Solfége Problems? New Strategies to the Rescue!

At workshops, teachers often ask me, “Can your students really read that solfége?” Or sometimes it isn’t an outright question, but it’s a statement such as, “I don’t like teaching solfége because it’s hard.”

Although I understand where you’re coming from, just because something is hard doesn’t mean it should be left out of the lesson. Instead, try incorporating a few of these tips and suggestions.

1. First, add pitches the students already know to the tone ladder.

2. Sing a few patterns with hand signs and solfége and ask students to echo you. Then try singing a couple on a neutral syllable, like “loo,” and ask students to identify and sing them right back to you. If they don’t get them right, remain calm. If they tried to identify the pattern, but were wrong, simply sing back their answer. Tell them which pitches they got right, if any, and let them try again.

3. If your students aren’t strong readers, don’t try to read a whole song. Start small with four to five pitches on the staff, or one phrase of a known song. After they read it, change one pitch at a time until it becomes a different song or game.

4. Wait! Back up! They couldn’t even read one phrase? Okay. There’s no need for tears. Try this. Identify the first note, last note, highest note, and lowest note. Sing each one as it is identified. Are there any easy patterns like so la so mi or mi re do in the pattern? Point them out and ask students to sing just that much. See the example below.come_thru_ph4_G

In the song Come Thru Now Hurry (Alabama Gal), phrase 4 is a great phrase for practicing solfége. I highly recommend using the do clef in your reading examples to help students find do. Then ask someone to point on mi re do, and be sure you sing it as you ask them the question. One child points it out and the whole class sings and uses hand signs.

Then pick out another two pitches such as the so mi.  Try covering up the other pitches, or just cupping your hands around the so mi. After students identify and sing so mi, ask them to put together so mi re do. Then they can quickly identify the first mi in the phrase. To assist students in singing the mi so interval correctly, you might sing:

one two ready go

Overall, if there’s a tricky spot, be sure to point it out, sing it with the students, and prepare them for the full range of pitches they’ll encounter. Then  you can give them their starting pitch, point to the beat, and allow them to sight-read with solfége and hand signs. I hope these tips will help you and your students with solfége!

Who’s That Tapping at the Window

It’s been several months since I wrote a blog post, so I’ll write about a favorite song that I just posted under Resources for Teachers, Solfége and Rhythm examples.

Who’s That Tapping at the Window is a folk song with amazing potential. The source listed in my song collection is 150 American Folk Songs, but being a folk song, it is performed a few different ways. Let’s take a look at just a few of its uses.

1. Game: One child hides his/her eyes. The whole class sings the first two phrases, “Who’s that tapping at the window, Who’s that knocking at the door” while two soloist tiptoe to the front. The other members of the class can walk in place to disguise the direction of their progression. One soloist sings, “Mammy tapping at the window” and the other sings, “Daddy knocking at the door.” Personally, I like another version in which both soloists sing, “I am” rather than making one female and one male. It allows for a more challenging game. They tiptoe back to their places and the child hiding his/her eyes looks around and guesses whose voices they heard. Typically I allow 4-6 guesses, but the teacher should decide on a number in advance.

Who's That Tapping at the Window in G

Who’s That Tapping at the Window in G

2. Half Note: Although Who’s That Tapping at the Window is not my target song for teaching half note, it’s a wonderful song for reinforcement. I’ve used it for kinesthetic preparation and what I consider “light” aural preparation. For kinesthetic prep, students pretend to stretch out taffy as they sing, making the half note words much longer that the eighth and quarter notes. Another week they use slinkies to perform a similar action, and let me tell you, the slinkies are highly motivational. Finally, we might sing and play another day and the students find the words that are drawn out and last the longest. Sometimes there’s confusion over the word “window,” which is actually two quarter notes. It’s the perfect opportunity for a teachable moment!

3. Solfége – do to so: Students need to sing do and so without mi between them sometimes. The perfect fifth is an important interval that is often overlooked in elementary school. My question is, why? It isn’t hard to make the connection, because students begin playing simple bordun accompaniments using do and so even before they know what the pitches are called. In my classroom, we constantly make connections between solfége and letter names, but if the solfége hasn’t been made conscious yet, we just use letter names. Then they experience an “aha!” moment when they put the two together. This is part of the discovery method that I use at my school. The entire solfége tone ladder is not filled in. Only the pitches students have studied are visible and the other steps are blank. Who’s That Tapping at the Window is a wonderful song to reinforce do to so.

