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  • Music for Little People

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Zoltan Kodály

Zoltan Kodály (1882-1967) was an eminent musician and a native of Hungary, a "Composer, Musicologist, and Educational Revolutionary". (G.Russell-Smith in Simpson 1976:78). He came from a family of keen amateur chamber music players, learned the violin as a child and taught himself the cello. He started writing church music as a result of singing in a provincial cathedral choir and entered the Budapest Academy as a student. He was deeply interested in authentic Hungarian folk music and spent the decade from 1905 researching, collecting and publishing a vast body of folk song (from 1906 in collaboration with the composer Béla Bartók).

In 1907 Kodály accepted an appointment to the chair of Musical Theory at the Academy of Music in Budapest. There, he was appalled at the level of musical literacy in students entering what was the highest music school in Hungary. He found that they were unable to read and write music fluently and were ignorant of their own cultural heritage. The only exposure his students had to the vast wealth of Hungarian folk music was through the distorted and diluted versions played by gypsies in cafés. They had grown up in the aftermath of the Austro-Hungarian Empire when the elite considered only German and Viennese music "good" and German influence had dominated since the eighteenth century.

Kodály's work was based on the teaching ideals of John Curwen (1816-80), an English educator who believed that the study of musical symbols should be delayed until experience of music itself had been gained. Kodály possessed a missionary zeal which was to give back to the people of Hungary their own musical heritage and to raise the level of musical literacy, not only in students at the Academy but also in the whole population. Kodály's stated point of view was that "a man without a musical education is considered illiterate." He also wanted to influence what people were listening to, to ensure that it was of good quality, saying "our aim must be to turn out children for whom music, good music, is a necessity of life".

While rehearsing the choral sections of his Psalmus Hungaricus in 1923 Kodály had met with such inadequacies as to convince him that something must be done to improve the musicianship of his fellow countrymen.

"I suddenly awoke to the realization that we have to begin from childhood."

Kodály followed Curwen's method of teaching, which involved not introducing any form of musical notation at first, but instead concentrated on training the beginner's ear. Like Curwen, Kodály believed in training the "inner ear" through singing. But unlike Curwen, good singing was not his ultimate goal but was also a means towards further musical training. He also believed that instrumental music making should only begin after vocal experience had developed the child's aural capacity:

"A child should not be given an instrument before he can sing. The inner ear will develop only if his first notions of tone arise from his own singing, and are not associated with any external, visual or motor conceptions."

Kodály believed that it was very important to be able to sight-read away from the instrument, to be able to hear the music in one's head before an attempt was made to play it. He knew that many professional musicians were unable to read a tune without the aid of their instrument, saying in 1945 "It is indeed an unsound state when many of our qualified music teachers cannot read without the help of an instrument". Kodály came to England in 1927 to conduct the first British performance of his Psalmus Hungaricus at Cambridge and was surprised and gratified by the level of competence already displayed, particularly by the chorus, when compared with the situation that had confronted him at the original rehearsals in Hungary. He was soon made aware of the widely established choral tradition and the parallel tradition of teaching sight-singing in British schools for more than half a century, largely through Curwen's Tonic Sol-fa method. Upon discovering this systematic method of training the inner ear, which formed the basis of Curwen's teaching, Kodály determined to make it the basis of a system designed to meet the special needs of Hungarian schools.

After first experimenting with songs built entirely on one pitch, Kodály began melodic training with the minor 3rd, which he considered to be the most natural interval for young children to sing in tune. Curwen' hand signs and sol-fa names are introduced as are the basic elements of rhythm. Pictures and diagrams precede crotchets and quavers which, when introduced, are presented in several ways to reinforce the skills already learned.

Kodály gradually builds up the pentatonic scale, which was selected as the basic natural scale lacking the semitone, one of the most difficult intervals to sing. Singing games and nursery songs are used extensively, being gradually replaced by folk-songs more suitable for older children. During the first four years of their primary schooling the children are required to learn eighty songs a year.

Kodály had been involved with the collection and analysis of Hungarian folk music since the turn of the century and with Béla Bartók he had collected over 1000 children's songs that had formed the five volumes Corpus Musicae Popularis Hungaricae. It was not surprising that Kodály chose this music as the vehicle through which to teach children as he had a great knowledge of and love for the music of the peasants of Hungary. There were however other pedagogic reasons for his choice. Firstly Kodály believed that as a child naturally learns his own mother tongue before foreign languages, he should learn his musical mother tongue, i.e. the folk music of his own country, before other music. The historical development of music from primitive folk song to art music should follow the development of the child from infant to adult. Secondly, folk music consisted of simple short forms, a basically pentatonic scale, and simple language. These characteristics he considered would contribute to good pedagogical use of such music with children. Thirdly, and perhaps most importantly, he considered folk music to be a living art that had not been contrived for pedagogical purposes. It fitted well into a systematic scheme for teaching the concepts and skills of music to young children. Swanwick (1985) agrees that the Kodály Method displays a strong element of systematic development both in ideas and teaching method.

If the step between folk music and art music was to be bridged, there also needed to be good composed music suitable for children to sing. In 1923 Kodály began composing works for children's choirs and studying musical education in the schools in depth. As mentioned earlier, Kodály was convinced that the use of vulgar and impoverished material of the kind then popular was actively harmful, and maintained that it was the talented composer's duty to provide more suitable songs children to sing:

"Bad taste is infectious... bad taste in the arts cauterises susceptibility ... We have to get rid of the pedagogic superstition that some sort of diluted substitute art is good enough for teaching ... Nobody should be above writing for children: on the contrary, we should strive to become good enough to do so". (Simpson: 81)

The majority of pieces and exercises that Kodály began to write at this time for school use were not unison songs but two or three-part settings because he believed that...

"If you always sing in unison, you cannot sing in tune. You can only learn to sing in unison by singing in two parts. The two voices correct and balance each other. The only way to sing a series of sounds is to hear how they are related when they sound together. (Sandor: 125)

Kodály endured a lifelong struggle with those in the musical establishment who were content to remain with the status quo of romantic German influence. After the October Revolution of 1918 he was appointed Deputy Director of the Academy of Music under Ernó Dohnányi as Director. However the new regime fell a year later and Kodály was suspended from duties and endured a trial to investigate his 'patriotism'. He resumed teaching in 1921 but still experienced criticism throughout his career. His successes on the concert platform and with his choral revival provoked jealousy and suspicion in academic circles. These same circles breathed a sigh of relief when he retired in 1942 after thirty-five years service but he was soon to stir them up again with his concentrated work on education.

Like Curwen, Kodály also recognized the importance of good teaching. Therefore one of the first steps he took in improving musical literacy was to improve teacher training.

"It is much more important who is the music teacher in Kisvárda than who is the director of the opera house in Budapest... for a poor director fails once, but a poor teacher keeps on failing for 30 years, killing the love of music in 30 batches of children." (Kodály quoted in Choksy: 7)

Kodály involved all those around him, fellow professors at the Academy, colleagues in the area of folk music collection and analysis, and his more talented pupils, in his dream of a musically literate nation. He was also almost single-handedly responsible for causing the required music in teacher-training programmes to be increased to the present four-year teacher's diploma programme in Hungary.

"Good method, devoted teacher, and responsive children ... given the first two, can one doubt that the third component is easiest to get?" (E.Szönyi in Choksy: x)

Kodály adopted John Curwen's sol-fa but only as a mental keyboard for singing, and later playing from staff notation. Curwen's hand signs were also adopted and slightly modified. The evolution of what is now known as the "Kodály Concept" was to occupy the composer and his disciples for many years. Progress was impeded for a long time by the opposition of the Horthy Government (1920-44) which supported existing Austro-Hungarian traditions and banned the use in schools of the overtly nationalistic folk songs and melodies on which Kodály proposed to base the child's musical vocabulary. Through this official opposition his first efforts at reform were necessarily limited to publishing articles and encouraging the formation of youth choirs, the composition of children's part-songs in increasing numbers following his first example, Villö (The Straw Guy) in 1925, and to passing on his ideals and theories to his pupils at the Academy, among whom Jenö Adám, Geörgy Kerény and Benjámin Rajeczky later published school texts of their own following Kodály's principles.

