Category: Music Appreciation

What is Solfège?

“Solfège”, “solfeggio”, or “so-fa names” – they all refer to the same thing – the system of singing notes of a scale in “Do, Re, Mi, Fa, So, La, Ti”. Remember the song in “The Sound of Music”? Like “do, a deer, a female deer; (Re!) ray, a drop of golden sun”? …

Yes, whenever I introduce the so-fa system to students and teachers, most of them would say, yes, they have heard about do-re-mi. But it’s usually unknown to them where the source of information comes from.

Many students first feel embarrassed to sing in lessons, and often I can feel that they have the question as to why they have to sing in a piano lesson. I usually explain in brief why that would help them with their playing and eventually they start to accept it and get to singing along with me. 

For me, singing has been quite natural. Not that I was trained earlier on with singing lessons (I did have some classical vocal lessons later in life), just that I was used to singing in music lessons and choirs. Then I went on playing piano for a lot of singers and also conducting choirs, so for me singing is fun, expressive and liberating- using my own body as the instrument can be a very emotional experience.

Aural training/Sight singing is a very important aspect in music learning in my opinion. In fact, it is such an important part of music training in European conservatories that aural training/sight singing class (using solfège system) is often mandatory. 

Not only do I introduce aural training/sight singing early on in our Music on Wings Piano Beginner Course, I also encourage students who are late to the training pick up the habit of singing in solfège. It is super helpful for part singing and recognising chords and cadences in graded music/piano exams (e.g. from grade 6 onwards candidates have to sing a melodic line over a piano accompaniment, to grades 7 and 8 do part singing, identify cadences and chords, modulations etc). 

Using solfège system helps students to sing individual notes with more accuracy in pitch as it shows more clearly the relationship between two notes. And there are two ways in general to sing solfège, one, the “Fixed Do” system, and two, the “Movable Do” system.

I myself prefer and teach students the “Movable Do” as it makes much more sense to me musically. In brief,  with “Fixed Do”, “Do” is always “C”, no matter what key you are in.  With “Movable Do”, “do” is the tonic note.  For example, in the key of C Major, “C” is “Do”, but in the key of D Major” “D” is “Do”.  There are variations in terms of syllables used throughout the world, but I stick with “Do, Re, Mi, Fa, So, La, Ti, Do”.

One can also use numbers in place of syllables to sing the notes, and it would be “ one, two, three, four, five, six, sev, one” with “seven” shortened for singing purpose. It works too especially for those who haven’t really started with the solfège system, as numbers tell you exactly what degree of the note it is in the scale, and give you a much clearer idea of the relevant interval between two notes (super helpful with identifying chords and cadences). For me it doesn’t work as well since I am too used to using the solfège system already, and besides, I have perfect pitch, so I don’t have to rely on the numbers to know what notes they are (sorry not sorry! but one can still definitely have a fantastic absolute pitch with systematic training).

When it comes to singing music in minor keys, I use “La, Ti, Do, Re, Mi, Fa, Si, La”, with “La” being the tonic note. For example, in the key of A Minor, “A” is “La, and in the key of E minor, “E” is “La”.  I know, it’s getting a bit complicated, but when you’re used to the system, it’s really much easier than it sounds (!).

In our Grade 8 Aural Training Comprehensive Training Course, I teach solfège and discuss further about how that helps students sing the bass line, identify cadences and chords, as well as sing the part-singing more efficiently and even more importantly, accurately. Without knowing how to identify individual notes one way or another, it becomes a very confusing task for a lot of candidates who are preparing for ABRSM Grade 8 music exams of any instruments. 

Sight singing can be a lot of fun when you know how to approach it. Whether you are a piano student preparing for your grade 8 piano exam, or a piano teacher helping students to learn more effectively in their piano lessons, or a parent wanting to help their kids become more engaged in their music learning journey, singing is wonderful itself and has so much more to offer for instrumental playing. I encourage everyone who hasn’t done much in singing tries their hands in it, and it’s very simple to begin: just start singing the music you’ve been learning in your piano/violin/guitar/clarinet/bass lessons! Start with a line or two and go from there. You can even use pop music, the song sung by your favorite singer/band. Try using so-fa names or numbers and see how you feel about it. There are so much waiting for you to explore in this music learning journey! 

References for Specific Topic – Bach

For those who are preparing for their piano performance diploma exams (ABRSM/TCL- dipABRSM/ATCL/LTCL/LRSM), here are some excellent examples for your reference on programme notes writing:

I know a lot of you are preparing for the Toccata in E minor BWV 914, and so here is one of analysis you can find online.