4. Solfége – re and the pentatonic scale:  Do songs always use mi re do or do re mi? No, of course not! Students will be delighted to sing a slightly unusual pattern once they’ve fully grasped mi re do and do re mi. Students seem to especially enjoy the ending: re re mi mi do. Many connections can be made to the end of Mama Buy Me a Chiney Doll, Go Tell Aunty Rhody, How Many Miles to Babylon, etc.

5. Composing: My second grade classes create a class composition each year in May. Before we begin and during the process, students are reminded of folk songs they already know and their form. Bringing back a song like this one and pointing out the similarity of the phrases seems to help the students to create a well-crafted song. If every phrase is drastically different, it’s difficult for them to sing and doesn’t feel cohesive. They create amazing songs, especially when they use the musical tools they’ve studied.

6. Recorder: My fifth graders loved playing this song on the recorder this year. Some students needed additional practice with high D, so they played the song in the key of G, needing only to finger D, B, A, and G. Isolating a few pitches in a song was just what they needed, and some of them experienced nostalgia for earlier years.

What are your ideas? I love this song and would love to do even more with it. 

Teaching meter

It’s so exciting to teach meter to first graders. They’re curious about everything, and when I tell them that the “big kids” know something, they want to learn it even more.

One of the most helpful songs for teaching meter is “Bounce High, Bounce Low.” The students form loose circles with one ball per circle. The person who is “it” bounces the ball on the beat, sings the name of someone in his/her circle, then bounces it to them. The play continues until all have had a turn.

Using my SMART board, the rhythms are displayed with words under them. It’s helpful at this point to remind the students that eighth notes share a beat. In some classes I’ve even had the students mark the beats with a dot before proceeding. Then I circle the first beat and tell the students we’re going to circle the beats for each bounce of the ball. This song is ideal because the first three are on the word “bounce.” The students always catch on that there’s a pattern of bounce, catch, bounce, catch. We discuss which takes more strength – bouncing the ball or catching it? Bouncing. I tell them there’s a pattern in music of strong and weak beats.

Although I haven’t presented meter yet, I’m actively preparing it and will present next week. I’m adding some songs to my Resources for Teachers page without barlines for your convenience. They’re helpful for prepping, but also for practice. A few weeks after learning meter and barlines, individual students come to the board to draw in barlines. A week or so later, they might complete a half page worksheet independently, filling in the missing barlines.

How do you present meter and what has worked well?

Rain, Rain and Doggie, Doggie

Vocal Exploration in Kindergarten

What do you do when a student can’t seem to find their singing voice? That’s the question I’ll touch on here.

Besides roller coasters and imitation, singing songs with solos like Doggie, Doggie, Johnny’s It, Let’s Hide the Pumpkin, etc., can help students hear that they’re not matching. Some students are tough cases, though. Several of my students have had success with PVC pipe “telephones.” When they sing into the phone, they will hear themselves clearly even when the class is singing.

Another activity you may not know about is the “singing cave.” This idea was shared many years ago by Frankye Peterson. Her Kodály training program thought it up . My singing cave is a refrigerator box that I trimmed and decorated. Two-three students can usually stand inside together. I sing patterns to them and the students echo me. Inside the box, the sound is a little more enclosed and students can hear themselves more clearly. It’s also a quick way to assess the whole group in just a few minutes.

Prior to the singing cave, we always perform Going on a Bear Hunt, and a teddy bear waits for the students inside the cave. It’s a fun activity and students in older grades always want to go in the cave when it’s out!

Songs for Fall

If you’re in a situation where you’re not able to use much holiday-oriented repertoire, this post is for you! In the past, Halloween songs have been frowned upon at my school, so I don’t introduce songs about witches, ghosts, or goblins. However, I always fall back on some fall favorites like Skin and Bones, Let’s Hide the Pumpkin, and Pumpkin, Pumpkin, Round and Fat.