Although that period saw limited achievement, Kodály's general plan of educational reform remained unchanged. There were three basic elements to his concept of initial musical training: sung folk tunes, to provide the early musical vocabulary; moveable sol-fa, to denote relative pitch; and the development of polyphonic sense from the very earliest stages through simultaneous clapping and singing, or singing in parts. As the time for his retirement after 35 years at the Academy approached Kodály began to devote more of his energies to producing songs and exercises for schools.

In 1945 official resistance to Kodály's new pattern for music teaching was finally overcome and the first Music Primary School was founded in 1950. There are now 214 Music Primary Schools in Hungary (Lepherd: 72) where musical standards reach heights virtually unknown elsewhere and even the 'non-music' primary schools have high musical standards. Despite the success of these schools, the Kodály Method was devised for ordinary schools with one or two lessons a week. G.Russell-Smith speaks of the "sense of vital enjoyment and total concentration" in all the lessons he witnessed (Simpson: 86) although Plummeridge and Taylor (1980) comment that the "concentration on skill acquisition could be at the expense of what might be called the "joy" of music and that the obvious enjoyment of kindergarten pupils was not shown by the older pupils. The Kodály concept is organized as a teaching scheme extending from Nursery School to Conservatoire and can therefore only be experienced where all the institutions concerned accept a uniform syllabus. For this reason it can only really be successful where the state has adopted it as their "National Curriculum" as in Hungary. Wholehearted acceptance of the Kodály method in other countries is limited to the individual establishments that follow his methods. However, it must be said that Kodály revolutionized his own country's musical education and redefined for the world the standards of excellence it was possible to achieve, the relationship of music with the rest of education, and the importance of music in everybody's lives. Kodály suggested that every child by the year 2000 should be able to read music.

Although Kodály's first objective was to improve standards of musicianship at the Academy, he became motivated by the belief that a musical education was the right of all and came to the conclusion that a development of an acute aural sense was the means to gain a thorough knowledge of music. Like Curwen, he fostered musicianship and literacy through the voice with the "movable doh" system although good singing was not Kodály's ultimate goal. Kodály was very specific in his use of existing folk music but also went on to compose music specifically for pedagogic purposes. He also introduces the staff early on in his method showing the relative positions of the sol-fa syllables. The training of others in the delivery of his method was also very important for Kodály.

BIBLIOGRAPHY

Alexander, J. (1981) 'A tonic for music that could be the key to success'. Guardian, November 3rd.

Choksy, L. (1974) The Kodály Method: Comprehensive Music Education from Infant to Adult Englewood Cliffs: Prentice Hall

Csébfalvi, E. (1995) 'Hungary' in L. Lepherd (ed) Music Education in International Perspective. National Systems pp.65-87

Moutrie, J. (1981) 'Tonic Sol-fa in the Training of Music Teachers: only relate, only connect' in

Plummeridge et al [lssues in Music Education]-Bedford Way Papers 3. University of London Institute of Education.

Plummeridge, C. and Taylor, D (1980) 'Kodály in Action'.

Times Educational Supplement 28 November

Rainbow, B (1989) Music in Educational Thought and Practice

Boethius Press

G. Russell-Smith (1976) 'Zóltan Kodály in

Simpson, K. (1976) Some Great-Music Educators London: Novello

Sandor, F. (ed)(1969) Musical Education in Hungary London, Boosey & Hawkes

Swanwick, K. (1985:2) 'Systems, Skills and Understanding' Bulletin of the International Kodály Society

Taylor, D. (1982) "Zóltan Kodály-The spirit lives on" Music Teacher, July.