Today’s Musical Mocha just might be controversial. I know this because I have sat and ate the popcorn while reading voice teachers in FB groups debate between fixed do and moveable do. It’s as if we have to pick one over the other and that one (often it seems fixed do) might even be evil. That’s just silly, they are both good for different reasons. I’d like to talk about how I use fixed Do solfege to help people of all ages gain pitch accuracy. Most of us do not have perfect pitch, also called absolute pitch. (The ability to accurately label notes upon hearing them.) In fact only 1 in 10,000 people do. Most of us have relative pitch. So singing in tune accurately or playing by ear can be tricky.
Thankfully, we have help. Those of us with relative pitch abilities can play a note on a tuned instrument and match it. It is helpful for singers that are struggling with pitch to have a piano accompanist who highlights the melody of the piece to assist. However, this is only a temporary fix. Can they really sing in tune? We don’t want our students to go into the recording studio one day (excited to be there) only to have to be autotuned (shudder) because they can’t sing in tune. It’s our job to teach them how to develop pitch accuracy.
I submit to you that if you can sing acapella, then you will likely be able to hold your part more reasonably when harmonizing. You will be able to sing with accompaniment most often without much of a hitch. How can we really improve our listening and producing correct pitches acapella? Voila!!! The power of learning the fixed Do system is here for all of us.
I started out as many in college singing with a moveable Do system. That is what every key you are in- the tonic or home tone is Do. This is great for vocal exercises that move throughout the entire vocal range. I’m not knocking moveable do. It has it’s place in vocal warm-ups, and it is quite musical sounding (very pretty) and useful. But I want to talk about how much I love the fixed Do system for developing pitch accuracy and identifying tones.
Fixed Do-Let me sing your praises!
When C is always Do and D is always Re and E is always Me and so on…our ears gain a confidence. I know where Do is- and C is. I can sing acapella. It makes interval relationships easier to identify. It’s beautiful. Just try it. Start reading the staff in Fixed Do. Start singing all your pitches with your students having them identify pitches back to you. As most don’t have perfect pitch-give them the aid to start with. Play Do on the piano then let them identify their intervals from there by listening. Do-Re and then Do-Me and so on.
I honestly strongly disliked aural skills class in college because although I could sing in tune with a piano- and most of the time acapella, I couldn’t identify the pitches by ear without the aid of a piano to assist me. This made me frustrated and yes- even resentful about it. Later, when I went through the Yamaha Music Education training, we were required to use and teach a fixed Do system. I had to learn it. Once I started down that path, I really never wanted to stop using fixed do. It had really helped me and my students. Now after many moons of using a fixed Do system, my pitch security has radically improved. I still don’t have absolute pitch. I still have relative pitch. Some days my ear is more firmly tuned then other days. But, overall my ear is better. Thank you fixed Do. You are a friend. My piano and voice students that always sing their pitches in a fixed way- just hear better. They just do better.
One thing I have really been striving to do lately is make them sing their intervals acapella all the more. I have taken away the piano for a good portion of our singing because it was like never taking the training wheels off the bike for some of my students. I no longer play all their vocal exercises with the piano. They have to learn to sing accurately acapella. For those struggling I often employ vocal slides to get them to the true pitch either up or down from where they currently are. I really help them to get to sol, and really sing that sol in tune!! Don’t allow your students to sing out of tune. It helps no one. Note: the students that have trouble with pitch will often stop singing. Kindly convince them to do it anyway. Hopefully your studio is a safe place so they will be willing to take risks, like this. Be encouraging, let them know that nothing bad will happen to them if they sing it out of tune. You will help them get to the right pitch. They are there to learn and you are there to help them.
I used to give in to letting them not sing. If they didn’t feel like singing, I wouldn’t make any issue of it. If a parent said, “they just don’t want to sing. They only want to play the piano. Can they just do that?” I might try to convince them for a few minutes that it would be in their best musical interest, but then like Burger King, I would let them have it their way. After all, they were the client and I wanted to keep them. That student would stop singing. They also would have a huge gap in their ear-training.
I no longer allow that. My pianists don’t have to be soloists, but they do have to be able to sing their pitches accurately. Or at least moving on a path towards accuracy. It’s my job. I’m hired to do that whether the student or parent realizes that or not. Often they don’t. They often think singing is something you were born able to do. They often think all singers have perfect pitch naturally. They really don’t even know the true definition of perfect pitch. It’s understandable where all of that is coming from. Ever watch American Idol and hear the judges say that someone is “pitchy?” Yikes! It’s the ultimate put down. Who wants to risk it it the real world? I’d keep my mouth shut, too! Our pop culture has worsened this image.
However, as teachers we know better. Our students are at a complete disadvantage if they can’t sing in tune acapella. What happens to that student when they decide to learn guitar and sing and strum at a campfire? (Not an uncommon pastime.) Sadly, they can’t. If you push a little harder to sing in tune accurately with them now…they will have more musical opportunities in their life. They will be able to sing and play without the melody. They can harmonize with others. (A separate skill-but this is the path to start on towards that.) They will more likely be able to hear a riff or a melody and be able to quickly figure it out on their instrument. It opens up the world of composition and improvisation.
Now I am not talking about the students that can’t hear pitches at all. That is an extremely small part (2-5%) of the population. They are rare.That’s a whole separate thing to discuss for a different day. I’m just talking about helping average students with relative pitch improve their accuracy. I encourage you- get going with fixed Do- stay the course-it’s amazing the results you will get.
That’s your Musical Mocha for today. I hope you find it tasty and not bitter. In the next article, I will talk about how I employ the Curwen hand signs to aid with fixed Do. Have a beautiful day!