S I explained in my last article, I’m writing a series of pieces on my music program at St. Stephen the First Martyr Catholic Church in Sacramento, California. We have more than 30 active members in our choir, including a wonderful new tenor who just dropped out of the sky and joined us a couple weeks ago (don’t you love it when that happens….once every 10 years?).
I spent most of my last article describing my Thursday afternoon Beginners class, which gives children ages 4-7 an introduction to music in general and singing in particular. It involves puppets. Now, I’ll walk you through how I approach teaching the next two levels of young musicians.
Level 1: Sound Before Sight
The next two hours of my Thursday consist of classes for children ages 8 and up. Based on musical aptitude rather than age, I split the children into classes that I’ve brilliantly called Level 1 and Level 2. In Level 1, we move beyond the folk songs and storytelling of Beginners and get into more serious musical concepts. Over the years, I’ve incorporated bits of pedagogy from several different sources, and I’m always open to new influences.
One of the overarching goals for Levels 1 and 2 is to improve the students’ ability to audiate. According to the Gordon Institute for Musical Learning:
Audiation is the foundation of musicianship. It takes place when we hear and comprehend music for which the sound is no longer or may never have been present. One may audiate when listening to music, performing from notation, playing “by ear,” improvising, composing, or notating music.
The key word there is “comprehend.” When children start being able to audiate “DO” while they’re singing in a major key (or “LA” while they’re singing in a minor key), the music begins to make more sense to them and they can sing better in tune. From there, they can start recognizing common patterns of notes (such as DO-MI-SOL). Music starts to feel less and less like a guessing game.
To this end, I’ve made heavy use of the tonal and rhythm patterns in Music Learning Theory (MLT) almost from the get-go. But more recently, I became convinced that while it’s important for children to be able to recognize and sing tonal patterns, they really need a strong foundation in the scale first. So I’ve drawn from the principles of Dalcroze solfege to drill the students in solfege scales as well as dichords (note pairs in the scale) and trichords (groups of three consecutive notes in the scale). This “grunt work” gives the children a solid grounding in the inner workings of the scale. From there, we can ease into the patterns by singing scales but leaving out certain notes.
I round out Level 1 classes with many fun and challenging exercises from John Feierabend’s Conversational Solfege curriculum as well as vocal warmups, breathing training, instruction in forming beautiful Latin vowels, and singing hymns by rote. Notice that I haven’t mentioned sight-singing. Call me an extremist, but I rarely cover any musical notation in Level 1. I’m convinced that many teachers introduce notation too early, before the students’ ears are adequately trained, so I prefer to save notation for Level 2. This is subject to change in future schoolyears, but so far, I haven’t regretted my careful approach.
Level 2: Sight Supports Sound
Level 2 picks up where Level 1 left off. In some respects it’s the same class, only harder:
- I use more challenging tonal and rhythm patterns from MLT.
- The Dalcroze solfege scales don’t necessarily start on DO—they’ll start on a mystery note, and I’ll ask the kids to label the syllables based on where the whole steps and half steps fell.
- I choose more challenging hymns for the children to learn, and they also start learning some of the simpler motets that our choir sings.
But the highlight of Level 2 is that we finally start learning notation—and because the students’ ears are already well trained, the notation actually makes sense. Week by week, I walk the kids through the theory and various neumes of chant notation. Most of them have the advantage of having heard Mass ordinaries and other commonly used chants in our parish since their birth—so when we study Mass XI (Orbis factor), they hardly even need to look at the notes of the distinctive Kyrie.
As for teaching modern notation, I’ve had good results with the LISTEN! program produced by GIA Publications. The beauty of LISTEN! is that it starts off simple, teaching singers to identify and sing from the page the simple tonic, dominant, and subdominant patterns they’ve already learned by ear. What’s already in a student’s audiation is relatively easy to sing from the page—just as a child learning to read printed words has the advantage of already having heard words such as CAT, DOG, MOM, and DAD hundreds of times.
Another key element of Level 2 is training in the traditional Latin Mass. Using The Latin Mass Explained by Msgr. George Moorman as my support, I spend a couple minutes of each class explaining a part of the Mass to students—from the point of view of a choir member. My goal is not to offer thorough catechesis; rather, I aim to help them understand the “flow” of a sung Mass and the importance of each piece of music they’ll sing during that Mass.
By the end of their Level 2 schoolyear, students should be ready to become Junior Choristers, who are one step away from singing in the parish choir. I’ll describe our Choristers program in my next article.