2 February 2011

Teaching music

Elder has just started a new term in school, and one of her new subjects is vocal music.  She will be learning how to sing.

Or maybe not.

Before continuing on, a digression.  When discussing the state of music in the Church, many people deplore how there are so few singers, and how few young singers come forward to sing at the average church. In addition, most choir masters I have worked under are too busy preparing the four hymn sandwich, or other music, for the weekly Mass to teach their singers how to sing properly. So those who say few churches are preparing the next generation of choir singers are correct, but what few people talk aboutin this debate is the state of music teaching in the schools.  In most of the schools I have attended, or my children have attended, or that I have encountered, it is rare to run into a school where there are qualified music teachers.  Usually they have some teacher from another field who has sung in choirs leading the choirs, or someone who has had piano instruction, who teaches the music.  As it turns out, music teachers do not need to be qualified to teach music.  Further, when schools are looking for a place to make cuts, the arts are one of the first places to get the axe. I was fortunate enough to have an excellent music teacher, but I was in the minority. In short, young people are not being taught to sing well in school, so hoping they would be willing to join choirs and sing well there is more or less futile.

Now, back to the discussion at hand.

Elder's music teacher admitted, straight off, that she was not a singer, but a piano player.  (She was also Elder's religion teacher.  She didn't know much about that, either.) She has told them a few sound points of singing theory, which could be got from a book, but it is too early to tell whether or not she knows much.   The signs are not good, however.  Elder was given her first piece of music to learn, which the choir will be singing at some school Mass in the future, and it is a song with saccharine lyrics and a melody pulled from an elevator speaker.

Furthermore, the teacher has made one blunder that I have seen many times over: she is not teaching the girls to read music, she has instead told them to pay attention to the notes, and go up in pitch when the notes go up, and go down when the notes go down.  That way, she believes, the students will be able to pick up sight reading.

To which I say, Bull.  I have sat through many choirs where the directors believed that the singers will learn how to read music just by following along, and I have never seen it work.  Not once.  It is a bad idea, and it is not teaching, not in any way.  The singers do not know the notes to sing. What ends up, at best, is that the notes on the page become a mnemonic device, and reminds the singer of a tune they already know, rather than enable them to work out a new one.  At worst, the singers just ignore the notes completely and sing the words from memory.  Good memories, I should point out, are rare these days.

It is all the sadder because the Catholic Church invented the easiest and best way to teach music reading: chant notation.  I told the story of how the notation came about in my post about Guido D'Arezzo.  In short, the notes are named "do re mi fa sol la ti do".  Guido used to teach his singers using interval training, wherein they sang out the names of the notes, in exactly the same way that Julie Andrews teaches the Von Trapp children to sing in the Sound of Music:  "Sol do la fa mi re do.  Sol do la fa la do re do!  When you know the notes to sing, you can sing most anything! "

When written down, chant notation consists of a staff of four lines, as opposed to the five lines of modern notation, with one of two clefs, which tell the singer which line is either "do" or "fa".  The remaining notes can be extrapolated from there.

I explained this to my daughter, in an effort to try and remedy the situation, and went to this website.  I turned to page 19 (PDF numbering.  Page 23 of the booklet) where, at the top of the page,  there was a simple "Amen".  The clef is the "do" clef, which means the notes are sol, sol, la.  I had her sing that out a few times, and then went on the to words,  thusly:

sol  sol-la
a-   me-en

After a few tries, she got it.  We then went to the front of the book (page 5, PDF) , and looked at the Kyrie.  After a few minutes, she worked out that the notes went "sol la ti ti."  After a few minutes of practice, she got it, though she needed to work on her pronunciation.  We are going to work a little more as the year goes on.

From here, it is not too hard to switch over to modern notation.  Modern major keys are simply "do re mi fa sol la ti do"  Minor keys are "la ti do re mi fa sol la"  All that changes from key to key is the starting note.  Simple, no? 

Well no, not completely.  But it's a darn sight better than crossing your fingers and hoping for the best.

The teacher will be teaching the students junk music, which they will not be able to read.  I wonder what is the best for which she is hoping?

No comments: