notation. With duration syllables it is possible for children to chant a pattern correctly in rhythm, which would be impossible if they used note value names. This is not to say that a child should not be able to identify and name quarter-notes and eighth-notes. Once he understands their duration he should also learn their correct terms. But for purposes of rhythm reading he needs rhythm syllables which express their duration. (Again, see Choksy)
The Process in Detail
We begin by preparing the new element to be learned by rote singing with words, preferably in a singing game, which is ideally enjoyed by the children in a group class setting. This can be done in the private lesson as well.
The element is made conscious, in other words, given a name and a symbol, through the students’ discovery, under the guidance of the teacher. Rhythm is identified as it relates to the beat. Melody is identified in sol-fa as it relates to previously learned tones. Students sing the song in rhythm syllables and in sol-fa. Then they play the song on the instrument, relating the rhythm to the bow and the sol-fa to the fingering.
Getting a song onto the instrument at this point is very quick, very much like a mother-tongue approach. It is appropriate and efficient to work on the technical aspects of playing the instrument at this stage, because the student already knows the song, along with its elements, from singing. Some of those techniques might be sound production, hand positions, intonation, bowing, etc. “Does that sound like we sing it?” is a question that can fix a lot of technique. Quick technique can occur because at this point the process is intuitive.
Meanwhile, since the element has been given a name and a symbol, students will recognize it in an unfamiliar song written on the staff which they must decode in order to learn. This is how literacy is acquired. The process of reading from the staff is a different one, and more laborious, like reading language is, compared to speaking it. Students should decode the page using the reading steps below in order:
Say the rhythm syllables
Sing and sign the sol-fa (find first singing note on instrument)
Sing words if there are some.
Sing the note names
Play pizzicato (for the left hand)
Play arco (for the right hand)
Doing the singing steps first, students begin to hear what is on the page in their heads before they play the notes on the instrument. This approach to reading music is different from “read the note and play it” because of the aural image created in the ears and mind of the student before the playing. This is how the ear is becoming educated, and how the ear serves as a guide to the fingers.
The steps listed above are useful in breaking down the task of reading into its individual components. All of the necessary cognitive skills are isolated and included. If any of the steps is left out, an important piece of the puzzle is missing, and the task often seems too overwhelming.
If a student is struggling with reading from the staff, breaking the task down into the individual steps usually leads to success. As skills increase, the combining of steps naturally results.
When students are reading a piece of music, it’s best to back off from technical demands, realizing that there is simply not enough brain to think about all of the technical things along with all the reading things. If I want a student to prepare a piece for performance which is being learned through reading from the staff, I will make sure the reading (rhythm, sol-fa, note names) is secure before I call attention to technical work (intonation, bow use, sound production, etc.) which needs to be done.
Here is the order of things, in the beginning stages, in this Kodály approach: Sing, Make Conscious, Play, Read. It may seem odd that reading is last, but this is how the learning proceeds until the student’s ability to play and his/her ability to read merge as the same.
[i] The argument of moveable do versus fixed do is the subject of another essay. I will only say that in my experience teaching, functionality of tones is expressed when do can move from tone to tone. Fixed do, in my mind, is another set of names for the absolute note names.
[ii] In Bonis, 197