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    How I’m Hacking Charlotte Mason Singing Lessons

    May 9, 2017 by Brandy Vencel

    [dropcap]A[/dropcap]bout a month ago, I was out at dinner with some old friends — it was something of a reunion for our original Charlotte Mason group (I think we started meeting in late 2008, if I’m doing the math correctly — my, how time has flown). We hadn’t all been together in the same place for a couple years (because of families moving away and yes I am still bitter). I expressed my frustration — I sing and read music (was originally a vocal performance major in college), and I learned to sing using solfege, but I couldn’t figure out a simple way to teach my own children. It was a total mental block on my part.

    I knew Charlotte Mason recommended Tonic Solfa singing lessons. Not only this, but I knew personally what a powerful thing Solfa (sometimes called Solfege) is. While I have sung regularly with my children for over a decade, and while I have coached them on their breathing and sound quality and such, I have never been able to teach them the way I wanted. I couldn’t find a curriculum that I considered easy and doable.

    You know what that’s like, right? You’re juggling a bunch of grades and a million subjects (or one grade and a million toddlers and infants) — ain’t no one got time for figuring out some complicated music curriculum!

    I had the same disconnect when it came to piano — I play and read music, but couldn’t figure out how to teach my own children. (Discovering PianoPhonics solved most of that problem.) Just like PianoPhonics helped me hack piano lessons, I have been on the search for years for something that would help me hack singing lessons. I embarked upon dozens of singing lessons in san jose and found this helpful as a starting point, but something else also helped me greatly.

    Little did I know, my friend Heather was sitting right beside me with the answer I’d been looking for! I went home and immediately bought up the resources she recommended, added a couple things of my own, and the rest is history. I am thrilled. My children are learning shape-note singing with solfege hand signs, so basically my dream has come true.

    It only took a little over a decade.



    Singing Resources

    Here is a picture of what I bought, and I’ll explain it all below:

    I finally found the perfect resources for teaching my children solfege and shape-note singing at home! Here's what we're using and how we're doing it.

    1. Music Flash Cards
      • We’re playing little review games with these.
    2. Praise and Practice Christian Music Reader
      • All they need to know is a couple of the shape notes in order to begin the early exercises in this book.
    3. Do Re Mi Fa FUN: Solfege Songs and Activities for Young Voices
      • I wanted some extra songs, so I added this to the Reader above.
    4. Beginning in Music One
      • These start out SUPER easy. My kids said they were “for babies.” And it makes sense: I’m pretty sure these were designed for first grade or even kindergarten classrooms. No matter. Everyone needs to begin at the beginning, right? The difference is that the recommended pace is one lesson per week, and right now we’re fitting in two per day. No sense belaboring the easy parts.
      • I bought a book for each of my three younger children.
    5. Beginning in Music Two
      • I bought this to save on shipping. I was pretty sure they would zip through level one in no time, especially since we’re going to keep this up through the summer.
      • I bought a book for each of my three younger children.
    6. Do-Scale Hand Sign Ladder Cards
      • The shape note workbooks do not include hand signs, but I considered this a priority because that was how I learned to sing and I thought it worked really well when it came to learning to sight-sing music from a score. This pack has eight cards, so everyone has their own to reference … not that they will need it for long. I started right off on the first day — this is Do … we learned both the shape-note as well as the hand sign. I think if we start from the beginning, they won’t need the crutch of the card very long at all.


    What Singing Lessons Look Like

    I incorporated these singing lessons into Circle Time, and told the teenager he could stay for them … or not … his choice. His habit seems to be to wander in for a moment, just long enough to learn whatever I’m teaching, and then go back to whatever he’d prefer to be doing. He reads music well for piano, so the jump to sight-singing won’t be as difficult for him as for the others, who aren’t nearly as proficient at piano.

    An average lesson goes like this:

    • Review what we already know using a combination of drill and games I invent using the flashcards. We don’t know very much yet, so this doesn’t require much creativity on my part at this point. (2 ish minutes)
    • Introduce the new concept. There are hints in the teacher’s guide at the beginning of the workbook. Level 1 is super simple — this is Do, this is a whole note, that sort of thing. (2 ish minutes)
    • Complete the worksheets. We’re doing 2 per day at this point. Like I said, this is easy for them. We skip the cutting and pasting part. No one around here really likes cutting and pasting. (5 minutes?)
    • Practice singing acapella and in unison (what I mean is, no harmonizing yet) using the hand signs. We use the Praise and Practice Christian Music Reader OR something I make up. The point is to incorporate whatever we learned that day. (5 minutes)

    As you can see, it’s around 15 minutes per day.

    Once we’ve gotten to a more appropriate level for their ages, we’ll slow down and stick to lessons once or twice per week. But, like I said, I don’t want to belabor the “boring” parts.


    Is This for Novices?

    My answer is: I don’t know. I don’t know what it’d be like to approach this without having a working knowledge of music — not just ability to sing, but ability to read music. Probably you’d need more help. I looked around on YouTube, and it looks like there are a number of ways to get free help online (this singing school looks promising and there is also Children of the Open Air). I like to keep my Circle Time as low-tech as possible, but YouTube help is always great when we need an extra hand, isn’t it?

    For those of you with a passingly fair knowledge of music, I think it’d work just fine. Basically, if you sang in choir in high school, my guess is you can do this.


    Is This Economical?

    It’s a great deal — for around $90, I have in my possession many months of singing lessons for my children. For about $15 including shipping, I can purchase Level 3 for all three of my students (there is no way my high schooler would ever do those worksheets) and keep moving. I suppose eventually I’d need to buy more song books, but for now, all I need to do is pay the $15 each time we pass a level. When I think about what singing lessons would cost — probably around $90 each month for all four of my chidren — I feel like I’ve hit the jackpot.

    And this is to say nothing of the expense of singing lessons in terms of time and gas money. That is one thing I keep coming back to with activities — time and gas are expenses we often forget to consider. This is saving me both, which makes me happy.


    I’m Loving It!

    My dream of hacking Charlotte Mason singing lessons has finally come true. It’s going so well and it’s so simple and I just keep having that where-have-you-been-all-my-life feeling, you know? All I needed were good, affordable tools … and now I’ve got them.


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  • Reply Crystin June 16, 2017 at 8:18 pm

    Just wanted to throw out there, for those who maybe can’t afford to purchase what you have here, although it looks like great stuff!, that Children of the Open Air on youtube is free and she does the work of teaching solfa for you. She is simply amazing. Hoffman Academy is online, also free, and does the work of teaching piano for you. He is also amazing.

  • Reply Cindy June 1, 2017 at 6:12 am

    I am so excited about this!! Singing has always been part of Charlotte’s writings that I just sort of glossed over, thinking it was not something we could do but we could SO do this the way you’ve suggested! I love the youtube channel you mentioned (singing school). Although we, too, try to keep screens out of our school as much as we can, I’ve come to terms that delegating out some teaching might have to involve a screen. We also do this with piano lessons – have you heard of Hoffman Academy? We love Mr. Hoffman :). Thanks for bringing this subject to light!

  • Reply Erika May 14, 2017 at 6:07 am

    THANK YOU!!! I am in the beginning stages of your quandary, though I studied piano, not voice. Looking forward to bringing my piano home this summer and my oldest is already begging for lessons. She’s only five, though, which is really too young to begin piano in general, and I want my kids to have a good working knowledge of solfege first. I’m loving your resource suggestions and tips. Am saving this post to refer back to as we go.

  • Reply Heather May 10, 2017 at 10:20 pm

    So glad you are enjoying this little nugget! It takes a village to raise up these children! I am utterly thrilled to have given you a small little bit compared to the vast sea of knowledge you have shared with me. Honored to say the least. Perhaps our children will sing in harmony together one day.

  • Reply Leah May 10, 2017 at 4:27 pm

    This sounds like a great resource! Growing up, I learned a little bit of music, a little bit of French, a little this and a little that- but I don’t feel competent to teach in many of those areas! It’s so encouraging to know that there are things like this for support! We started with Hoffman Academy piano lessons, and he goes into solfege a little bit. I am paying very close attention 🙂

    • Reply Brandy Vencel May 11, 2017 at 4:17 pm

      I keep meaning to look more at Hoffman. Are you happy with it, Leah?

  • Reply Amy May 10, 2017 at 1:07 am

    We’re having a similar problem to what you had, except with French. My husband is fluent – he was in school in France from age 7 through his masters degree. But achieving any sort of consistency in exposing our kids to the language has felt impossible – even just the ten minutes a day that Charlotte Mason recommends for young children like mine. Like you said, there’s just a disconnect between what we value and think is important for our kids, and what we actually implement. (Very tangential comment!)

    • Reply Toni May 10, 2017 at 11:27 pm

      I wonder if the book Play and Learn French by Ana Lomba might be of interest to you. Used copies can be found cheap online, plus your library may have a copy for you to peruse. She also has fun storybooks that are retellings of classic fairy tales. Her ideas might be something you could easily implement in your day-to-day. Of course, this recommendation comes from a Spanish teacher who has yet to teach her own children Spanish! I think it’s easier to teach my kids subjects that I know less about. I just buy the what looks to be the best resource and trust the expert. The trouble comes when I am the supposed “expert”. Then I second-guess and think I have to create all the resources myself – “ain’t no one got time for that!”

