Last month I was privileged to witness first-hand the benefits of the Kodaly approach to music education. My daughter’s chorus teacher is a member of OAKE (the Organization of American Kodaly Educators). Each year the organization has a national conference and member teachers are asked to nominate students for the four national choirs that perform at the closing of the conference. My daughter was chosen for the National Youth Choir, which is composed of middle school students. Also performing were a Children’s Choir, a Chamber Ensemble (high school a cappella singers), and a Women’s Choir (composed of high school girls). The conference took place in Atlanta, GA, with four days of intensive rehearsal culminating in a concert at the Atlanta Symphony Hall.
Zoltan Kodaly (pronounced KOH-die) was a Hungarian composer and educator (1882-1967). He believed that everyone is born with musical aptitude, using the first instrument we all possess: our voices. He maintained that virtually all children can learn to sing in tune if exposed to musical development at a very young age. Just as children learn language by hearing and imitating speech patterns, they learn to match pitch and sing in tune by hearing and imitating musical patterns. Singing in groups instills a love of music and creates a sense of community, he believed, and can be the basis for other types of learning.
Kodaly’s methodology is based on the developmental readiness of the child, using a sequential layering of skills and concepts designed to build success at each stage. Understanding of rhythm develops through the use of movement activities and singing games. Melodic and harmonic understanding develops through the use of solfege syllables (do, re, mi…), interval training, and hand signs. As the child progresses, instrument playing, composing and arranging, reading and notating, musical analysis and evaluation are introduced. This ultimately leads to true musical literacy.
The culmination of this approach to musical education was exemplified in the performance of the National Choirs on March 22, 2014. These children and teens brought their talent and love of music to a level of expression that I have never witnessed in many years of attending school chorus performances. Actually, I have heard some very good high school choirs, so while the Chamber Ensemble and Women’s Choir were impressive, they didn’t blow me away as much as the younger kids. These 4th and 5th graders in the Children’s Choir and middle-schoolers in the Youth Choir were simply amazing. The material they were given was technically very difficult for children of this age group and they certainly rose to the challenge. My daughter sings alto and after a rehearsal prior to the conference, she said that the alto parts were so high, the soprano parts “must be at frequencies only dogs can hear.” Once at the conference, these kids were asked to attend four days of very intensive rehearsal to pull them all together, resulting in a tremendous level of harmonic and melodic proficiency. Can you imagine 180 middle school kids buckling down and practicing like this? I give so much credit to the guest conductors, particularly that of the Youth Choir, Dr. Eugene Rogers of the University of Michigan, who got these kids to sing with their whole bodies, with every muscle in their faces, with every ounce of their being. The final number the Youth Choir performed was “The Servant’s Chorus” from the opera Don Pascale and each one of the 180 singers brought the song to life with movement and expression that electrified the audience.
It all began with the teachers, though, each and every music teacher who dedicated her/himself to bring the highest quality education to the students lucky enough to be under their tutelage. These teachers spend years and countless hours of study developing the techniques Kodaly introduced over a century ago. I wish every child could experience the kind of joy, of singing, of life, that my daughter experienced as part of the OAKE National Youth Choir. She can’t wait until next year’s conference.
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