Colourstrings is a method developed by two Hungarian brothers, Géza and Csaba Szilvay. Originally designed for teaching the violin and the cello, the method provides at present also in tutors for viola, double bass, piano, guitar and flute. In the Users’ Guide, accompanying the original Cello ABC, Csaba Szilvay states that the method is based on the Kodály/Bárdos-method for teaching melody and rhythm (57).
The method was developed at the East Helsinki Music Institute in Finland in the early 1970s, where it became an integral part of the state music school system.
The method is child-centred: “it’s aim is to provide a learning environment which takes into consideration the child’s own development, and nurtures a sympathetic and responsive attitude to music…” Csaba Szilvay writes (58). The materials are colourful and have pictures to foster the child’s imagination.
The conviction that the instrumental development should go hand in hand with the development of a general musicianship results in a very sequential method; musical concepts are offered in a very structured and step-by-step way, along with the instrumental learning. To achieve this aim of a balanced musicianship the development of inner hearing is of great importance, even so the musical literacy. From the very beginning musical playing is connected to reading and writing.
The Colourstrings’ Finnish homepage summarizes as follows: “Colourstrings is not limited only to teaching manual dexterity movements made by the two hands but tend also to give the whole music as an “art-package” to the child, where the developing of instrumental technique, the musical hearing […], understanding music (music theory) and the musical emotions occur in equilibrium all the time.” (59)
To develop the skill of inner hearing, Colourstrings uses relative solmisation, a key feature, recurring on every level, and throughout all the method books. Connecting relative solmisation systematically with playing the instrument enables transposing and transforming the musical material, a regular strategy in the method to enhance also technical flexibility.
Singing is where it all starts: the first songs to be played are derived from children’s songs, carefully selected and sung in the Colourstrings Kindergarten classes; solmisation syllables are meant to be sung, and the method recommends to sing every song on solmisation before playing it (60). In addition, there are separate ‘cantare’ exercises to prepare for a particular tone set. Thus well established inner hearing skills promote good intonation, and the fingers are 'led by the ear' (61). To reinforce solmisation, the Colourstrings method uses hand signs adapted from John Curwen.
For the inner representation and understanding of rhythm the method uses the rhythm syllables from the Kodály/Ádám-method.
For the aim of an organic development of musical literacy the method makes use of a colour system for the strings, going gradually from a simplified representation of pitch and duration to traditional notation.
On a technical level the method has distinctive characteristics too, both for the violin and the cello, but with a slightly different accent.
The systematic use of natural harmonics is the most notable feature, and to this extent not preceded in string pedagogy. In the Cello ABC all songs are played in different versions, making use of different sets of natural harmonics in different positions.
Another technique that is frequently used is the left hand fingered pizzicato. This ensures the independent movement of the fingers before they have to ‘press’ the string, to play a stopped note.
The technique of shifting (changing position), is taught from a very early stage. The child is getting acquainted with the complete fingerboard already by the regular use of (octave) harmonics, and he is also used to transpose songs to different strings and positions; therefore, shifting between positions is a logical next step. Great benefit is the flexibility and confidence in shifting later in the repertoire.
The repertoire used in the Colourstrings method is based on nursery rhymes, children’s songs and folk songs. This choice allows the children to start from known material: songs their parents/relatives or Kindergarten teachers sang for them; songs they have sung themselves. Folk songs are chosen for their musical value and characteristics. Folk songs being rhythmically divers, but still covering a certain amount of pitches (the 'toneset'). Folk songs are chosen from all over the world, but with a strong focus on the mother-tongue cultures (62).
To me, the absence of classical Western canonical repertoire is striking: for example, neither Bach nor Mozart appears in the method books. But this ‘problem’ has been solved by the possibility of complementing the method books with the Colourstrings Rascal books. A series of progressively ordered performance pieces and sonatas.
The Colourstrings-education consists of the Singing and Rhythm Rascals in the Musical Kindergarten, the method books Cello ABC and the additional volumes with pieces and studies. This is the structure for Colourstrings cello teaching in a diagram: (63)
Aiming at an intrinsic understanding of music intertwined with a high level of craftsmanship, Colourstrings approaches music education in a child-centred, developmental and holistic way. This means fostering musical imagination: developing inner hearing and musical literacy at the same time. Going from the known to the unknown, from the simple to the complex and from the unconscious to the conscious in developing skills and understanding in the various areas of musicianship (melody, rhythm, harmony, polyphony, form, etcetera).
Description of the material
I will have a close look at the Colourstrings method books. I will only analyse Book A and Book B. The reason for this is a practical one, namely that I did not get the chance to see Book C and D in practice, and that these volumes are effectively that much advanced that I could not work through them with my own students without sufficient preparation.
Description of Book A
For my analysis I have used the 2007 copyright-version of the method. The book has a horizontal lay out and is made of thick quality paper. The cover is colourful and has pictures of the characters representing the strings, as we will later learn.
