Saturday, September 28, 2013

Music to Soothe the Weary Soul

by Megan Hoyt

This week, I'd like to share some of my favorite music with you and share how we developed a love for classical music in our family. Here's the key to it all -- love music in front of your students! Voila! There you have it, ladies and gentlemen. And although it seems like an easy enough task since most learning is caught and not taught, it can be daunting, especially if what you love is, well, a little less than savory. (If your favorite music is punk rock or your favorite band is ACDC or Kiss, this is not going to be easy!)

I had the secret advantage of having been raised by symphony musicians. My parents met while playing for the Rockettes at Radio City Music Hall in New York in the late 1940s. The story goes something like this:

Before the era of air conditioning, it was stifling hot during the summer, and Mom was prone to fainting spells during long rehearsals. So one day, Dad began  carrying smelling salts. He kept them on his music stand and whenever Mom started to tip over he would lean over and put the smelling salts in front of her face to rouse her. A match made in Heaven, right? Well, at least it was a story-worthy beginning! From there, they both got jobs with the Dallas Symphony, and we became Texans.

I spent long hours backstage at Fair Park Music Hall in Dallas, listening to classical music in stops and starts during rehearsals (now air-conditioned, which was great since Texas is HOT). After I was tucked in for the night snug as a bug in my bed, my parents always turned on WRR, the local classical music station. Or they turned on my portable record player so I could listen to Tchaikovsky or Benjamin Britten or one of the other record albums I treasured as a child. Sometimes I listened to Songs From France.

So that's the backdrop for what I'm about to say. It's easier to pass along something that comes naturally to you, and listening and loving classical music comes easily to me. That doesn't mean this isn't doable for you, though! In fact, a more step by step approach might be better than my haphazard love affair with this and that -- depending on what I happened to hear them playing that week.

Here are my handy dandy tips:

1) If you live in a city large enough to have a symphony, attend concerts with your children. Often.

2) If you are able to attend live concerts, contact the symphony office and ask them for a study guide, some web links, recordings, samples, and maybe even a tour of the concert hall or venue. Find out what to wear, and lay out special clothes for each child the night before the performance. Make it a special event for them!

3) Go to park concerts whenever possible. Fresh air, fresh fruit, something bubbly, a blanket, some pillows, sunsets, and lilting classical music will help you make a memory.

4) If you live near a university that has a music program, go to as many recitals as you can. They are usually free, and you and your children will learn what individual instruments sound like. You can learn together. And don't forget to congratulate the student afterwards. Recitals are difficult!

5) Listen to your local classical radio station, in the car, at home, or if you have Spotify or iTunes or something else, load in one composer at a time and delve deeply into his or her music, life, times, place, etc.

6) Have Composer Study parties! We used to celebrate certain composers' birthdays by hosting parties where we did a scavenger hunt or a treasure hunt, using clues from the composer's life to lead to the next piece of the puzzle. It's fun. There's always cake. And the children never forget what they've learned because it was a special event where they were in charge of seeking out the information rather than the teacher droning on and on and the student regurgitating the facts on a test at the end of the term. My favorite party was the one where our local opera company was giving away free tickets to La Boheme to anyone who dressed in 1800s costumes. We got all the kids dressed up and got the best seats in the house. It was spectacular.

7) Find the best recordings of the very best composers of all time. There are many ways to accomplish this. Check out the websites I will list at the end of this blog entry for a great head start. Then, listen, listen, listen. Spend some focused time listening to the same piece each day, listening for tone, style, dynamics, musicality, and, of course, for fun. It may help to keep a plackard with the current composer's name written on it beside your school table or desk as you listen so they don't forget who they're listening to. It's easy to do.

8) Talk about music. Talk about how to read music, what sharps and flats are, what the different rests look like. Draw them. Draw notes. Practice clapping rhythms. Create a staff and write your own music. Learn how to play an instrument and practice some simple tunes by your favorite composer. Have a favorite composer. Know who your favorite composer is because you have listened to many and decided for yourself.

If you don't know where to begin, try Mozart, Beethoven, Bach, Brahms, Mendelssohn, Johann Strauss Jr, Rossini, or Tchaikovsky. For opera, Puccini and Verdi. For piano music, Chopin and Liszt. For modern music, Debussy or Stravinsky. I'm leaving out a lot of really special music in between, but this is a great start.

