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Solfege- how widely is it used

Hello Choral Directors!
My family recently moved from Massachusetts to Texas. I was one of three directors for a decently-sized, non-auditioned choir and in that capacity was exposed to basic solfege (basic scale and intervals). One of my children sang with one of the better know choirs in Boston, where I understand they did not use solfege.
Once we moved to TX, we discovered that in the school systems down here solfege is taught starting in 4th grade- it is part of the state's requirements for chorus. (Up north, my impression was that some teachers used it in elementary school but most did not.) Consequently by middle school, children are fluent in it and my daughter was very much behind. Additionally, while I directed a chorus up north without working knowledge of it, that won't happen down here. Of course, I will work to learn it as will my children.
So this made me wonder- how universal is this? Do most states require that solfege is taught starting in elementary school? For state, national, or international competitions, how often is solfege used in teaching music or correcting pitch problems? Do colleges now require expert knowlege in this?
By the way, I am not doubting the value of it- I'm just surprised that it has caught on so completely down here.
Rachael Barlow
(former director of All Together Now Family Chorus, Littleton, MA)
Replies (28): Threaded | Chronological
on September 7, 2010 6:07am
Interesting topic!  You've already had some informed and thought-provoking replies about current use.  I have two thoughts as well as some historical perspective:
Anthony Maiello, an orchestral conductor, once said in a clinic that part of his preparation of a score is to sing all the parts using solfeg.  He does this until he can sing them all from memory (at least he did in the early 90's, when he gave this particular clinic.). 
For Kyle: please announce on Choralnet the video of Whitacre's Leonardo when it comes out.   Having conducted it multiple times 2 years ago, that would be a challenge - but more important, a wonderful example to folks who use solfeg!
The excerpts below are from an article I wrote (found by clicking here) in the March, 2006 Choral Journal on the history of solmization. The article is admittedly not about present use - but does give an interesting historical backdrop to the use of the tonic sol-fa system, in which the use of solfeg syllables were an integral part. 
I started researching the subject because I was interested in the hand signs which I thought Kodaly or Orff created.  It led me, of course, to Glover and Curwen.  Where it relates to your post is in its worldwide use.
"The Norwich sol-fa system was developed by Sarah Glover sometime between 1810 and 1830. In 1835, she published a book on this method, titled Scheme for Rendering Psalmody Congregational. Curwen's method was not far behind-his book on Tonic sol-fa was published in 1843.12 Curwen based his system entirely on Glover's (alterations, or in his words improvements, will be discussed below) and consistently gave her credit for the initial idea of letter notation and sol-fa.
In the last half of the nineteenth century, Tonic sol-fa became widely used in British schools, growing exponentially in number of pupils. Curwen's method had about four thousand active users in 1853 and over one-hundred thousand students by 1860.14 The movement was able to claim 315,000 followers by 1872 and spread throughout the British Isles and other areas including the Australian colonies, New Zealand, South Africa, Canada, and the United States. It was also introduced by missionaries to their converts in India, Madagascar, China, Japan, and the South Sea Islands. 
Gordon Cox, in his book A History of Music Education in England 1872-1928,writes, "[T]he sight singing movement [was] propogated particularly by John Curwen and John Hullah (1812-84).16 This movement ...gave rise to a tremendous enthusiasm for choral singing, which seemed to engulf the nation." As a school music teaching method, the Tonic sol-fa system was officially recognized by the English Education Department in 1860 and by 1891, two-and-a-half million children in Britain were receiving instruction in Tonic sol-fa in elementary schools."
Again, Curwen's system included rhythm (indicated by punctuation) as well as solfeg.  His system was originally devised as a precursor to traditional note reading. Later, Curwen came to view it as a replacement for learning traditional notation - a view  which ultimately led to the decline of its popularity.
Your question is a broad one, and would be a great thesis or dissertation. I also said as much in my final words 4 years ago:
In writing this article, additional strands of thought were raised that seem worthy of pursuit: How prevalent is Curwen's system today? If it is used, is the system used in lower, middle, or upper levels of schooling, and in what ways?
How about it, someone?
Gary Weidenaar
on September 7, 2010 8:55am
Gary:  Thanks so much for making your article on solfege known, and for the excerpts you included.