The book has no introduction and no table of contents. The book is not divided in clear chapters, although some pages have a title. There is a parent's and a teacher's guide, but I could not get hold of any of them, because they were out of stock. I wrote to the publisher Fennica Gehrman in Finland and to the British Kodály Academy, and searched several other sources on the internet, but this did not result in the acquisition of the guides. I got a copy of a part of the original teacher's guide though, but I regret that the current versions are not available now.
The book starts with a picture of the four characters representing the four strings: a blue woman for A string, an orange man for D string, a green bear for G string and a red Elephant for C string. Then the strings are shown, as how the pupil will look at them from cello-playing perspective. So the C string is on the right side and the A string on the left. The strings are drawn according to their thickness, and have each a distinctive colour: blue for A string, orange for D string, green for G string, red for C string.
On the next pages these colours are given to dashed lines, each dash representing a sound from that particular open string. First only on one string, in one note value, then on two, three and four adjacent strings, stepwise. Then rhythm is being added by arranging the length of the dashes, so that two smaller dashes come in the place of one big one (suggesting quarter notes versus eighth notes), only on one string. The grouping of the notes indicates bar lines and thus time signature (2/4 and 3/4). After that different pitches (strings) are included. In this simplified way, the pupil is reading pitch and rhythm.
The techniques to be used can be pizzicato, or arco. I tend to deduce from the teacher’s guide for the violin method, that the first playing technique is pizzicato. When arco comes in, it is guided by the teacher at first. This is also what I saw during my observations of Colourstrings lessons.
The next important step is the introduction of the places for natural harmonics on the fingerboard, and their symbols. Their location is investigated by playing pizzicato: the left hand technique of shifting is prepared/practiced, and the places (more or less) for the harmonics are prepared. Symbols: a bird for the octave harmonic, a moon for the fifth harmonic above the octave harmonic, a sun for the double octave harmonic.
In this exercise the pupil has to read string (pitch) and rhythm (dashes) and place on the fingerboard.
The rhythmic duration names ‘ta’ (quarter note) and ‘titi’ (two eighth notes) are presented and practiced, followed by the quarter rest, and the ‘ta-a’. The abstract symbols are given some context by pictures displaying vehicles: a car for ‘ta’, a train (locomotive with a waggon) for the eighth notes ‘titi’, a boat for the half note ‘ta-a’. This implicates the association of the note values rather with ‘speed’ than with duration: how fast or slow do these notes follow up each other in relation to the beat.
In the course of the book there are pages left blank for the teacher to write down the rhythms and later melodies of well-known children’s or nursery songs reflecting the character of the particular region or country. That is: the region or culture of the particular pupil. The author does here clearly note that the student might come from somewhere else. This responds to the idea of the musical mother tongue in Kodály’s philosophy.
Rhythm repertoire is given: quarter note, two eighth notes, half note and quarter rest. Duets are offered regularly, in responsorial style.
Around the middle of the book the harmonics are played arco. The songs contain alternately open strings and harmonics. The technical issue of string crossing is addressed separately, and after that the ‘shifting’ technique appears combined with a lot of string crossing.
Another Colourstrings feature is the use of the left hand to play pizzicato. There is a section on this technique in the middle of the book, even with ‘number pizzicato’(64). In the rest of the book this technique is only used occasionally, but it does return now and then.
After a thorough practice on the natural harmonics, their twin pairs are presented. For instance, the double octave harmonic has it’s twin in the neck positions (first, second or third, but mostly presented in the second position, with the second finger). Also the triplets and quadruplets are shown, but only the twins are applied in the songs.
In this final section of Book A there are songs with melody: the melody comes only from natural harmonics. The intervals used are the minor third so-mi, the major second so-la and the major triad so-mi-do. The song repertoire comes from the Colourstrings Rascals series, such as ‘Way up high’, which is a Hungarian Folksong in origin.
The songs are presented graphically by the melodic contour according to the pitches, and bigger or smaller pictures for the representation of the rhythm. The songs have text and solmisation syllables, and on the bottom of the page they are notated with stick notation, ordered according to the melodic contour.
In this part also the do-clef is introduced. There is a building with arrows pointing up and down indicating that ‘do’ is movable. The ‘do’ can be on any string, in any position. At the very end of the book the note heads of the open string-notes become normal note heads, the harmonics keep their rhombic shaped note heads.
Description of Book B
For the analysis of Book B, I used the 2012 copyright-version. This book has a short introduction “How to use Colourstrings Book B for Cello”, a map locating the harmonics on the fingerboard and a list with symbols and abbreviations. As in Book A there is no table of contents with chapters or lessons, but there is a division based on the amount of notes used.
