Imagining the Kodály-centered Instrumental Classroom

Brian Meyers, Oxford OH
Brian Meyers, Oxford OH

 Reprinted with permission from the Oklahoma  Music Journal, Fall 2017 Volume 24 #1.

Have you ever really stopped to think about what a Kodály-centered instrumental classroom might look like?
In many ways, it would physically look just like any other instrumental classroom. There would be chairs, stands, storage for instruments, perhaps a whiteboard or an LCD projector or a touch-enabled presentation system, a computer, sheet music, a sound system, percussion equipment, and other typical classroom accessories. There would probably even be the proverbial valve oil stain on the floor from some mishap from a few months ago and that characteristic smell that is a combination of tarnishing brass, aging wood, rosin, emptied spit valves, and what can only be called “the smell of kids” (and I am sure you all know what I mean). I would even venture to say that the lights in both rooms may hum that same annoying A flat (at least, that was the pitch in one of my rooms) that you have learned to simply ignore.
And, of course, there would be the students. They would come into the room with their cases swinging in their hands ready to tackle the day’s lesson. Depending upon the grade level, that lesson could be a new note or two, introduction of a new rhythm or concept, review, rehearsal of a particular piece or two, or many other things. Their banter as they prepared for class would probably be the same and there would undoubtedly be that one student (probably a saxophone or trombone) who forgot their instrument that day or has had their music “stolen” (I have yet to find the massive black market of sheet music that seems to thrive in instrumental classrooms).
After that, the similarities would probably come to an end. In the more traditional instrumental classroom, warm-up starts with a scale or long-tones or some other exercise to get everything moving. In the Kodály-centered classroom, warm-up might start with a totally different instrument–the voice. Rather than playing a scale or pattern of notes, students sing (with or without solfege) according to hand symbols provided by the teacher in order to get their ears engaged for the day’s lesson. The traditional classroom moves to another scale or exercise or launch into their method book, but the Kodály classroom continues echoing the patterns provided by the teacher, but now transferring those echoes onto their instruments and even switching back and forth between singing and playing. A student or two might even be invited to be the leader to either sing or play a pattern that the rest of the class echoes.
The traditional classroom continues onto the next exercise in the book with the teacher “directing” the students through a song, which is, hopefully, followed by feedback, before playing it again or moving onto the next exercise. In that exercise, some students get tripped up on a rhythm, so the teacher writes it on the board and asks students how to count it. Answers are slow to come, but a student finally gives the correct counting and the class says it all together. They play the song again, but some of the students are still playing the rhythm incorrectly, so the director goes back to the board and has them count it and clap it this time. The clapping sounds good so they play the song again and the rhythm is correct. Satisfied with the results, the teacher has the class perform the next exercise, but there is another rhythm error– the same one that was in the last song! So, the director goes back and has the class clap and count the rhythm AGAIN. It goes well, but when they add the playing to it, the rhythm is off again. So back they go AGAIN.
The Kodály-centered class progresses along a different route. Instead of looking in the method book for a song, the teacher sings a song with words or on solfege for the students and has them join in. After singing it, students figure out the starting note and sing it while fingering along. Next, the students sing a phrase of the song while fingering and then play it immediately afterwards, building the song up phrase by phrase, first by singing and then by playing. After playing the entire song, students are instructed to take out their staff paper and write the pitches for the song on the staff. Students work and confer with one another to see if they agree. If the time is right, the teacher might then help students analyze and write the rhythm of a few measures of the song by having them chant the words while tapping the beat. With those measures worked out rhythmically, students apply that same knowledge to figuring out the rhythm to the rest of the song, completing their transcription. If the time is not right to work on the rhythm, the teacher moves onto another song, saving that aspect for another day.
The examples can go on and on, but there are a number of fundamental differences that are occurring in this small snapshot. In the Kodály instrumental classroom, students start with singing, using that most intimate and personal of all instruments, as a way of becoming acquainted (or perhaps reacquainted) with a song. The voice is then paired with the fingers, building an auditory relationship between the two, which leads to performing the song on the instrument. In the traditional classroom, the voice and, therefore, connection with the music is lost. In the Kodály classroom, we encode notation (writing it) as well as decode it (read it) as a way of aiding students in becoming musically literate. In the traditional classroom, everything begins and ends with notation, which can be a stumbling block for some students. Finally, the Kodály classroom is student-centered and builds upon their knowledge, whereas the traditional classroom is teacher-centered and built upon the knowledge of the director or that which is contained in the method book.
Of course, there will be both traditional and Kodály-centered instrumental classrooms that will look different than what is described above, but simply imagining the differences can help us begin to conceive of how we might instigate change. Tradition is difficult to break and the wheels of change do not always turn smoothly, if they turn at all. But do we have the courage to try?  Are we willing to look beyond that which we have always done to look for another way?  If we are, perhaps help is right around the corner in your elementary general music room.

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