Growing up with perfect (or absolute) pitch, I experienced high levels of success in musicianship tests in school and college. Being able to sight-sing and to write down melodies and chord sequences accurately was a breeze, and I could quote passages from set pieces in exams without having to study them. I felt a lot of sympathy for the other students who struggled to write down what they were hearing, or to sing what they were reading, and I witnessed the challenges of teachers trying to help them.
It was when I began to teach that I realized that my perfect pitch was also a handicap. All I had were the tools my teachers had used—for example, matching well-known tunes with intervals (e.g. “Twinkle Twinkle Little Star” for a perfect 5th) so that the student, presuming that they read the interval correctly, would be able to pitch it. But were they supposed to do that for each interval in the whole piece? That was hardly feasible.
Then I had an unexpected piece of luck. A friend of mine, a pianist who was having difficulties improving her sight-reading, shared that she had had a breakthrough. She had begun attending a local evening class in the Kodály Method and her sight-reading was improving rapidly. All I knew about this method was that it used do re mi, instead of letter names. Her enthusiasm was so contagious that I decided to go along and try it for myself.
There followed two years of the best musicianship training I had ever experienced. I remember driving home from the first class feeling high as a kite simply on music. Our professor, David Vinden, had been trained in Hungary, birthplace of the method and still the source of the best teaching. He immediately challenged me beyond anything I’d ever experienced before, viewing my perfect pitch as irrelevant. I began to realize, in fact, that I had a lot to learn. I had never developed a sense of relative pitch. I had simply been able to write down, for example, C-A- F# by ear, without any awareness of the distance between the notes. Now, using the do-re-mi system (the Solfa system, or Movable Do*) to sight-sing, I began slowly to experience the relationship between the pitches, and their particular function in the song. Listening to classical radio on the way home, I tried to work out which note in the melody I was hearing was do, and then from there to sing the theme using solfa pitches. I could feel new pathways forming in my brain. I began to experience the music differently.
Time in class whizzed by. We would spend time on a simple folk song (the Method uses folk song and classical music as a basis) studying, for example, how it used the mixolydian mode (the scale beginning on so). Realizing that it was simple to sing and recognize modes using the solfa syllables was another breakthrough. Understanding that mi-fa and ti-do were the semi-tones; in other words, that the solfa syllables provided valuable consistency, no matter the context, was a whole new perspective.
Reinforcing our ease with using solfa syllables, David would constantly show us new ways to work (or play) with a song— each student taking turns to sing one note only around the class (kids love that one), or one syllable only (for example, only the mis), or singing the letter names (very important to reinforce those also) or creating a simple rhythmic ostinato on their knees whilst singing. Other times, we would study the form of a song, or he would omit the final line and we would improvise our own versions. I noticed that he built incrementally from one skill to another so that we were never asked to do something without being prepared for it.
David also was generous in sharing material with me – finding exercises my students would enjoy. Finally I had tools to help my students (both children and adults), and I began sharing my discoveries with them the very next day. Most were willing to try it, and some had memorable epiphanies. Everyone’s ears improved, and we had so much fun in the process. It’s difficult to describe adequately the joy of learning using this method, as it is so experiential. I can only encourage you to dip your toe in and take a course. All levels are welcome and the atmosphere is always positive and encouraging. You can find out more information through www.oake.org (USA) or www.kodalycentre.co.uk (UK)
*This method differs from the so-called Fixed Do system, where do-re-mi is always C-D-E, etc. This is the standard system in France and parts of Latin America. This system has no advantages over letter names, and is simply a system for naming pitches.