The first thing the pupil sees are the notes of the four strings presented in their colours, this time on a tradional five-line stave. The initial characters (woman, man, bear and elephant) are beneath the notes, and a picture of a house with stairs to the entrance gives meaning to the unavoidable ledger lines, used for the C string. After giving the teacher the possibility to explain the stave and its lines and spaces, the book begins with what is going to be the overall structure of the book: on the left, even pages, new songs are presented in harmonics and fourth position, or combinations of this, and on the right, odd pages, the same songs are transposed to different patterns in the first position, often in combination with thumb position. Left pages have always coloured note heads, the right page only has the lines of the staff coloured, making aware the string the pupil is supposed to play on.
The songs are grouped according to the solmisation tone set. This tone set is given on a ‘musical staircase’ at the top of each even page. The order is: Part one, two-note melodies: so-mi; do-la; so-mi/do-la; la-so; la-so/re-do; la-mi; do-so; mi-la,; so-do,; so-mi/do-la,; Part two, three-note melodies: la-so-mi; la-so-mi/re-do-la; re-do-la; so-mi-re; do-la-so/so-mi-re; so-mi-do; do’-so-mi-do-so,; re-do-so; mi-re-la/re-do-so; mi-re-la; mi-re-do; Part three, four-note melodies: so-mi-re-do; so-mi-re-do-so,; mi-re-do-so,; mi-re-do-la,; mi-re-do-la,-mi,; mi-re-do-la,; la-so-mi-re=re-do-la-so; do-la-so-mi; la-so-mi-do; la-so-re-do; la-so-mi-re-do; mi-re-do-la-so; do’-la-so-mi-re-do-la,.
After the introduction of the do-clef at the end of Book A, here different clefs are used to indicate the tonal centre, mostly the do-clef and the la-clef.
Apart from the many transpositions of the same songs, there are other exercises, tasks and graphics with information.
'Cantare' exercises, presented with the head of a singing boy (65), are meant to be sung, or sung-then played. This concerns mainly the notes that are difficult to intonate (coming from an open string, or coming form a harmonic. The 'cantare' sign is also used for singing a whole song. In the introduction it is suggested that the pupil sings the songs in relative solmisation always before playing them, this might be a reminder to do so. 'Cantare' is also placed before chord exercises, but it is not explained how the pupil is supposed to do this, like for example together with other students, or with the teacher, or by playing two notes and sing the other ones, etcetera. This is probably explained in the teacher’s guide.
Another feature is the occurrence of rhythm exercises, mostly by presenting rhythms 'balancing on a seesaw': showing “equivalent rhythmic values”. This also gives an opportunity to discuss different time signatures. The author recommends to clap and say the new elements first, before playing them. There are also some rhythmic two-part exercises and rhythm ‘circle-songs’.
Throughout the book the pupil works on dynamics, harmony, phrasing and form. Many symbols are used to illustrate musical phenomena. Separate exercises are provided to train intervals and chords.
It is noteworthy that there are hardly any writing assignments, and the white pages - meant for teacher and pupil to write down songs in book A - have disappeared in book B.
Musical terms and performance instructions are used now and then, like “staccato”, “tempo giusto” or “da capo”.
The repertoire used in this volume consists mainly of folk songs. All songs, with one exception, are folksongs from Eastern Europe, the Baltic states and Finland. Western European children will probably not know these songs, and will thus have some difficulty relating to the sounds and rhythms. But the choice of this repertoire is not so surprising when you realize that the method was designed in Finland by two Hungarians.
Book A and Book B are quite different in the end, but Book C and D are similar to book B. Same approach and similar material: Folksongs.
In the ‘official sources’ (the books, the main website), I was not able to find a description of the concrete and practical application of the method. Questions about the form in which lessons are given, if there are separate musicianship classes, etcetera were not answered satisfactory. To explain how Colourstrings works in practice, I will use my observations and experiences in London, added by further online research.
Colourstrings is more widespread in the United Kingdom than in The Netherlands. In London there are even two Colourstrings Music Schools (CMS) located, operating for more than twenty years: The North London Colourstrings Centre (66), and the South London Colourstrings School. In order to get an impression of Colourstrings teaching in practice I visited them both, and also a primary school project running a Colourstrings programme.
See the box below for more information about the venues.
North London Colourstrings Centre
A daily school with more than 1200 pupils, among which 600 instrumentalists.
Offering lessons in violin, cello, classical guitar, piano and flute.
Kindergarten courses, Musicianship lessons for all pupils, ensemble and orchestra.
South London Colourstrings School
A Saturday school with 300 pupils, teaching violin, viola, cello, double bass, classical guitar, piano and flute. Besides, they offer Kindergarten Courses, Musicianship lessons, choir, ensemble and orchestra.
Gallions Primary School (in Beckton, East London)
A special primary school with a lot of extra curriculum offerings: Arts based education, learning through the creative arts. Apart from Colourstrings music lessons, they also provide art lessons, choir, drama, dance and philosophy for children.
The Colourstrings project is up since 2002 and is run by professional, Colourstrings-trained teachers. All children (around 300 pupils) learn an instrument: violin, cello, viola or double bass. They have weekly lessons in a group; each class has a weekly Musicianship lesson, ensemble and orchestra training. In this school children come from families wit less financial means, and they probably would not play an instrument, if not in school.