Books

Title: Oxford Composer Companion: J.S. Bach (Oxford Composer Companions)

Publisher: Oxford University Press

Editor: Malcolm Boyd

Title: The Cambridge Companion to Bach (Cambridge Companions to Music) 

Editor: John Butt

Publisher: Cambridge University Press

Title: The New Bach Reader: A Life of Johann Sebastian Bach in Letters and Documents

Author: Christoph Wolff

Publisher: W.W. Norton & Company

Title: J. S. Bach’s Well-tempered clavier : in-depth analysis and interpretation 

Author:  Siglind Bruhn

Publisher: Edition Gorz

Scores

Title: J.S. Bach : An introduction to his Keyboard Music (Alfred Masterwork Edition)

Author: Willard A. Palmer

Publisher: Alfred Music

Title: The Well-Tempered Clavier – Revised Edition

Publisher: Henle Verlag

Want to learn more about our online consultation sessions for your piano diploma exams?

Sound (CD etc)

Title: Well-Tempered Clavier

Pianist: Andras Schiff

Title: Glenn Gould plays Bach: The Well-Tempered Clavier Books I & II, BWV 846-893

Pianist: Glenn Gould

Title: The Well-Tempered Clavier, Books 1 & 2 [4 CD]

Pianist: Roselyn Tureck

Title: Bach, J.S.: Keyboard Works

Pianist: Angela Hewitt

Reference Books For Specific Topic: Chopin

For those who are preparing for their piano performance diploma exams (ABRSM/TCL- dipABRSM/ATCL/LTCL/LRSM), here are some references on programme notes writing:

Title: Chopin: The Reluctant Romantic
Author: Jim Samson
(background/analysis (not structural) of works like Ballade and Scherzos)

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Title: Chopin, the four ballades‎
Author: Jim Samson

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Title: Chopin’s Letters 
Author: Frederic Chopin
Editor: E. L. Voynich 
Publisher: Dover Books on Music

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Title: Chopin: The Man and His Music
Publisher: Dover Books on Music
Author: James Huneker

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Title: In Search of Chopin
Publisher: Dover Books on Music
Author: Alfred Cortot

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Chopin: The Piano Concertos
Publisher: Cambridge Music Handbooks
Author: John Rink
Editor: Julian Rushton 

Title: The Chopin Companion : Profiles of the Man and the Musician
Publisher: Norton Library, N668
Author: Alan Walker 

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To Adult Piano Beginners

If you are between 18 and 100 and are looking into taking piano lessons as an absolute beginner, CONGRATULATIONS! You’ve made the first step to starting this wonderful musical journey with a magical and (literally) majestic instrument.

I am certainly biased here, being a classically trained pianist for so many years. I basically live, breathe and sleep with piano/music in my head 24/7. I love playing, teaching and writing about it/them.

I have to admit though, it was not love at the first sight, and I was no child prodigy. I just went through the early period of my “piano life” because I was told to like every other obedient child. My brothers played piano and I also played it, with it being part of our education curriculum.

All those early years I spent at the piano with a few piano teachers were not all that enjoyable or educational really – no offense, but I believe most of them didn’t know what they were doing. I have perfect pitch (which can be a blessing and a curse), and my teachers didn’t even know or take advantage of that to teach me. They just went through the books (“play louder, play correct, play faster, and then some more!”) and thought they did their jobs, one of them occasionally comparing me to my brother (who was doing much better than I back then) and implying that I was a disappointment to her as my piano exam grades were not as good.

Long story short, I thought I was not good at piano. In fact, quite the contrary, and not until I met my first real Teacher, that I realized I loved playing the piano and I was actually quite good at it.

She opened my eyes, ears and mind to this whole new magical world of music. I mean, I never thought playing the piano was that fun and literally, colorful! (She made me draw a picture about the piece I was playing, and even though I was super bad at drawing and she teased me about it, it was an amazing experience to know that music had image and story and color and so much more…)

And I was 13.

Piano has taken me to many places, met many people and experienced many things I would have otherwise never had. I went to Europe for music festival before 18, spent a summer playing music in ancient castles and opera houses in Italy and sang in the Vatican Church. I got invited to France and all the amazing countries to perform in concerts. I also wrote books on piano, started a piano school and a charity organization, and did a lot of interesting fun concerts all these years.

I am writing about my experiences to show how grateful I feel to have all these opportunities, just because I play the piano.