Although Pumpkin, Pumpkin, Round and Fat uses the word “jack-o-lantern,” I have been able to use it without complaint. I hope you can, too, because it’s a wonderful way to begin improvisation, even in Kindergarten. The first time I introduce the song, I sing it and allow the students to just listen. (They start singing when they’re ready.)

1. One student stands in front of the class and holds a pumpkin face on a stick. During the song the face is toward them. At the end, they turn it to their classmates and the other students have to try to make that face. (I made 5 faces from paper plates.)

2. The next week, a student stands in front of the class and makes their own face. The students copy it.

3. For another variation on this game, see the Music a la Abbott blog. (You should be following Amy’s blog anyway. It’s full of great ideas!)

More on improvisation next time!

Visual Aids and Song Choice

There are numerous sources of melodic and rhythmic examples on the internet, especially in music education blogs, but are you utilizing them and making them work for you? This post will begin a discussion about integrating technology in elementary music classes without re-creating the wheel every time. Ideally you’ll have a song collection to draw on before searching for sources. If you do, skip to the third point below!

First, choose folk songs and the very best composed songs as the foundation of your lessons. If the song has melodic and rhythmic concepts you can draw on, it is worth more currency in your collection.

Second, determine which grade levels are most appropriate for the melody, rhythm, and game, if there is one. Remember, you can always create movements, Orff accompaniments, and games to extend the learning.

Third, create or download visual aids and resources for use in the classroom. On my Resources for Teachers page, you’ll find that resources are divided into groups. When I only want to focus on rhythm, I often take away the staff while retaining the meter and barlines. If my goal is for students to add barlines or put the phrases in order, I might create another example without meter and barlines. Two examples on the Rhythms Only page are Skipping Rope Song and Grandma Grundts.

What if you’re looking for a melodic example? This is one area where my Resources for Teachers page can especially help you. I try to post melodic examples in both F and G, and sometimes C. These are the keys my students typically sing in and there’s no need for flats or sharps in the key signature (unless there’s a fa in F or a ti in G.) Students should sing in the key they’re seeing, and they should be able to read solfége in more than one key. More on this in future posts.

How do you use visual aids in your classroom? How do you create them?

Fun ways to practice rhythm

Need fun ways for your students to demonstrate what they know? Try Musical Post Office, Meeting on the Street, or using your mascot as a rhythm eater.

At the beginning of the year, I try to ease my students through reviewing concepts while assessing new students. Playing Musical Post Office allows me to check their understanding of rhythms. (Click the link for examples with quarter notes, eighth notes, and quarter rest.)

Each student receives an envelope with the same rhythm cards in it. I clap a four-beat pattern and they clap it back. Repeat. Usually I ask the students to say the rhythm for the first few examples, and then hold the card at their forehead so I can quickly assess everyone. If I feel everyone understands, I’ll clap a few examples and ask them to silently find the card. Students put each used card in the envelope.

Meeting on the Street is a musical activity that fits the Tribes philosophy on my campus. Every student receives one finger cymbal. While the music plays, students mill to the music and “ding” finger cymbals with classmates. They hide it in their hands when the music stops and listen for a prompt. Students are given a question or topic and have a few seconds to discuss it with someone near them. Questions might include: 1. Talk about one special thing you did this summer, 2. Name your favorite music game from last year, 3. Can you name any rhythms we studied last year, 4. Do you have any pets, 5. Which solfége syllables do you remember? Each time the music resumes, students should stop talking and let their finger cymbals do the talking.

Our school mascot is a gecko. I tell the students we have a special Rhythm Gecko that only eats rhythms. He just had surgery (I cut a paper gecko in half!) and they need to nurse him back to health with good food. In small groups, students create 4-beat rhythm patterns (I provide small rhythm cards that we tape together) and feed them to the gecko one group at a time. To really play this up, the groups can give him a drink, salad, soup, bread, entrée, dessert, and after-dinner mint. Once all the rhythms have been presented to the gecko, the class has to clap the entire menu. They’re often surprised by this and laugh or groan, but they always play along. Yes, even fifth graders have fun with this! At the end of class, they take the gecko back to class to hang up as an artifact. Sometimes I still see the geckos in their rooms in May!

What creative ways have you used to practice rhythm concepts?