I visited instrumental lessons, musicianship classes, orchestra and ensemble rehearsals and a concert, but before traveling to London, I researched the websites of both schools. There I found more information on how the Colourstrings approach is practically realised.
Classes start at a very young age: 18-months-old children can join the Colourstrings Kindergarten Classes in South London. In North London they even offer classes to children from six months old. The children stay in the progressing Kindergarten classes until up to (a maximum of) seven years. The main focus in the Kindergarten is on singing. Then they will start instrumental tuition on an instrument of their choice. Their instrumental carrier starts between 5 and 7 years old, and they can stay in the school until they are 18/19 years old.
In the South London school, commitment is a sufficient enrolment prerequisite for the instrumental training. The North London school has higher demands: two consecutive years of Colourstrings Musical Kindergarten, and at least one year of singing on relative solmisation.
In the instrumental programme of both schools, the children have also Kodály Musicianship lessons, continuing and expanding the Kindergarten curriculum. This is not so obvious from the websites (which look fairly unprofessional in my opinion), but I can derive this from other sources (67) and of course from my visit. The whole music educational package is completed by choir, orchestra and/or ensemble rehearsals. Both schools offer regular performance opportunities for the pupils, starting with informal play-ins, so as to ensure building a healthy attitude and confidence to perform in public.
I will document here a few of the observed lessons in detail. I will limit the observation-reports to the Colourstrings Schools, rather than the Primary School Project. My visit there was very interesting, but bears too little resemblance to my own teaching situation.
Musicianship year 1 (5-/6-year-olds)
6 children, lesson of 30 minutes.
Teacher: teacher A, trained in Kecskemét
On the whiteboard the musical stairs with ‘so’, ‘mi’ and ‘do’. Sad and happy smiley faces.
- responsorial singing, teacher sings: “Hello pupil’s name”, particular pupil sings back “Hello everybody”
- singing back on solmisation (so-mi-do)Ball game with responsorial singing, again with so-mi-do, in different patterns.
2. 'Apple tree'
- playing the game, singing
- singing with solmisation handsigns
- body solmisation
3. New song 'Double this double that'
- children learn the song by catching it along the way
- playing the clapping game
- add the 'heartbeats' (pupils are asked for ideas how to perform the pulse)
- figuring out the solmisation syllables
- connect to the former body solmisation
- singing with solmisation handsigns
- leave out one tone (so, mi or do, 'sing it in your head'), inner hearing
4. Game: 'don't clap this one back'
- echo clapping
- idem with saying the rhythm language
- listening to fragments of different orchestra instruments: the piccolo and the clarinet, supported by a poster with the Romantic Orchestra arrangement
6. 'Goodbey everyone'
- putting the pupils’ names under the sad or happy smiley face, according to their behaviour in the lesson
Cello lesson year 3 (9-/10-year-olds)
One pupil: Fernando, 9 years old, lesson of 45 minutes
Teacher: teacher B
1. Tuning the cello
- A-major, whole bow.
- pupil works on: active left arm, elbow up. Prepare for 5th position, teacher is asking to sing the solmisation name on particular 'out of tune spots', working on intonation via singing and solmisation.
- Arpeggio playing via singing/solmisation
- the same with E-flat major
3. Book B (P. 14)
- harmonics on all strings
- inner hearing “sing in your head”
- work on strong fingers
4. Book B (P. 82)
- work on strong fingers
- work on dynamics
- work on intonation by singing the out of tune spot on solmisation, picking an old song (hot cross buns) for those fingers
- telling the pupil to play some other songs on that pattern for homework
5. Book B (P. 86)
- work on quality of sound
- work on finding the right intonation in neck positions via harmonics
6. Repertoire: Cirri Sonata
- playing the complete piece by heart
- work on extensions (backward)
7. Summarize lesson and homework
- pupil had to name points of attention and the exercises and pieces he needs to practice.
Pupil plays with ease. Pupil has well-developed listening-skills, but is sloppy in his playing. Does not organise his technique and is not thinking ahead, just correcting afterwards.
Bow technique is quite careless...he is bowing on the fingerboard and not paying attention to the slurs and bowings.
He has a very good posture in thumb position. In first position his left arm is too flat. Elbow too low. Sitting posture is good, though.
Teacher notices what goes wrong and tells him, or asks him what is wrong, how to 'tidy it up'. Singing on relative solmisation is used in the lesson to figure out intervals, finger distances and intonation.
The use of Book B is apparently taking a lot of time and is not done in every lesson.
The exercises seem quite difficult and are not very rewarding, since playing high on the lower strings gives a very 'scratchy' sound, especially on cheap instruments full of the so-called 'wolf-tones'.