Of course any study has to be limited, and as something of a specialist in early music I have to point out that you might have gone rather further back in history than Sarah Glover in 1810.  In fact you would have found the origins of ALL modern syllable systems in the work of the monk Guido d'Arezzo in the early 11th century.  Like Glover and like Kodaly in later centuries, Guido developed his system of notation specifically as teaching methods, and not some abstract, high-falutin' theory.  And it was his work that gave us (a) our modern system of staff notation; (b) the beginnings of our modern system of pitch notation; (c) the awareness of halfstep placement that is the key to understanding how to sightread accurately; (d) the use of single tone-syllables that were easy to sing (as opposed to numbers, which are often multisyllabic and are different in every language); and perhaps most important (d) the linking of those solmization syllables to letter names for the notes (which had been in use for millenia and turn up in the oldest examples of musical notation presently known).
So neither sol-fa in its original form nor the initial idea for the use of letter names can be attributed to Sarah in any way, shape or form.
Now WHY did Guido do what he did?  Simple.  He is revered as a music theorist.  (What else can you call someone who almost single-handedly invented musical notation?!!!)  But in fact he was a music educator.  One of his monkish assignments was to train the choirboys in choirboy school, which meant teaching them all the chants of the Office and the Mass that they would need to know, which they had to learn by ear and memorize becasuse THERE WAS NO NOTATION IN EXISTENCE!  There were certianly early attempts, including neumatic notation and some other systems that were pretty bizarre, but at best those systems were mnemonics to remind a singer of the shape of a melody he had already memorized.  Guido's was an absolute system that could be read off the page by anyone who understood the system, EVEN IF THEY HAD NEVER HEARD THE CHANT BEFORE, and he told us in his writings that it reduced the training time for his choirboys from 10 years to only two!  But he was also a good politician, and the reason he gave the Pope (after a very effective demonstration in which the Pope himself sigh read a chant after a short instruction period) was that his system would allow the true and proper chants of the Church to be distributed uniformly throughout Christiandom.
And Guido's system was SO effective in music education, that it was still in use 600 years later and turns up almost without modification in Thomas Morley's "A Playne and Easy Introduction to Practiall Musik."  And it was from Guido's solmization system, with its three overlapping hexachords, its letter names for notes, and its consistent syllables for the notes within each hexachord that ALL modern solfege developed, including movable-do, fixed-do, and probably Tonic sol-fa as well.  (Guido's system, by the way, was a movable-do--or rather a movable "ut"--system, and by the 16th century had been expanded to take into consideration the transposition of modes that was by then commonplace.  Fixed-do is simply a perversion of his system, substituting syllables for letter names, whereas Guido used both.)
Full disclosure:  I have never been able to wrap my mind around tonic sol-fa, or to understand how it works with so few tone syllables, although I understand Guido's hexachordal system just fine and use it on a regular basis for analyzing and editing medieval and renaissance music for performance.  But that's my problem, not yours.  And am I correct that the Sacred Harp system as used in the U.S. is actually a later and perhaps simplified version of tonic sol-fa?  But my guess is that whatever else it does, the power of the system is in idenfifying where the half steps fall in the scale, which after a thousand years is STILL the key to reading music off the page.
All the best,
P.S.  Peter, it was Oscar Hammerstein, not Maria von Trapp, who came up with the dumb syllables used in "The Sound of Music," which in fact work only in English.  Maria would never have sung anything remotely similar.  I actually met her (Maria von Trapp, not Julie Andrews) back stage at a taping of the Johnny Carson Show, and she was every inch the gracious and proper European artistocratic lady, and a very impressive woman indeed.  That much, Rodgers and Hammerstein got right!
on September 7, 2010 10:29am
John - Maria probably wouldn't have sung in English for the Von Trapp kids, no :D 
on September 7, 2010 3:05pm
John Howell wrote:
I have to point out that you might have gone rather further back in history than Sarah Glover in 1810.  In fact you would have found the origins of ALL modern syllable systems in the work of the monk Guido d'Arezzo in the early 11th century.
I did - here are the first words of the article that opens when you folllow the "click here" link in that post:
Using syllables to represent notes as an aid to reading music has been a teaching tool since pre-Medieval times.! Guido d' Arezzo used this process, called
solmization, in the middle of the eleventh century.Though Guido also used other sets of syllables, the most widely known syllables are from the Hymn to St. John, in which the first note of each phrase ascends by a tone from ut to la. The notes and their corresponding "shortcut syllables" were: ut for ut queant laxis, re for resonare fibrii and so forth.s As a result, the syllables ut-re-mi-fa-sol-la were set forth. Use of these syllables spread rather quickly, since circa 1100 John Cotton wrote that the English, French, and Germans were utilizing the syllables ut-re-mi-fa-sol-la. . . .
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