Here are my personal favorites:

Mendelssohn's Elijah

Chopin's Impromptu
Massenet's Meditation from Thais
All of Puccini's Tosca and Nessun Dorma from Turandot
Beethoven's Romance No. 2 in F
Beethoven's Moonlight Sonata
Edvard Grieg's Peer Gynt
Offenbach's Barcarolle from Tales of Hoffman
Prokofiev's Romeo and Juliet
Franz Liszt's Liebestraum
Liszt's Hungarian Rhapsody 
Mussorgsky's Night on Bald Mountain
And here is the Hodie Natus Est (I led the huge candlelight procession when our choir did this at St. Michael and All Angels in Dallas, so it holds special meaning for me and is a great example of gregorian chant, though written much later by Benjamin Britten.)
Frank's Panis Angelicus (so pretty!)
Tchaikovsky's Romeo and Juliet
Rimsky-Korsakov's Scheherezade
Faure's Sicilienne
Any guitar music performed by Andres Segovia or John Williams

And last, but not least, the song my mother played on the piano whenever she was waiting for everyone to get ready to go somewhere. I am not sure why she sat down and played this song over and over, but she did and it's etched in my heart forever. I can still smell her Windsong perfume and hear her passionate rendition of this lilting Brahms piece. Brahms Intermezzo in A Major, Opus 118, No. 2.

Andres Segovia and his beloved guitar
I just noticed a startling lack of Mozart and Bach. Well, one cherishes what one cherishes!

Dive in. Savor the experience. Have fun!


Free Classical Music online

How to read guitar music notes

Free piano lessons
How to read music
How to read music (easier)

Composers by Time Period

100 Best Composers
Top 10 Composers
(This one is just someone's opinion, but they ranked them with photos which I would like you to have.)


Monday, September 9, 2013

The Mysterious and Wonderful World of Solfege!

by Hannah Hoyt
Doe, a deer, a female deer,
Ray, a spot of golden sun,
Me, a name I call myself,
Far, a long, long way to run...

Sew, a needle pulling thread,
La, a note to follow Sew,
Tea, a drink with jam and bread,
That will bring us back to Doe.
Do, re, mi, fa, so, la, ti, do -- so, do!

When I was growing up, I always struggled with music theory. I had a learning disability in math, and there just seemed to be an impenetrable barrier between me and the advanced mathematics behind how music theory worked. And it is hard. There are scales, chords, key signatures, and time signatures, beyond that there are melodic and harmonic minor scales, strange chords like the N6,  Dominant 7, the tritone, picardy third, polychords and polyrhythms,  it just makes your head spin! 

I heard my friends talk about these things, and felt like they were equations of Advanced Calculus beyond my understanding.

Music theory was impossible for me to understand until I learned it through solfege. Suddenly the world made sense. I had the building blocks to understand whatever weird chord or scale I saw. My understanding of music skyrocketed and I grew enormously as a musician: composing, transcribing, arranging, improvising, sight-reading better than I ever had before. But despite its reputation for being the ABCs of music, there is not much public information on solfege available.

Almost everyone has been introduced to solfege through Julie Andrews in “The Sound of Music.” She says it’s the musical ABCs. But unlike ABCs, music is made up of half steps and whole steps, changing patterns depending on what scale is being used. In “The Sound of Music,” the children learn a basic major scale:

Do Re Mi Fa Sol La Ti Do

But this scale is not a bunch of whole steps. It is whole steps mixed with halfs.
There is a half step between Mi and Fa, and between Ti and Do. In fact, that Ti NEEDS to be a half step so our ears can hear the note and WANT it to travel upwards a tiny bit to finish the scale and become Do. It’s how a major scale works. You can see (and hear) this best on a piano:

But solfege can be used not only in a major scale but other scales as well. Each solfege syllable can move a half step lower or higher. The common vowel for a syllable that’s been lowered by half a step is an ‘e’. Like “Me, Le, Te, Fe.”

So how do you sing a minor scale? A natural minor scale, involves moving the 3rd , 6th, and 7th notes down a half step. So instead of Mi, you sing Me. Instead of La, you sing Le, and instead of Ti, it’s Te.

Do Re Me Fa Sol Le Te Do
1    2   b3   4   5   b6   b7   8

Before we called a scale a scale, it had another name. The Greeks called scales “modes” and had seven of them that musicians still use today. Each of these modes have their own solfege syllables to remember them by. We already know Ionian. Here is it’s closest relative, the Lydian scale.

Do Re Mi Fi Sol La Ti Do
  1  2   3  #4   5   6    7   8

See, it’s JUST like a major scale, except for ONE note. You move Fa up a half step, and sing “Fi.”

Because the 4th note in the scale is sharp, I place it ABOVE a normal major scale (Ionian) in the list of modes. The other modes use flat notes. Here is a list of them all, as well as the notes that are altered:

Lydian                        Do Re Mi Fi Sol La Ti Do
                         1   2   3  #4   5   6    7  8

If you go to the piano and play this, you’ll notice it sounds like a 90s film score. Like Titanic, “Back to the Future,”  or "E. T.” The raised 4th brings a sense of comfort and beauty. To me, it brings more inner peace than an Ionian major scale. This is why composers like James Horner used it to give a sense of childlike innocence and safety in kids movies like “An American Tail,” and “Balto.” 