Cello lesson year 3 (9-/10-year-olds)
One pupil: Aron, 9 years old, lesson of 45 minutes
Teacher: teacher B
2. Book B (P. 18 and 19)
- work on thumb position posture of the hand
- intonation correction by singing on relative solmisation
3. Book B (P. 86 and 87)
- not prepared by pupil, work on it together with teacher
- find the do-re-mi
- work on technique (leaving fingers on the string)
- work on posture
- work on intonation by singing a well-known song
- giving homework
4. Repertoire: Marcello Sonata
- work on extensions in the second position, taking the thumb along
- work on legato
- play with basso continuo (played by the teacher)
- work on rhythm by the use of rhythm syllables
5. repertoire: Hunoresque by Squire
- play with piano accompaniment (played by the teacher)
- work on intonation and chords
Pupil is very gifted, playing very musically. With nice sound and tone, expressive in both hands. Lovely feel to the Marcello. Teacher is very encouraging. Technique is very supple and flexible, going up with great ease, shifting, thumb position, posture.
Organising left hand: he is hearing quite well, but has to correct himself a lot. Is a little bit imprecise rhythmically in the Marcello. Should work on strong fingers in first position.
The sun and moon position really seem to help the children to go up with the right technique, without having to think about it.
Pupil had a very nice concentration.
Bow division (bow speed) is indicated in the Book B, by arrows.
Pointing out the difference between stopped notes and harmonics, in feeling and technique is an issue the teacher is addressing.
The harmonics seem to be notated differently, sometimes “sounding” and sometimes “geographically” (second position).
There was incidental singing in both lessons with regular use of relative solmisation, and a limited use of rhythm syllables. No physical movement or clapping. They regularly refer to Kindergarten-songs for intonation.
Cello group lesson year 2 (7-/8-year-olds)
6 pupils, lesson of 30 minutes
Teacher: teacher C, South London CMS
1. Warming up on rhythms of the group members’ names
2. 'London's burning'
- in fourth position plus 'bird-harmonic'
- singing the song
- mime left hand while singing
3. 'London's burning' in canon
- first position
- dividing the text-syllables over the children
4. Sigh reading
- read from stick notation
- solo for one child, rest is miming
- same position as London‘s burning
5. 'Once a man fell in a well'
- in different positions
- performance in canon
There was no group sound, the children did not seem to listen to each other. The lesson was a little messy, the children were not so concentrated. Probably the lunch time slot (the lesson started at 12h20) was not a fortunate choice. I noticed that no attention was given to keeping a steady pulse. Perhaps the repertoire, still not in first position, is not so suitable for playing in a group, with all the harmonics and position changes. This making it too complex to play fluently, to pay attention to your peers and - at the same time - to make a beautiful sound.
There was no use of relative solmisation in this lesson, or handsigns, or rhythm syllables.
Cello lesson year 2 (7-/8-year olds)
One pupil: Kwame, 8 years old, lesson of 30 minutes
Teacher: teacher C, South London CMS
1. Work on Book B, first the even pages (4, 6, 8)
- 'Seesaw'-song (or 'Rain rain') in 'sun-' and second positions
- then in fourth position
- different fourth position-patterns
2. Work on the odd pages
- first position 4-1
- other patterns: 2-0, 0-3
3. Pages 14 and 15
- song about a cat: first position combined with fourth position, with shift
- same combination but different patterns
- then on the even page in higher positions, with shifts
4. Pentatonic song from Colourstrings songbook
- sing on relative solmisation
- saying the rhythm syllables
- playing in fourth position plus bird harmonic
- playing in first position
Singing the pitches is used a lot, but they are never singing the complete song. The exercises are quite 'sporty', the teacher calling them “gymnastics” herself. She is guiding the pupils bow a lot, probably he needs his full attention for the left hand. In the second line of page 14 of Book B it gets really difficult, and there is not so much musical quality to be heard. The teacher is now sometimes putting his fingers in place, and although she sings along, he is not so often asked to do this by himself. Thus he cannot find the interval without the help of the teacher. Quite a long time work on only so and mi. Melodically not really divers. Work on book B takes quite a lot of time, and the teacher was so kind to show me the 'procedure' of the book. She probably would not stick so long to the material in a normal weekly lesson.
At the end of the lesson there is a pentatonic song. The pupil has to sing it first but the pitch is too high, when singing on rhythm language he goes down an octave. The teacher does not try to improve his singing (pitch, tone quality, volume, etcetera).
When playing out of tune, the teacher is always correcting, although she expects him to play in tune by himself.
12 children (with parents, mostly mothers, or caretakers), 2-3 years old, lesson 45 minutes
Teacher: teacher D
I observed three Kindergarten classes, the first class for babies 6-16 months old, the second class for 17 month- till 2-year-olds, and the third class for toddlers aged 2-3 years. All lessons had almost the same content, but with adjustments to age and level of the children.