      • Reply Amy May 12, 2017 at 1:47 pm

        Thanks so much for the recommendation! I’ve been thinking that if I have something to get us started, then my husband can jump in, so this could be great. 😀

  • Reply Lisa Y May 9, 2017 at 1:31 pm

    We’ve been using the Kodaly in the x-Grade Classroom by Houlahan and Tacka. It works well for us–it uses the Kodaly method (Curwen’s hand signs but not shaped notes)–but we adapt as we go, since it’s intended for a large class. It’s definitely not novice-friendly, unfortunately, but for someone with musical background it provides a good sequence of what to teach in what order, and how. The worst thing is that it doesn’t include the folk songs it uses, so I’ve had to do quite a bit of legwork looking for some of them. and are both good resources for songs. We love PianoPhonics too. Thanks for sharing these resources!

    • Reply Brandy Vencel May 9, 2017 at 6:00 pm

      Ooh! I haven’t heard of that Kodaly resource. Thank you! ♥

  • Reply Lani May 9, 2017 at 12:32 pm

    Thank you! I will be buying it ALL! And then I can tell you how it works for someone who sort of reads music.. lol

  • Reply Tanya Stone May 9, 2017 at 10:15 am

    I have no brain cells right now–probably due to driving to WA and back to CA with 5 kids for a wedding, that used all of them. But this looks amazing and very helpful! Saving to read later. Thanks again, Brandy! (And I’ll look at PianoPhonics too, I have Little Mozarts and love it . . it’s the making time for lessons and being consistent that I’m bad at).

    • Reply Brandy Vencel May 9, 2017 at 6:01 pm

      I definitely hear you on the consistency part, Tanya. This is why my children who are naturally consistent are doing so much better in piano than my children who aren’t! 🙁

  • Reply Mystie May 9, 2017 at 9:56 am

    So would you say that probably piano lessons that include a lot of hymn playing and learning to sing while playing will teach them to read music for singing? I cannot read music or sing harmony unless I have another’s strong voice to follow along with, and my husband said he learned to sing parts just from piano practice.

    About as far as I’ve gotten is purchasing the D0-Re-Mi song for the kids to sing along with from Sound of Music. Ha!

    • Reply Danielle May 9, 2017 at 12:20 pm

      If you learn to sing with just notes on a staff (I did) you can probably follow along fine on harmonies for a hymn in church *with accompaniment*. I can’t sight sing a staff without accompaniment though because I do NOT have
      perfect pitch–my ear is good enough to stay in key with a familiar tune, but not good enough to start in the right key from scratch. I’m not super familiar with Solfa yet but I imagine it’s better because you’re learning intervals–the voice can make so many more pitches than an instrument so it’s not the same as just hitting this one key for this one line on the staff.

    • Reply Brandy Vencel May 9, 2017 at 6:02 pm

      I think that works for *some*, but not all, versus I think Solfa probably works with most and helps those for whom piano alone isn’t effective? That is my guess. I have absolutely no research to back this up, FYI. 😉

      I am with Danielle — one of the powerful things about Solfa is the emphasis on learning the intervals. It definitely makes sight singing a capella way easier.

  • Reply Nelleke May 9, 2017 at 9:31 am

    First of all, thank you so much for your Piano Phonics recommendation! I have been using it with my 8 year old and (musically inclined) 6 year old, each at their own pace, and it is perfect for us. I especially love that it has no fluffy time-wasters!
    Second, thanks for the Sol Fa recommendations. We’ve been using and absolutely loving Children of the Open Air on YouTube. I highly recommend this for people with younger children (about 8 and under). I am hoping fervently that she will continue to put out increasingly higher levels over the years as my children get older, but if she doesn’t, this will help me keep going.

    • Reply Brandy Vencel May 9, 2017 at 6:03 pm

      You are welcome, Nelleke. Thank you for the Children of the Open Air recommendation … I just shared her on FB and I think I’ll add her to this post. 🙂

    • Reply Heather May 12, 2017 at 7:45 am

      Thank you, Nelleke! And Brandy!

      Doing videos for Children of the Open Air has helped keep me accountable for teaching my children music. For too long it was a case of the cobbler whose children had no shoes! We’re coming close to finishing about a first grade level of sight singing and I plan to continue as my children grow.

      I am following Lois Chosky’s The Kodaly Method.

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