I know you're confused right now, but read the article through a couple of times. You'll catch on!

Ionian                        Do Re Mi Fa Sol La Ti Do                        (a normal “major scale”)
                         1    2    3    4   5   6   7  8

This is the scale everyone learned in “The Sound of Music.” Notice how I left the numbers at the bottom alone, because these are our default “scale degrees.”

Mixolydian            Do Re Mi Fa Sol La Te Do                       
1    2    3   4    5   6   b7   8

Te is a useful syllable in an otherwise major scale. If you use the notes Do Mi Sol Te (instead of Ti) in a chord, you get a perfect barbershop 7th chord. This is called a Dominant 7th Chord, and is an essential part of music theory. (Actually, all atoms vibrate the notes Do Mi Sol Te. Your atoms do too. It is theorized that if atoms vibrated the note Ti instead of Te, something weird would happen like they would explode or disappear or something. So this chord holds the universe together. No big.)

Dorian                        Do Re Me  Fa Sol La Te Do                       
                             1    2   b3   4    5     6   b7   8

Just like our normal major and minor scales go together, Lydian has a minor scale to go with its major one: Dorian. Dorian is like a natural minor scale without a flat 6 scale degree. That “La” in a Dorian mode is just as beautiful as the “Fi” in the Lydian mode. (would it blow your mind to know they are the SAME NOTE? Start on the note Me as your 1, and work your way up on the piano, There is La, the #4.) 

Dorian is the scale used in Ralph Vaughn-Williams’ “Fantasia on Greensleeves.” Listen to the piece and see if you can hear the La  instead of Le.

Aeolian            Do Re Me Fa Sol Le Te Do                       
1    2   b3   4   5   b6   b7   8

Aeolian is the name of the natural minor scale that you’re used to. Like Dorian is related to Lydian, Aeolian is related to Ionian (our natural major) in the same way. Use Me as your 1, again, and travel up on the piano. You’ll find 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, and 7 are all normal like a major scale. This is because all minor scales start three notes below their major scale counterparts. Some teachers like to teach solfege using a “fixed do” system, meaning that your Do stays the same and you start a minor scale 3 notes below that on La. A fixed Do minor scale will go: La Ti Do Re Mi Fa Sol La.

Phrygian            Do Ra  Me Fa Sol Le Te Do           
1    b2  b3   4   5   b6   b7   8

Phrygian is an Aeolian (natural minor) scale with its 2nd note flatted.  This makes it sound a little gypsy like. It can also make for a really cool theme in a film score. The “Men in Black” main theme by Danny Elfman is in Phrygian, as is the track “Nice to Meld You,” from Michael Giacchino’s “Star Trek” score.

Locrian            Do Ra  Me Fa  Se   Le   Te Do
1    b2  b3   4   b5  b6  b7   8

No one ever uses Locrian. The addition of a b5 to a scale that already has a b2, b3, b6, and a 7b makes it sound very unstable, like it could collapse into random dissonance and tone clusters at any minute. Sorry Locrian, but no one likes you.

Now that a whole new world of musical possibilities has been opened up to you, lets try solfeging something a little more complicated than Do Re Mi. You can use the piano to help you out. How about the theme to “Men in Black” that I talked about earlier?

Do Do Ra Ra Do Do Ra Ra Do Do Me Me Re Re Ra Ra   (it just repeats like that.)

That was in Phrygian. How about something in Lydian, with the #4?

Do Fi Sol          Do Fi Sol La Fi Sol La   Fi Sol

Recognize it? Now you can solfege West Side Story!

How about Dorian?

Do Me   Fa  Sol   La Sol Fa   Re Te   Do Re Me   Do Do Te Do Re    Te Sol…

This is probably pretty difficult right now since you JUST learned all these new syllables. Don’t worry about it, I had to take 4 semesters of Ear Training at Berklee to get all these modes and syllables in my head! It’s all a matter of practice. But hopefully now you see how solfege really is an alphabetical tool in the language of music, and how it can be used to understand complicated things like different scales and complex chords. I hope you’ve enjoyed this glimpse into the world of musicians and composers, and that it wasn’t too confusing. This topic can be really hard to explain, especially on paper. But I encourage you to try this stuff out. Find out which mode is your favorite (Lydian is mine, and my husband’s is Dorian.) And explore the new world of music at your fingertips!

~Hannah Hoyt

As an afterthought, yes, there are hand signals that go with each solfege syllable, but I’ve only learned the ones in Ionian. The hand signals are fun and useful when trying to visualize each sound, but as a person struggling with dyslexia, they’ve been pretty confusing and hard to deal with as well. 

If you do want to learn them, though, scroll back up to the beginning of this article and look to your right. There's a link to Kodaly's "Hand Signs" book there and a couple of other music books Charlotte Mason recommended, too. 

Don't forget to click on the highlighted words and listen to all the great music in different modes!