The room is large. There is a carpet to sit on on and enough space to walk and dance. Here a report of the last lesson:
1. Starting/welcoming song: 'An elephant sat on…(name child)'
- Teacher sings, children sing: every child's name is called in the song
- Children bounce the elephant on their laps on the steady beat
2. Warming-up with nursery rhyme: Open them, shut them
- Children say the rhyme
- Children perform the movements (finger/hand game, with clapping, shaking etcetera)
3. Counting game: 'Five little firemen'
4. 'Clap together' on "are you sleeping'
- Children sing and clap
- Children come up with different movements
- In canon in two groups
5. Circle dance on Klezmer music
- Different movements to the different motives
- Walking the beat
- Changing direction on a new phrase
- Fast versus slow theme, represented in the dance
6. Song about fast and slow: "Harry little puppet train'
7. So-mi exercise to hand in the banners
- Teacher sings: ss-mm-s-m = ‘I would like a blue flag’
- Children answer themselves with ‘… (name child) has the blue flag’
- In fast and slow tempo
8. 'Cowboy Joe'
- Children click the horses’ footsteps with wood staves
- Slower and faster: tik tik tik tik, ta ta ta ta, taha taha
9. Moving in a circle
- Children walk the beat to 'I’m riding the new river train'
- Moving to Circle to your left/right song
- 'Marching down together'-song (stretch very tall, fall down very small)
- 'Andy Pandy'-song with going up and down
10. New song: 'Here we go round the Mulberry Bush'
- Children clap the beat
- Children come up with different actions on the sentence ‘this is the way we (stamp our feet/tap our heads/etcetera)
11. Lullaby 'Mbele mama'
- Children sing, teacher sings in canon
12. Listening to Mozart
13. Game 'Popcorn'
- Children play little rhythm instruments (shakers) on ‘Sizzle sizzle sizzle’, and on (drum) on ‘pop’
14. Goodbey song
In all three classes there was done a lot. There was flow in the lessons, with smooth transitions between the activities. At the same time there was a rigorously structured way to work through the programme. The content of the lessons was varied: singing was clearly the main focus, but also a lot of moving, playing, listening was involved.
The teacher used small instruments and props like puppets, stuffed animals, banners and a book with pictures of some of the songs. The teacher maintained an energetic and encouraging attitude.
The teacher sang really well, and strikingly the parents did too. The level of singing by the children increased by their age and stage in the programme.
The accomplishments of the children were sometimes impressing: in the second group (16 months till 2-year-olds) the children could distinguish ‘so’ and ‘mi’ with their banners without a problem.
In every age group the same songs were used, but they either worked on different skills, or expanded the trained skill: for example, the lullaby was first listened to in the baby-group, then they sang it in the second group, and later they sang it in canon in the third group. The older the children, the more independent they got, and the more they were asked to contribute creatively, for instance by choosing their own body sounds or movements in a dance.
In all groups there was work on contrasts: fast-slow, low-high, loud-soft. This was worked out in songs and rhymes, illustrated by the text, or by the meaning of the song, or by movement in a dance. Those contrasts were often experienced aurally and physically by the children. Later concepts were prepared, like the rhythm syllables, first represented by the horse’s footsteps. Also an elementary form of handsigns was used.
The repertoire was a mix of British children’s songs, songs from the Colourstrings publications “Singing rascals” and art music.
During a course of eight weeks I tried Colourstrings with one of my pupils. To not have the ‘disadvantages’ of a Dutch cultural background I was lucky to have a Hungarian student in my class. She is an eight-year-old girl, named Hanga, who is in her third year of playing the cello with me. She started in the PI-project and is now a Jong-KC-Junior-1-pupil. I gave her extra lesson time of approximately 20 minutes every week.
We started in Book A and finished in the first section of Book B. From my interview with a Colourstrings teacher in London I knew that it normally takes two or three years to arrive at that level, so this is in line with her time playing. The adjustment to the method was made easy by the fact that Hanga has experienced singing on relative solmisation from the PI and the choir she is singing in, and she knows how to use rhythm syllables. A difference with a normal starting Colourstrings student is her prior knowledge of staff-notation, although in the cello lessons this is still in an early stage.
Hanga had no difficulties understanding the meaning of the colour codes, in combination with the graphical notation of the rhythm, she could easily play through all the open string tunes in Book A, the visualisation was very logical to her. I tested this first part of book A also with a music school pupil, Charlotte, of the same age, but with a different background and ability (at that moment), and to her this visualisation was logical, too.
The introduction of the harmonics and their symbols was clear to Hanga, but the execution was somehow difficult: the harmonics did not sound well in the beginning, and it looked like a 'sportive' achievement to 'race up and down the fingerboard', not resulting in very rewarding sounds. The music school pupil did not like the 'sun-sound' (double octave harmonic), especially on the A string: she was even covering her ears. It took some time for Hanga to find the right spots for the harmonics, and although she has a good bow technique, it was still not easy to make a quality sound.
For the open string songs with left hand pizzicato, it was a pity I could not order the teachers book, which would have contained the ‘first voice’ to turn these songs into even more enjoyable musical experiences. Now they sometimes sounded merely as technical exercises.
