By Cheryl Magness
From July 8 through July 11, Redeemer Lutheran Church in Elmhurst, Ill., hosted a workshop on Conversational Solfege™, a solfege-based approach to music education. The majority of those in attendance — organists, choir directors, cantors and teachers — were musicians from churches and schools of The Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod (LCMS).
Solfege is the practice of assigning specific syllables to the tones of the musical scale. (The song “Do, Re, Mi” from the musical “The Sound of Music” is an example.) It is frequently used to assist in the study and instruction of music. Medieval Italian musician Guido of Arezzo is credited with inventing solfege in the 11th century.
Both Conversational Solfege and its foundational course, First Steps in Music, were developed by Professor Emeritus Dr. John Feierabend of The Hartt School of Music at the University of Hartford, Conn. The courses utilize verbal solfege syllables to teach both pitch and rhythm similarly to how conversational foreign-language courses teach language. Instead of beginning with written symbols on a page, the courses aim to develop aural skills — basic facility in the “language” of music — through the use of rhythm, movement and singing. These aural skills eventually lead to reading, writing, improvising and composing music.
Declining emphasis on music education
At a time when music education is increasingly neglected in both homes and schools, many children are growing up without any exposure to music. Studies have long shown that such early exposure is key to the brain development necessary not only for music learning but for other subjects such as math and language.
Music was once considered a key part of a well-rounded education, and past generations were much more likely than today’s children to grow up in homes where singing and playing an instrument were the rule rather than the exception. But today, the only music exposure many children receive is what they hear on the radio – an increasingly limited musical palette.
Fifty years ago, most people, even the musically untrained, would have no trouble singing a song like “White Christmas,” which makes extensive use of the chromatic (half-step) scale. But songs with that degree of chromaticism are rare in today’s pop music, and many people now struggle to hear, much less sing them.
Meanwhile, many schools are cutting music from the curriculum, and both congregational singing and church music programs continue to face challenges, so even if a child is taken to church, he may or may not learn to sing there.
Teaching the faith through music
Courses like First Steps and Conversational Solfege offer strategies by which music educators can increase musical aptitude in those who may have had very little previous musical or singing experience. Emily Woock, cantor at Redeemer, Elmhurst, planned and organized the workshop with the support of Redeemer’s leadership. Both the church and Thrivent Financial provided financial support for the week.
Woock, who is a Feierabend Association for Music Education (FAME) certified instructor, said, “I’ve been dreaming of this for years” but “it was the 2017 [LCMS] Institute [on Music, Preaching and Liturgy] that really put it in motion. I was honored to present on a couple of topics, one of which was music literacy. There were so many people there and so many questions after my presentation. What surprised me most was how many people who attended the session contacted me after. This told me there was a need for something like this, so the timing was right.”
Kathy May, director of Parish Music at Peace Lutheran Church and Academy in Sussex, Wis., was one of the LCMS musicians who attended the conference. She called Conversational Solfege “a light in the darkness of the frustration of not having a way to successfully teach music literacy in a multi-grade choral setting. It is clearly laid out in units that offer more folk songs, games and ideas than I could ever use. Even though it’s meant to be used in classroom teaching for individual grades, it’s easily adaptable for all ages and mixed grades.
“I’m just beginning to implement it this year,” May continued, “and have really enjoyed watching the enthusiasm of the children learning the beginning simple concepts of 2/4 time and do-re-mi while they are singing and dancing to lively folk songs. It is hard to summarize the riches we were taught in four days of class. I work in a liturgical, hymn-singing church, and what I learned in this class gave me not only a program laid out in a clear progression for teaching music literacy using only about 20 percent of my rehearsal time, but also ways to work the units into everything I must teach the four children’s choirs I direct to sing for the Divine Service.”
Both Miguel Ruiz, director of Parish Music at Messiah Lutheran Church in Keller, Texas, and Nathan Beethe, kantor at Grace Lutheran Church in Auburn, Mich., echoed May’s remarks.
“I left with a renewed excitement for helping young students sing their faith,” Ruiz said.
“The workshop,” said Beethe, “came at just the right time for me. I was planning to start a children’s choir this fall (which I have now done), and it was so helpful for me to learn a curriculum that I could immediately implement. I particularly like that it incorporates hearing, singing, reading and moving to music, which means it can be used from infancy on up.”
Beethe added, “I am also using the curriculum with my adult handbell and vocal choirs, which will help increase their musical literacy and ultimately help them better serve the church through music. The training in Conversational Solfege has equipped me to better teach the language of music to my congregation, which will allow me to better teach the faith through music.”
‘Of utmost importance’
Woock brought in Andrew Himelick, a FAME-endorsed teacher trainer for both First Steps and Conversational Solfege, to lead the workshop. Himelick, who teaches elementary school music in Carmel, Ind., and is an associate director with the Indianapolis Children’s Choir, met Feierabend in 1996 when Feierabend, his professor at the time, was first developing the Conversational Solfege materials. Himelick didn’t start using the materials in his own teaching until 2005 but says he continues to be “shocked at the results.”
“Nurturing music at an early age is of utmost importance. As with all early development,” Himelick said, “that is when the child’s brain is the most malleable.”
In an article titled, “Music and Intelligence in the Early Years,” Feierabend wrote, “Musical influence through ‘doing music’ in the early years will have the greatest impact on the development of music intelligence and future musical understanding. In good conscience, we must do more to nurture our future citizens with the insights gained from research of the recent past.” Read the article here.
Christina Roberts, kantor at Our Savior Lutheran Church and School in Grand Rapids, Mich., found encouragement at the Elmhurst conference not only from the course itself but from gathering with her fellow musicians. “I was comforted and exhilarated to join together with so many Lutheran church musicians who are interested in music education,” Roberts said. “As leaders of the church’s song, we’re not just worried about what people hear and sing on Sunday mornings. Our concern extends to the role that music plays in the entire life of the Christian.
“Scripture exhorts us to encourage one another with the gift of music,” Roberts said, “and this happens more fully when our congregations are filled with children and adults who, as Dr. Feierabend puts it, are ‘tuneful, artful, and beat-ful.’ Where the church is filled with people who can read music, comfortably sing together, and appreciate carefully crafted pieces for voice and instruments, the Word of God dwells with us richly.”
To find out more about First Steps in Music or Conversational Solfege, visit feierabendmusic.org/curriculum.
Posted Oct. 3, 2019