I guess what I am saying is, I have a lot of passion for piano, not just playing it, but promoting it, writing about it, and teaching it. I spent a lot of waking (and sleepy) hours thinking about how to help students play better. I wrote articles and make videos sharing for free about how others can play and teach better. I do all these only because I love it.

So whenever someone new – whether they be 3 or 93 – is coming to take piano lessons with me, I am always feel with anticipation and excitement, thinking, “great, another opportunity to share my passion with a new student!”. And when they feel frustrated with how it goes at the beginning, I always remind them, “it’s just a start, don’t worry, it’s okay to not know how and make mistake, because that’s how we learn!”.

All these years in my piano teaching career, I have so many adult students, including those who start from scratch as an absolute beginner, advanced players and piano teachers. Those who are “successful” in learning how to play – meaning they have good progress and enjoy their playing and learning – are always the ones who love the challenges, who put effort into learning and practice, and who are not afraid to make mistakes and keep going.

I know I have been long winded in this post, but what I want to really say to you is, if you still are thinking about whether you should start playing the piano or not, I say “go for it”. There’s nothing to lose but time wasted in pondering upon what could happen if you’ve tried your hands at the piano – and hey, if you’ve tried it and found out you don’t like it, great, no need to pursue it. Move on to the next project!

Let’s make some music together!

Must I learn to read music to play piano?

Some new piano students ask me this when we first meet, “Do I really have to read music? I just want to play the piano.” My answer is, “yes and no”. It depends on what you want to learn and play. There are a lot of great musicians who never learn to read music and yet they play marvellously. And then there are a lot of other great musicians who learn to read music and they play spectacularly. The first group of musicians is usually in the jazz/blues/pop/world music genre. They play by ear, they understand music differently the way those who read music. They usually improvise and create music more freely. The second group of musicians is the classically trained ones. These musicians learnt to read since they were young. They went through all the strict and traditional training. They understand music deeply and through various means. It is not just the reading that they need to learn, but they also know the theory, form and structure behind those notes. All these help them listen and play better. So, if you want to just play pop music and never care to bother with the classical pieces, then “no” I say you probably don’t really need to read music at all, and find someone who can teach you just like that (not the strictly classical piano teachers because they probably don’t know what to do with you!). But, if you ever want to learn something more complicated like a prelude and fugue by Bach or a nocturne by Chopin, then “yes” you would want to learn how to read. I always compare music learning to language learning. It’s really quite similar. Did you learn to read English? I am sure you did because you are now reading my article :) Did you ever wonder, “can I learn to speak English without learning to read English?” It sounds absurd. But the truth is, I bet you learnt to speak before you actually read it – you would probably know more words in your speech way ahead of your reading. It’s the chicken and egg theory. For me, I love to read (I’m an absolute bookworm). So I love to read music as well. I devoured a lot of new music just by playing through them the first second I see them. It’s an amazing feeling to have the ability to be able to sight-read in no time. It’s a lot of fun. But at the same time I like how some jazz and blues musicians who can improvise like mad – that’s really amazing to watch and listen to as well. In fact, I started improvising (and composing) a few years ago. At first, I found it hard to play random things because I was so used to read everything from the score and play exactly that. I was a bit “confused” (a popular word commonly used by my students). I was feeling that I couldn’t make mistake or “ugly sound” like that as I improvised, “that’s embarrassing!”. But I got over it, that’s the only way to learn to play differently. And it got better and was a lot of fun since then. Now I learn to play some blues because it’s just fun to learn something new, and I get to teach students that. For me, it’s not about just strictly “how you must read!” or “it doesn’t matter whether you read or not”, it’s rather what benefits that student the most. After all, music is about enjoyment (not so much for professional musicians all the time! Just like anyone in their field doing it professionally). It’s about people expressing themselves and sharing it with others. Of course there are times it’s challenging in the process of learning – there are obstacles and hurdles, there are setbacks and disappointment. But most important of all, we make progress by making mistakes, getting over them and moving onward and forward. With the new students, I combine listening and reading. Learning by rote is important for any beginners. With listening, memorizing patterns by sight and sound, as well as remembering notes one or two at a time, students make progress very quickly. It’s important for students to gain confidence by being able to play something simply successfully at the beginning, that sense of enjoyment and satisfaction, knowing that they can actually play the piano and make music, is the motive that moves them forward and keep learning. I could go on and on about music learning and piano playing, but I shall stop here and continue with another post on how teachers can motivate students in a positive direction with very simple cues in their piano journey. Teresa Wong