From the song section at the end of Book A, Hanga showed more interest, because she could use the harmonics now for songs she already knew. The 'Way-up-high'-song, originally a Hungarian folk song, she could sing, and then play. Because Hanga is used to the first position, she played the tune naturally in an accessible key in that position first, and after that she had to read the score in the book for clues to see where to play this song with harmonics (changing between 'sun-' and second position, which is quite a challenge). The beginning of Book B uses this harmonic playing to come to the first position, but to her, logically, the right pages were easy, and the left pages were hard, compared to the Colourstrings pupil, who learns in this order from the start.
Analysis from Kodály perspective
Skills and tools
In Colourstrings, singing is the gateway to music. But if you just look at the books, especially book A, then this is not so obvious. My research to the backgrounds and philosophy of the method, combined with my observations, have surely unveiled this though. But where does this singing take place? Not so much in the instrumental lessons, I saw during my visit in London, but in the preparing classes: the Colourstrings Kindergarten. Alongside the instrumental lessons the Colourstrings student has weekly musicianship lessons. I observed a few of them, and they appeared to be classical Kodály Musicianship training, with similar ingredients as I witnessed in the Singing School in Kecskemet, Hungary (68).
Singing skills are thus built from early age on, and are continued in the musicianship lessons during instrumental training. The link between the different lessons is the repertoire: what is sung in Kindergarten, is played in the first years of instrumental teaching. The problem of the unfamiliar repertoire of folk songs from other countries in the later stages of book B is met by the development of extra material in the own particular language/culture, as far as I could observe in the London Colourstrings schools. The two main cello teachers from North and South joined forces and published volumes of songs to be played. I did not observe students who were very advanced in book B, and interviewing one of the teachers, she told me she even had never reached beyond book B. Because of the repertoire, the book is probably useful in its entirety in Finland, but for the British pupils it seemed a little far fetched.
Going along with singing is the use of relative solmisation and solmisation handsigns. In the first year of Kindergarten, solmisation and handsigns are prepared by experiencing the intervals in multiple songs, dances, games. The teacher introduces a global version of the handsigns first, giving the contour of a sung melody. I observed a second year group Kindergarten (17-month till 2-year-olds) being able to distinguish convincingly between ‘so’ and ‘mi’. In the classes I observed, there was no naming as such of the solmisation syllables yet, but it was very clear that they were already preparing them. I did not have the chance to observe the classes for 3-4- and 5-6-year-olds, but here the foundations for reading and writing music are laid. The continuation is provided by the first year (year 1) musicianship training, were I observed the beginnings of musical literacy, in a way that there is literacy in its real sense: reading with inner hearing, through the use of singing and relative solmisation.
For the teaching order of the intervals in solmisation, I tend to trust the method books, because they are reflecting a typical Kodály-order: starting with so-mi; la-so; la-so-mi etcetera.
The quality of singing is addressed by a diversity of activities. For example, the songs and singing games are integrating possibilities to work on pitch-matching, and the provide opportunities for solo singing. Part work is developing skills for singing in tune.
In the Cello ABC books there is not much explanation on how to use singing and solmisation. In book A there is no introduction, but in Book B it is recommended to sing every song first on solmisation. In addition, there are sung intonation exercises (called ‘cantare’-exercises). This is also what I observed in the cello lessons: singing and solmisation was used to correct intonation. There was not so much singing in the instrumental lessons, also not in the group lessons. I feel that, especially in the younger ages, the children would have benefitted from more singing in their instrumental lesson, making conscious the connection to their musicianship skills.
In balance with the singing and solmisation skills, the foundations for beat, rhythm and metre are also laid in the Kindergarten classes. From being rocked to the beat on their mother’s lap, to walking or dancing the beat in different tempi themselves, I saw children from baby-age till three-year-olds working on the concept of steady beat. In the lessons I observed, metre, phrasing and form were prepared in a dance. All the concepts were ‘taught’ on a very unconscious level, only experiencing them. Though the children were made aware of the contrasts in music: fast versus slow, high versus low, etcetera. Rhythms were clapped, performed in body percussion, or on small percussion instruments. A preparatory form of rhythm language coming from within a song appeared in the 2- till 3-year-olds Kindergarten class.
In the musicianship classes I observed that clapped rhythms were connected to rhythm names, and to stick notation.
In the method books, the rhythms start also from ‘ta’ and ‘titi’, and their corresponding note-value symbols quarter and eighth notes. The reading of the 'real' symbols is preceded by a simplified version: the note length is represented by dashes: two eight note-dashes fitting in the same space as one quarter note-dash, representing their relation in length/duration. After a few pages the dashes get sticks, and only at the end of Book A, the notes are changed to usual note heads. In Book A, the rhythms are limited to combinations of eighth notes, quarter notes, quarter rests, and half notes, in suggested 2/4, 4/4 and 3/4-time signature. Book B takes quite a leap in rhythms and metres. The introduction points out the usefulness of clapping and saying new rhythms before playing them. The rhythms start out from simple patterns in 2/4 until complex rhythms (dotted notes, syncopations) in multi-metric folk songs, for example a Mordvinian folk song (p. 87 Book B), with syncopated rhythms in 4/4 and 5/4, and a Chuvash folk song (p. 119 Book B), combining 3/4 with 5/8 and 4/4 in one song. Time signatures and bar lines appear at the same time in the book, in the first 26 pages the metre was only indicated by the grouping of the notes.
