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Between building foundational skills and instilling self-guided learning: Solfège pedagogy in higher music education

While in some educational systems solfège is taught systematically from a young age (whether in specialized music schools or in classroom music), in other countries it is a compulsory discipline only in professional education. In the latter case, students start learning solfège as teenagers or young adults but by that time they have already developed some of the solfège skills through years of playing an instrument. What these skills exactly are, and what overall musical knowledge students already have, differs from one student to another. Some are already familiar with certain chord progressions, some have general knowledge about keys and intervals, some have never sung before, and some can already play by ear on their instrument. Students themselves are not always aware of the level of their skills or may have the wrong impression about them. Teachers need time to obtain an objective picture of each student’s abilities. If the teacher wants to build on the students’ pre-knowledge, it can be difficult to decide exactly where to start and which route to take towards the goal. Starting at the level of basic skills makes this much longer and might demotivate students; starting at too high a level will unavoidably leave gaps in knowledge. Many music theory pedagogues choose to start “half way,” after first having systematized all the knowledge and skills that should already have been developed—which might turn out to be both too low and too high at the same time. While there is much research in the domain of solfège issues in music psychology and there are many publications concerning classroom music, almost the only sources of information about solfège methodology for college-level students are solfège method books and textbooks. Conservatory students without previous solfège training are not problematized as a specific group of solfège-learners. In this article I am proposing that conservatory beginners are seen as a specific group of learners who are experienced and novice at the same time. I will point out and discuss several issues that are relevant to the design of the solfège method for this group, especially concerning the first months of learning where the foundation is being built. I will argue that learning solfège in general is a process with its own particularities, and that the awareness of these should be the starting point for the planning of the learning sequence. A solid foundation is seen as the requirement for any further learning, and the role of the teacher is crucial in developing or strengthening it in students. In this context the concepts such as preparation, readiness for learning, repetition, routine, challenge and independent learning are discussed. Through a comparison of methods for children and adult beginners, I aim to explain some of the problems that are encountered in the solfège pedagogy.

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