ANY MUSIC STUDENTS initially learn to sing by assigning certain solfège syllables (do, re, mi) to the notes of the scale. While many may see this as a pointless exercise, there is a reason; the theory is that by associating these syllables with melodic patterns the student will acquire the skill of sight-singing more quickly and easily. The history of this practice (a favorite topic of mine) is long and complicated, but its origins lie in the process of teaching plainchant to children, as it was practiced about a thousand years ago. But the way we generally teach solfege now and the way it was taught in the middle ages are quite different. More modern solfege approaches have been adapted for use in plainchant instruction, as in the highly successful Ward method. But can the old way of thinking about solmization (as it was called) be useful in our modern chant singing and teaching? That is what I want to suggest and explore in this series of posts.
What do most music students learn about the old way? Let’s imagine a classroom early in a course of music appreciation or history. There, probably on the second lecture of the semester, we learn that solmization was established by a monk named Guido of Arezzo, who took the syllables from a hymn (more on this below). The system involved six syllables. And these groups of six were arranged in a peculiar order on a diagram of a hand. The class sees a picture of the hand briefly, but only early in the semester, and it is soon forgotten. Most students may ask themselves why the system didn’t have seven syllables, since there are seven notes in the scale. It seems complicated and irrelevant, even if beautiful and evocative.
On the contrary, the system worked, as attested by the fact that this was still the first thing anyone in Catholic Europe learned about music until the nineteenth century. But the way it is generally presented now, all at once and out of context, is not actually conducive to learning or to understanding its usefulness. I am inspired in part by a recent book by Nicholas Baragwanath, who has researched the later end of the solmization tradition. While I do not agree with everything in the book (I cannot endorse what he says about modern chant practice, for instance), it is an interesting book for anyone who would like to know how important this practice was for composers as late as Haydn and Rossini. And when we start to see the system from the inside rather than from the outside, it begins to make much more sense.
To see what I mean, consider an alternative classroom scene in the distant future. The professor is explaining that people early in the digital age used a tool called the QWERTY keyboard for their written communication. People in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, we learn, memorized the positions of the letters by rote, and they all carried around a mental map of the left-hand keys that looked something like this:
This is not a good way to learn to type. Similarly, admiring the complex Guidonian hand is not a good way to learn to sing chant. And while the QWERTY keyboard really is rather random, the old solmization system is smart, useful, and beautiful. I will try to show in the upcoming posts that this way of thinking about chant is useful for phrasing, for understanding certain aspects of Renaissance polyphony, and for chant accompaniment. It really works! But first, we should approach what it has to offer us the same way we approached learning to type, since the hunt-and-peck method is not great for chant or for solfege in general.
Let’s start at the very beginning.
The first six notes just happen to be: Ut Re Mi Fa Sol La. These come from the wonderful hymn to St. John the Baptist, Ut queant laxis, which has been covered on this blog before. Before anything else, the student should memorize the first verse of this hymn.
Let us dwell briefly on the text as well, which is a prayer we should constantly make. To paraphrase: O Saint John, cleanse the guilt of our polluted lips (as in any time we say something that is not good, true, beautiful, and oriented to the glory of God), so that with loosened tongues (here we think of the story of Zechariah, the father of the Baptist, as recounted in Luke 1. Gabriel had silenced him for his unbelief. When Zechariah named John, as indeed we name him in this verse, his first speech is the glorious canticle Benedictus, which has become one of our greatest songs.), we, your servants, may resound your wondrous deeds. These are always good sentiments to consider before singing!
Let’s assign these syllables to physical addresses on on our left hand. This strategy improves memory by linking our spatial and aural cognition.
Each of the syllables is meant to go on a joint, where the creases of your fingers are. Notice the sensibility of this layout. The first note, Ut, is placed at the base of the first finger, the one we use to point. Since the chant is in the first mode, the final Re is the most stable note, around which all the other notes are centered. It is placed at the base of the middle finger. Mi and Fa, which are separated by a smaller step than the other notes, are at the base of the ring and little fingers, which as any pianist can tell you are very closely related and dependent on each other for motion.
The thumb (since it is opposable) can comfortably point to each of these other positions. The student should use this method whenever singing music that confines itself to these six notes until it is comfortable. Some upcoming examples on the calendar would be the Introit antiphon for the second Sunday of Lent, Reminiscere, and the offertory chant for the third Sunday, Justitiæ.
In the next post, we will
look at how to extend this
system, once the initial six
notes are comfortable.