Book B uses ‘rhythm-seesaws’, or ‘rhythm balances’ throughout the book, to point out new rhythms and link them to other rhythms with the same values. Unfortunately, I did not see these being used in the lessons I observed. But a creative teacher would surely know ways to use these abstractions to make useful exercises for the pupil, before playing the song.
Inner hearing is practiced in the Kindergarten classes and Musicianship classes with the help of well known songs and singing games, where an inner hearing part is included, or could be easily included. In the cello material, the developed skill of inner hearing is used to intonate the tone set of a particular song, but also in the transposition of the songs on any string and in any position. The solmisation is a tool to give structure and to develop musical memory. In the responsorial two-part exercises in Book A, the pupil needs to follow the part of his partner (‘innerly hear’ that part), and at the same time play his own part.
Polyphonic skills are also started to develop with these duets in Book A. The last bar is always together, not responsorial as the rest of the duet. In Book B there are also duets and two-part rhythmic exercises, relying on polyphonic skills and training these further. But I do not recognise a regular training. In the Musicianship and Kindergarten classes I did not see a lot of polyphonic work either, compared to what I have experienced during the lessons at Master course and at the International Master classes conducted by László Nemes and Lucinda Geoghegan (69). It might have also to do with the time which is available for lessons. Along the same lines, there was also very limited use of physical movement as a tool towards becoming aware of polyphony, harmony, phrasing or form, and even of practicing these parameters. In the book there is no reference towards moving to the beat, or performing a dance illustrating the form of a folk song. Analysis is prompted by signs in the music, for example: boxes of the same shape around a motive show its repetition, or the ‘mirror’ of a motive. Concerning tonality and harmony: triads are circled, ‘do-clefs’ and ‘la-clefs’ are given. I cannot derive from the method books if there is a form in which these parameters are first experienced, made conscious, then named and symbolised.
In Colourstrings instrumental teaching there is a strong emphasis on literacy. The child reads from the beginning. When the instrument comes in, there is no ‘auditive period’, or something like that, to get used to the instrument. One of the Colourstrings teachers from London told me that the child should be acquainted as soon as possible with the concept of reading, because it would be hard for him to start with it later.
Experience-based teaching happens mainly in the Kindergarten classes. Here, the children are very active, and learn music through music. I did also see this, to a lesser extent though, in the musicianship lessons. As for the instrumental lessons, you need a very skilled and educated teacher to work with the material in the Kodály-way. Of course, by using the books, the songs are sung on solmisation, clapped or sung on rhythm syllables before they are played. But concerning the other parameters, there is no clear experience-based methodology in the method books. The books seem to be a cello method in the first place, with an original technical approach.
The teacher is responsible for the implementation of the prepare-present-practice principle. Although the repertoire is very carefully sequenced, and there is a lot of opportunity to practice learned elements, it is up to the teacher to prepare and present. This is because the book, just by the very nature of a book, can not do that sufficiently, and, of course, can not replace a teacher. Here the musicianship lessons are very important. The question is: are the children learning in the same pace as in their instrumental lessons, or is their musicianship ahead, or behind? Is there any contact between the instrumental teacher and the musicianship teacher? Ideally, the instrumental teacher should also be the musicianship teacher to really connect the two area’s of the pupil's musical development. Or it should be very clear to the instrumental teacher that the concepts in the cello method are already prepared in the musicianship lesson, and even more concrete: how they were prepared, to be able to link back to that experience, or translate the exercise or game to the cello lesson.
About the relevance of repertoire: in Kodály’s philosophy it is important, especially in the beginning, to catch on with the musical mother tongue of the pupil. In line with that principle, the method books are doing so, for the one particular cultural region, or family of languages. In Book A there are blank pages reserved for the writing down (and playing) of folk songs from the own culture, but in Book B, the only Western-European material is one (!) folk song from Switzerland.
In the British adaptation I saw this problem met by the inclusion of own children’s songs in the repertoire. This idea of adaptation I have seen most fully developed by Lucinda Geoghegan in Scotland, were she has a choir curriculum based on Kodály principles (working together with the current generation Hungarian Kodály-expert László Norbert Nemes), initially based on song material from that region and language. In the Colourstrings-world the repertoire is based, for a great part, on the Singing Rascals series, songs from Hungarian and Finnish background, translated into English. Along with this, teachers have taken initiatives to add British repertoire. But for the method books to be useful to their full potential, they should probably be rewritten for every country or region.