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  • Writer's pictureJenny Ferris

A krash kourse in Kodaly

Something occured to me the other day as a result of a conversation about Kodály.

I was talking to a friend of a friend who teaches piano as a side business (and is therefore an expert in music education) who claimed to know all about Kodály and proclaimed it useless, stating "what's the point of singing do, re, mi when you can just say the letter names?" and while there is so much wrong with that sentence that I had to go away and take a few deep breaths, it got me to thinking that while I'm forever banging on about this pedagogical marvel, not everyone is fully familiar with the philosophy and in fact there are a lot of misconceptions.

Yes, the Kodály philosophy does involve solfa (do, re, mi etc.) and hand signs and rhythm names such as taa and ti-ti. But these are simply tools that Kodály teachers use as part of their trade. They are not the essence of Kodály-based music teaching.

So let's delve into a little history and philosophy!

Zoltan Kodály was a Hungarian musician, composer and educator born in 1882. During the course of his teaching duties, he noticed that a lot of the tertiary students coming through the universities and music academies who had reached a level of pre-professional music but struggled with basic musicianship - playing in time, in tune, singing back phrases from their music.

In short, they were very good button-pushers of their instruments, but had not internalised the music in any way.

This motivated Kodály to reshape the way music was taught in Hungary and he realised that this meant going back to the very beginning, the kindergarten. When asked "what is the ideal time to start teaching a child music?" he responded "about nine months before they are born".

Kodály himself did not actually design a pedagogical method. Instead, he came up with a set of principles or ideals for teaching music to children. These ideals included the use of folk song as a musical "mother tongue" so that children could pick up repertoire quickly and easily.

He also advocated the use of voice as the primary instrument for teaching music. This makes sense for a number of reasons

  • The voice is the most democratic instrument, everybody has one! You don't need to worry about the amount of funding available to buy instruments.

  • Students already come with a certain amount of knowledge regarding the use of this instrument (If they can speak, they can learn to sing with relative ease) whereas the study of other instruments requires a certain amount of time be spent on the mechanics of how to make a sound

  • As an assessment tool, it makes it easier for a teacher to see when a child "gets it" and when they do not. If they are unable to replicate a sound, it's more to do with not being able to hear and process the original sound than not knowing where to put their fingers on a violin.

These ideals were later crystalised into a comprehensive teaching method by pedagogues and students of Kodály's.

In my opinion it can be boiled down to three words: learn through play. Music learning should not be a dry and stuffy theoretical concept that is teaching as abstract a concept as sound to young children who have not yet had a chance to experience it.

Instead, it begins with simple folk songs, ideally with an accompanying game. Once students have played the game, fallen in love with and sung the song a thousand times already, then the teacher begins unpacking the musical elements of the song through careful questioning.

"Can you keep a beat while singing the song?" "Did you hear a new sound in there that was not one of our known rhythms?" "How many beats did it last for?" "How many sounds on that beat?" "Were they even or uneven?" etc.

Over a period of many weeks, the details of this new element are gradually teased out so that by the time the students have given it a name and learned how to write it, it is no longer an abstract, meaningless concept but a tangible, meaningful part of music that has real ties to their world.

What a wonderful idea! After all, we don't expect children to read and write before they can speak. Why teach music that way?

This questioning process forms the first of the three P's of the Kodály methodology: Prepare, Present, Practice.

Each of the questions and their corresponding tidbit of information are delivered as part of a Focus Segment - a short 2 minute mini-lesson in amongst the singing and game-playing where the real learning occurs. This process may last for a number of weeks, depending on the age of the students and frequency of lessons.

This process is beautifully laid out by Rita Klinger in her book "A Guide To Lesson Planning In A Kodály Setting".

Klinger Lesson Planning Book

The second P, Present, lasts for only one focus segment and is where the teacher "makes conscious" the new musical element. They tie together all the known information about this element and give it a name. For example "musicians have a name for the rhythm that has four even sounds on a beat. We call it tika-tika and it looks like this"

Then, the class will enter the third phase of the process: Practice. This stage essentially goes on forever. Students utilise their knowledge of this new element and find ways to perform it, read it, write it, compose with it, improvise with it and identify it when listening to new repertoire or art music.

Now, if any of this is resonating with you, I highly recommend undertaking some Kodály certification training, as my scribbles are hardly a replacement for actual training. Hopefully though, this has given you some insight into this wonderful philosophy and all it encompasses and you will no longer just think of the funny words from the Sound of Music!

For more info, check out your local Kodaly organisation. Here are a couple which may prove useful:

Organisation of American Kodaly Educators

Kodaly Music Education Institute of Australia

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