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Choir Instructor


Literacy, Aural Skills, Beautiful Sounds


We train our ears to hear pitches on solfege. We can sing any scale on solfege, so we learn what it sounds like to sing intervals on solfege. We use hand signs (Curwen hand signs) to help us build these aural associations. Whereas musical instruments, literal tools for making sounds, create different pitches by the physical operation of the player, a singer must "hear" a pitch in their head before they sing it. An act called audiation. In order to help our singers audiate more accurately, they create the corresponding hand sign. Additionally, the student will move their hands up and down while they create the hand sign to show the relationship between pitches from high to low. If low "do" placed at the midsection, each hand sign is successively higher so high "do" is made at head level. Audiation is a skill often referred to as "ear-training" that is exercised daily through warmups and repertoire. 

A solfege poster.


From visual identification to aural recognition

Any series of pitches can be sung on solfege. Each kind of scale uses a different solfege syllable as the "tonic" or what sounds like the strongest note. "Do" is the strongest note in the major scale. "La" is the strongest in the minor scale. So, if a piece is in C major, then C is "do". If it's in D major, then D is "do". If a piece is in C minor, then C is "la". If it's in F minor, then F is "la". Here is a basic example. 

An example of how solfege is assigned and labeled


There are accidentals outside of a scale in solfege just like sharps, flats, and naturals are used to alter the letter names of pitches. Students eventually complete a Solfege Keyboard Worksheet to show the designation of solfege syllables to letter names. Here is an example: 

An example of the "solfege keyboard worksheet".
What solfege looks like in a musical score.


We mark our scores with solfege syllables. We learn the pitches by singing them on solfege. 


When we sing solfege, we sing them with pure (Italianized) Latin vowels. Solfege is taken from Latin words, so it is actually supposed to be pronounced this way. It uses only five fundamental vowel sounds. None of the vowels has a second sound (diphthong). We take extra care to be certain that students sing a pure vowel and that they do not treat the Latin language the same as they do English.


Rhythms are initially taught on "taps" with each tap representing an eighth note pulse. We are careful to learn the difference between 'taps' and 'beats'. This poster is hung on our wall for reference. 


So, in addition to singing the solfege syllable and showing the handsign, a student will move their hand forward about an inch for each tap, like knocking on a door. So if 'do' is sung as an eighth note, the hand moves forward once. If it's a quarter note, the hand moves forward twice, etc. 

The "taps and beats poster".


After singing and signing several times until the pitches and rhythms are learned well, the students will sing the music on the actual words. However, taking away the solfege syllables is like taking the training wheels off of a bike. Sometimes, they need to be put back on. If pitches and rhythms start to be sung erroneously, then we will go back to singing them on solfege for a little while before trying on words again. 

Articulation and dynamics are added throughout the entire process.  

In order to unify the vowel and consonant sounds in the various languages we sing, we refer to the International Phonetic Alphabet (IPA). They are those funny looking letters that tell you how to pronounce something when you look it up in a dictionary. You can imagine how important this is to a singer who sings in several different languages! If you want to know what they look and sound like, go to the Listening Lab from Alfred's IPA Made Easy to hear what they sound like!  


For information about our repertoire, visit our programming page. 

Posters of vowels in the International Phonetic Alphabet.
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