Solfege… Or: “But I can’t sing!”

Solfege is the practice of singing music using syllables for each note of the scale. If you’ve ever listened to The Sound of Music, you’ve heard Julie Andrews and the children singing Solfege.

This is a form of “moveable do” solfege, in that the do is assigned to the base note of the scale, in this case a B flat.

In beginning violin practice, we perform a different type of solfege called¬†“fixed do”, where do is always assigned to the note C.¬† This exercise is used both to teach music reading skills and also develop the ear, which is vitally important in violin.

Why does a violinist need to develop their ear? Well, a violin isn’t like a piano or even a guitar. On the piano, the individual keys are the notes, and if the piano is correctly tuned, you will always play in tune. Whether you play the correct notes is another matter of course! On the guitar, each semi-tone is marked by a fret. If your fingers are placed correctly, you will play the note correctly.

Violins, on the other hand, have no such aids. While beginner students will often have fingering tapes placed on the fingerboard to help them learn finger placement, eventually you need to be able to “hear” whether or not you are playing in tune.

If you are lucky, you may be one of the 1 in 10 000 who has perfect pitch and be able to hear tonal variations naturally. Otherwise, you will have to develop your ear, and solfege is one way to do that. So keep singing!

Before I leave you, here is another example of solfege, for all you trekkies out there, from the DS9 episode “Chrysalis”

When should my child start violin lessons?

This is a question I hear a lot. And obviously it depends a great deal on the child as an individual, how mature she is, what are her physical capabilities, etc. But I can offer some basic guidelines.

I believe learning music is like learning a language. We don’t expect babies to speak in their first year. However, we continually expose them to human speech in the environment, so they begin to absorb the rhythms and sounds of language. So too, with music. By listening to music, played by a parent or an older sibling, or a recording, they begin to form notions of musical rhythm and melody.

At age 3 or 4, most children will sing and clap along with their favourite Disney movie songs. This is also great development for learning musical ability.

In my opinion, most children do not have the necessary combination of balance, coordination and motor skills to begin learning to play the violin until around age 5 or 6. At this point, they can learn to hold the violin and bow correctly, and can commence actually playing simple melodies within a few lessons. Older children will progress somewhat more quickly through the early lessons, but the process remains the same.

There is no upper age limit for learning to play an instrument. When a lifelong love of music is instilled at a young age, you might find yourself at 40 wanting to learn to play a new instrument.

Check out this great interactive by the Toronto Symphony Orchestra on rhythm and melody:

What to expect at your first lesson

So you’ve decided to take the plunge and enroll your child in violin lessons. Congratulations! This will be an exciting journey for both of you, as your son or daughter discovers the joy of learning to play and you revel in their success!

What can you expect to happen during your first lesson? This depends to some extent on the age of the child as well as any previous musical experience they may have.

In general, however, we will spend our first lessons getting in touch with our body and the different ways we need to move to play the violin. We will also do some singing and clapping to introduce notions of melody and rhythm, as well as the beginnings of reading music. There may not be any actually playing involved in the first few lessons, as the child first learns how to hold the instrument and the bow, how to make bow strokes and how to position the fingers. But fear not, within a few weeks, we’ll be putting bow to strings and bringing forth our first melodies!

We will also evaluate the child’s needs for violin sizing, and recommend a violin size for purchase/rent. An instrument is required for practice during the week.

Please remember that I require parents to be present for lessons for all kids under 10 years old as this is really the only way you will be able to supervise their practice, by knowing what we’ve talked about during the lessons. Your child will be provided with an exercise book during which we will note the weekly plan. It is very important to bring this book to every lesson as it allows me to see what progress has been made and which areas we still need to work on.

I’m looking forward to meeting you and helping you and your children meet your violin playing goals.