Rounds for Singing and Playing

Someone recently asked if I could recommend a round for the beginning of the school year. Don’t get me started, because I could go on and on. But, the start of school is a busy time, so I’ve only had time to prepare visuals for a few: Toembai, One May Begin, and Debka Hora. You’ll find each of these rounds with full notation and lyrics, and Debka Hora with rhythm and solfége examples as well.

Would you use the same round for every grade level? Probably not! Most teachers don’t see their students as often as they’d like, so every song has to pack a powerful punch. I never teach a song just because I like it. It has to be extremely useful and enjoyable for the students. So, choose wisely.

Once you’ve chosen the right piece and taught it to the class, how do you get young singers to sing in a round? Here are a few ideas that have worked for me. First, let them begin in unison. Play the second part of the round on a xylophone. A recorder is also nice, but if you use a xylophone, you can pick up singing their part if they falter. Then allow the class to sing part one, you sing part two, and play the xylophone for part three (if there is one). Finally, divide the class in half, sing the third part, and play the xylophone as the fourth part. This is a gradual release of responsibility. On another day, perhaps the students can sing all parts independently! Round, One May Begin

Corralling Kindergarten

Kindergarten can be a lot of fun, but it’s easy to lose control. The 4 C’s below are the concepts that help me keep my cool while corralling Kindergarten.

1. Containment through circle games and controlled space

It’s all about containment. Unruly students are like a virus that spreads. That sounds a little harsh, but I’ve seen lessons implode because teachers didn’t have control over classroom space, or boundaries were broken by one and then copycats joined in. It only takes a second for the lesson to side-track, so it’s best to be prepared. On the first day of kindergarten, I meet the class outside my door. The classroom teacher helps me to get the whole class holding hands. They follow me in as I sing a greeting song, usually “Hello There,” and the teacher helps me get them in a circle, still holding hands. Then he/she introduces me, assures the class they’ll be back, and closes the door and leaves. Yes, I’ve talked to them about this in advance to make it a smooth transition. Making lots of eye contact, I give the briefest of directions and begin singing “Ring Around the Rosie” and moving in a circle. At least a few students usually know it and sing along. By starting with something familiar and in a circle, you’ll be able to get everyone involved while keeping them together.

2. Complementary Activities and Musical Transitions

Use a puppet for a game and use it to lead to another game or story. Next I tell a story about a parrot echoing me and invite the students to echo me like little parrots, but only when the parrot puppet is flying next to me! The echoing leads to “Teddy Bear.” There are tons of ways to teach it, but I ask the students to sing “Teddy bear, teddy bear” each time, and the parrot flies next to me as a cue. It’s a great way to teach new songs, because students know exactly when to sing.

3. Carpet to delineate a new space

Naturally, I pull out a teddy bear during the song. Teddy loves to hear children singing his song! Sometimes I use the bear to initiate a name game, but I always use him for story time. (Teddy would like to hear his favorite story. Let’s read it together…) Before class, I place carpets in the area I’d like them to sit for story time. This is the first time we’re breaking from the circle, so it’s important to be clear about your expectations, travel paths, amount of time to get there, and where they should sit.

4. Comfortable activities and familiar songs 

One of the trickiest things about starting the year with Kindergarten is their lack of experience. They’re like a clean slate! They don’t know what is right or wrong about your room unless you show them. Your classroom may be their first musical experience. They may have never tried singing children’s songs, playing instruments, or moving to music. What a wonderful opportunity, and a huge responsibility for us. I’ve had success starting with “Ring Around the Rosie.” Some students are also familiar with “Shake My Sillies Out” and “Yankee Doodle.” Personally, I use an instrumental version of “Yankee Doodle” as a listening and beat exploration activity near the end of class.

Remember that Kindergarten attention spans are short. I try to alternate standing, sitting, listening, moving, singing, and speaking. My first lesson of the year has nine different activities, and that doesn’t include lining up and leaving. There’s so much to say and do with Kindergarten. This is just the tip of the iceberg, but I hope it gets you thinking about your own successful lessons!

Which songs and games do you use at the beginning of the year?


Winner of the contest!

Congratulations to Holly K. of Austin, TX! She won the bulletin board headers. Thank you for playing!