When I needed my grade 5 theory certificate to do my higher singing exams, my singing teacher sent me to a theory tutor and I spent two terms learning theory out of books.
Unsurprisingly that made me hate theory like I hated maths, and it really didn’t help me to understand much about how music worked.
Learning to pass the sight-singing element of my exams wasn’t much better. I know my teachers did try to help me learn interval patterns, scales and arpeggios, but in essence the approach to singing music I didn’t know was “have some music, now sing”. I didn’t get taught any systematic way to unpack the music.
So when I rocked up to my first Kodály-based course, I was floored. In fact, I’ve taken several more courses since, and every time, there is at least one jaw-dropping moment of understanding something that I’d been told intellectually, but never managed to fully understand.
Now I’m teaching professionally, I am absolutely convinced that Kodály and those who came after him hit upon something absolutely fundamental to music education. We can only become musically literate and have a true understanding of the theoretical underpinning of why music works if we start with the music.
Who was Kodály?
Zoltán Kodály was a Hungarian composer and musician. He was also very interested in linguistics, education and philosophy. He spent a lot of time collecting and recording folksongs (as was very much the fashion at the time) and this inspired him to develop a philosophy of music education which was based in singing and music making, rather than reading and rote learning.
Kodály worked with education experts and other musicians to develop his ideas. His followers have continued to explore and develop the principles of his way of teaching. This is why Kodaly isn’t a fixed “method”, it’s a methodology – a way of approaching teaching music.
As he developed his ideas, Kodály began working to reform music education in Hungary, and even today Hungarian children have daily music and musicianship lessons.
Kodály also wrote lots of music which is still regularly performed around the world.
How is Kodály methodology different to regular music teaching?
Kodály’s fundamental principle was that the music should come first. Instead of sitting down in music class, writing up the traditional Western notes and telling the class what they are and how long they last, Kodály trained teachers start with experiencing the rhythm. When I teach my classes we always start with singing, and (in non-Covid times) with playing games. Right now, I do a lot of body percussion work, cup games and stick games on Zooom! We get to feel the rhythm in our bodies.
Then, we discover the rhythm values. After weeks of playing games and singing songs, we already know in our body what the steady beat feels like. We can learn what a crotchet feels like verses a quaver before we put names to it, so it’s makes perfect sense when we learn names and write up notation.
In Kodály, we use rhythm values that can be spoken in time. Crotchet has two syllables, so is hard to fit to music. Saying “ta” fits with a one beat note. Same for “te-te” or “ti-ti” for quavers. The rhythm names are a modified version of a French system of names. Commonly used rhythm names vary a bit from country to country, but they all have the principle that they fit with the music.
What’s with the hands?
Kodály knew there was no reason to reinvent the wheel! Solfa (sometimes called solfege) is a really old system of naming note pitches using single syllables. If you’ve seen The Sound of Music, you probably know it already: do a deer, a female deer; re a drop of golden sun…
It was Sarah Glover who fine tuned this system to what we call “moveable do” which is the system we use in Kodály methodology teaching. Movable do means that wherever the tonic is (the home note) in a major key, we call that do. For me, this really made sense of why key signatures are the way they are (it’s to do with the intervals).
Kodály methodology also uses a *la-*based minor which means we use la for the tonic in a minor key. This helped me a lot with singing in a minor key and feeling how it relates to the major.
As for the hands, the signs were codified by John Curwen, and they are still used in music classrooms beyond the Kodály methodology, especially in the USA. There is a different sign for each note (even the chromatic ones!). I cannot overstate how much making the music physical, and moving my hand up and down has helped with my singing, reading and even tuning! There’s something about that physical and visual motion of pitch going up and down that is incredibly helpful when you’re getting a bit flat or sharp!
Why do I love it?
I am convinced that Kodály methodology is the way forward because it all starts with music. My sight reading was dreadful before I started using the Kodály tools. I full on failed my Grade 5 sight reading test.
Now, I have a much better internal sense of the beat. I can break down rhythms so I can get them right. Where before I looked at a piece of music and knew it went up or down, now I’m beginning to hear it in my head because I have anchors, I have tools to do that.
I am even a better pianist because I can hear the music more in my head. It’s helped me understand the chords I’m playing and what’s actually happening in the music.
Being able to break music down to just the seven notes has made the most intimidating piece of music feel achievable.
“Traditional” music teaching gave me none of that. I could make a good sound, but I didn’t really understand the music. Now, I do.
More than just changing my own life, training in Kodály has opened up new career opportunities for me. I teach Kodály based musicianship for the NYCOS Edinburgh choir, and I’m in the process of studying for the British Certificate of Professional Practice in the Kodály Concept of Music Education (Secondary).
Want to know more?
The best way to know more is to get to a musicianship course. In this new online world, there are classes being offered all over the country. Most of the classes use the British Kodály Academy framework with levels from 1-10. If you’re new, start at level 1. If you’ve done a bit, maybe 3 or 4.
I can recommend classes from the following providers:
- British Kodály Academy (England and online)
- National Youth Choir of Scotland (Scotland and online)
- DoReMi Connect (online)
Or if you’re interested in singing lessons with Kodály-based musicianship included, head over to read more and and enquire about lessons with me.