Below is a short list of some pieces (many with which you’re probably already familiar) that work very well as solfege ‘practice’ pieces:


The rising tide of music literacy

by David Edmonds, R&R Chair for Student Activities

Recently, I was reminded of the aphorism “a rising tide raises all boats.”

After adjudicating a recent district music festivals here in Montana, I thought of this as a different kind of “rising tide”: that of music literacy. We in Montana are gradually adopting new standards of large group sight-singing accountability. Our choirs are now expected to read full pieces averaging 24-32 measures in SSA, TTB, or SATB voicings presenting a host of new musical demands on our directors and young singers.

After each school finished their sight-reading component on the festival I tried to ask the directors if they felt that our higher standards were benefiting their choirs’ overall literacy skills and from the schools that were most successful with these new standards, the answer was invariably an emphatic “yes, definitely.”

This is, of course, the ultimate goal of what we’re trying to do: to employ the choirs’ new-found skills to facilitate the reading of real music. Unfortunately, sight-singing still too often gets relegated to a few isolated minutes of each rehearsal, completely divorcing it from the rest of the music learning taking place in the very same class. It’s our version of “teaching to the test,” so it’s no wonder that the most common objection I hear to teaching sight-reading is “it takes too much time out of class.”

Indeed! One may as well spend ten minutes of every rehearsal teaching French diction and never have the choir sing a French song in performance. I think it’s safe to say none of us would do this, and the students would loath this learning task. I can hear their complaints: "Why do we have to do this?" Exactly. Why? We must always remember that sight-singing skill is a tool to be employed, not an empty exercise on which we are to be adjudicated once a year.

So, in an effort to encourage us along the path of being more inclusive with our choir’s music literacy, here are a few tips to get a group started from square one:

1) Choose a system and use it consistently. There are pros and cons to the various systems. I tend to advocate moveable ‘Do’ (and ‘La’-based minor) as the most accessible system for young singers but the most important point is to choose one that you believe in and stick with it.

2) Use Curwen hand signs whenever you sight sing. I’ve conducted a one-week-long summer choir camp here at the University of Montana for five years now. Every year we have students who have never used hand signs before, and every year they master the skill in about three days. Don’t let your choir’s initial grumblings prevent you from giving them this effective tool. There are multiple benefits to hand signs, despite the initial hurdle you might face in getting your choir to use them, including:

a. Spatial/kinesthetic reinforcement of pitch via a “pitch ladder” placing the various scale degrees higher and lower on a virtual ladder. (to show how effective this is, have your choir sing as you show the hand signs on a vertical pitch ladder, then throw a wrench in and reverse the ‘ladder’, i.e. make Re lower than Do. This will invariably screw them up!)
b. Kinesthetic reinforcement of the beat/pulse can be utilized with your hand signs if you simultaneously use your arm like a hammer that’s dropping on each beat.
c. If a singer is not hand signing it serves as an easy and clear measure of individual participation and competence (or lack thereof) with the material at hand.

3) Build in the singing of scales and common harmonic progressions. Scales and harmonic progressions are the staple of any choral diet and every choir should have a command of this ‘vocabulary’. Major, minor, chromatic, whole-tone and other scales and modes should be sung regularly.

4) Shoot for teaching at least one piece (or a large portion thereof) every concert cycle exclusively by using solfege. Yes, this will be tedious at first, but the students will reap major benefits from this process. Every time I’ve done this with a choir and am able to say “look at what you’ve accomplished—you learned this entire piece with zero recourse to the piano” it has been a huge confidence-booster for the group. A few points about this process:

a. Diatonic pieces work best (at least with moveable “Do”). Too much chromaticism will offer diminishing returns when using solfege. Modulations are no problem, and sometimes individual voice parts might work best in two different keys simultaneously (this is especially true of modal pieces). Be creative and remember: it’s a means to an end. Use it as such and make it work! Encountered one little tricky passage? Solfege it! Can’t find that starting note? What’s its solfege syllable/what’s it’s scale degree in the chord?
b. If you can’t learn an entire piece on solfege, pick specific sections from multiple pieces that will work well. The point is simply that they’re using it for practical purposes.

5) Try “no piano day” in your choir class. Or “no piano time” for a portion of a class. Agree that you’ll only give starting pitches or, better yet, bring a pitch pipe and give pitches from that. If your singers aren’t used to internalizing their pitch from a given note this will be a stretch (but a hugely beneficial stretch)!


Below is a short list of some pieces (many with which you’re probably already familiar) that work very well as solfege ‘practice’ pieces:
Ubi Caritas (Ola Gjeilo) – SATB (SSAA and TTBB) unaccompanied
Walton WW1386
m. 1-27 = F# minor/A major; m. 28-32 = B major/G# minor; m. 33-45 = F# minor/major

Cantate Domino (Hans Leo Hassler) – SATB unaccompanied
C major (modulates to V)
Includes limited use of raised 4th (“fi”) and 1st (“di”) degrees and lowered 7th degree (“te”)

Tell My Father (arr. Andres Ramsey) – TTB piano & violin
Hal Leonard HL 02501096
G major
Includes two instances of a lowered 7th (“te”) degree

The King of Love My Shepherd Is (arr. Mack Wilberg) – TTBB, harp (piano) and 2 flutes
Oxford University Press OU.9780193862463 (also available SATB)
E major

Requiem (arr. Craig Hella Johnson) – SATB piano
F major

Lift Thine Eyes from “Elijah” (Felix Mendelssohn) – SSA unaccompanied
D major (modulates to V and to ii)
Includes limited use of raised 4th (“fi”) and 1st (“di”) degrees

Dirait-on (Morten Lauridsen) – SATB (SSAA and TTBB) piano
Peer Music #61846-122 (HL 228805)
D-flat major

O Salutaris Hostias (Leo Delibes) – SA piano (or organ)
E-flat major
Includes limited use of raised 2nd (“ri”) and 4th (“fi”) degrees and lowered 7th degree (“te”)

Ferleih Uns Frieden (Felix Mendelssohn) – SATB organ (or piano or orchestra)
E-flat major

No matter the starting point for your choir’s music reading ability, just a little time each rehearsal plus a concerted effort to apply their skills to reading their concert literature will reap huge dividends. And when those students become music education majors, or become teachers themselves, they pass this on to their students, and pretty soon the tide of music literacy begins to steadily rise.
Have questions about resources? Don’t know where to begin? Interested in suggestions on what you can add to your choir’s music literacy regimen? Feel free to email me: david.edmonds@umontana.edu