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Video Solfège: Creepy, But Effective!

Nobody practices solfèggio

Guido d'Arezzo
Guido d’Arezzo apologizes to a thousand years of students

Students don’t practice solfèggio for a panoply of reasons, most of which are good ones:

  • Practicing it is boring
  • They find it easy (they have good ears, good voices, and learn the syllables with little effort)
  • It is difficult for them and they are not motivated to do well (the “I’ll take the C” crowd)
  • They want to succeed but don’t have clear indicators to discern improvement. Some of these students practice a little, but not enough because they think they have “completed” practicing by running through exercises or because they give up in frustration.

Most students share the classic experience of sitting outside an office door, cramming melodies before performing for their professor, which is likely the only practice they put in before the exam. And, regardless of a student’s level of preparedness, many students will choke on a solfège exam because of bad nerves.

I’m going to take the following positions, which might not be shared by all music professors (but I imagine many of the points are common):

  • Building the ability to sing prepared melodies isn’t its primary goal (this goal might be to help “imagine” written music without picking up an instrument)
  • It is a waste of the student’s and the instructor’s time to have a student perform without good preparation
  • Most students perform less well when standing in front of someone who is grading them
  • Solfège is a skill that comes more easily to some students than to others (therefore, some students require more practice time than others to develop proficiency)
  • Having students demonstrate that they have prepared solfège melodies wastes class-time that could otherwise be spent teaching/learning

A contemporary solution to an age-old challenge

My latest solution is to require students to video-record a set of melodies using solfège syllables and conducting patterns. These melodies can be recorded as many times as the student likes, but only one submission is allowed. Here’s what I have found so far:

  • All students have the technology to do this, most at home but others at a school terminal.
  • The best students do this quickly, so it isn’t a great burden on them.
  • The challenged students take a long time to do it, and wind up putting in much much much more practice time than had devoted before, when they were required to perform “live” for their professor by appointment or in class.
  • Pretty much everyone gets an A. This makes sense, because it would be foolish to submit a sub-par video when they have an unlimited number of chances to record it.
  • Problems with nerves are non-existent.
  • I can spot-check videos at random during the semester rather than endure the painful experiences of watching students break down in front of me in drawn-up, painful succession (maybe this is an exaggeration).

Here’s the secret I don’t want my students to know (students, look over here!): I grade students for their submissions, but only minimally… 20% of their semester grade, as compared to 30% sight singing and the rest given to dictation and other skills [note to my students: these percentages have changed since the article was written]. I’d like to experiment with making this percentage even lower and see if I can get away with it. It’s basically giving them 20 free points on their final grade just for practicing. Maybe that’s a good thing, though.

How to do it: instructions to students

Step-by-step instructions are here!