I’ve waited some time to write about this particular topic because I wanted to ensure that I was informed enough to speak properly about it. The truth is that I’ve not conducted quite as much research as I had set out to do. I had originally come to my sleepy little town with aspirations of creating close connections with the local music school and making some amazing, mind-blowing discoveries via qualitative work. However, it took longer than I’d like to admit to even get into the school due to difficulties in meeting with the director. I did eventually get the director to meet with me, and she was very warm and welcoming. However, the music school schedule clashed with the numerous clubs that I had created while waiting for admittance. I would like to juggle things around this semester and carve out more time to devote towards this important topic. In the meantime, I’ll lightly touch on my humble findings thus far.
There are two different ways students receive music education here in Ceadîr-Lunga: through grade school or through a separate music school that exists outside of grade school. This is the same system I had found in Moscow in 2013. I’m not sure what I was expecting here in Moldova, but I’m not surprised that it is the same – especially in Russian-dominated Gagauzia. What I did find interesting was the use of the Soviet books in the music school, which I’ll detail farther on in this post.
First, I’ll begin with what I saw in the lyceum that I work at. Students have music class one day a week, which is not uncommon in some schools in the U.S. (although two days a week is the standard). What I found interesting is that music class is only offered in the 1st through 8th grades. There is a small room in the lyceum that houses an out of tune piano that is in some disrepair (missing pedal, sticky keys), but still playable. This piano was, I’m told, purchased only a few years ago by a former Peace Corps volunteer. I inquired about getting the instrument tuned and fixed up, and was told that a tuning would be around $150 and a new piano would be $500. I declined the offer to fix after I learned that the library has a good piano near the American Corner. This is now where I teach private piano and voice lessons, as well as the chorus for young women (check out the chorus tab!).
The piano at the library
Regardless of the piano’s presence at the lyceum, the music class is held in another room. The piano is left to gather dust and act as a holder for textbooks. In the alternative room, there are no instruments. The children sit at desks for the duration of the lesson, with the Moldovan government-issued music textbooks in front of them. Every once in a while, small groups of students are invited out of their seats to come to the front of the class for a solo or choreographed dancing. Other than these instances, there is no movement in the classroom.
Students are pushed forward according to the grade level books, regardless of level. This doesn’t appear to be much of an issue for them or the instructor, however, because the students learn songs mostly by rote. Students are taught some basic rhythm reading, but it does not compare to the considerably higher level of rhythm notation that is actually found in their textbooks. Take the rhythms from the following songs as an example:
Any guesses what grade was “reading” this music? Fourth grade. Yeah…
If you’re a music educator, then you know that even high school students would have trouble reading these rhythms. When I first saw the students performing these songs, I was understandably impressed. I asked these same students to read simple rhythms in 6/8 with only dotted quarters, quarters, and eighth notes (no rests). They hadn’t seen the rhythms before and they didn’t belong to any familiar songs. They looked up at me and smiled, admitting that they didn’t know where to begin. Giving them the benefit of the doubt and thinking perhaps they were just nervous, I coached them through the first measure. They picked it up with remarkable speed, but were unable to proceed past the first measure.
So, the kids learn by parroting. Now…some music educators take no issue with this. They believe that it’s more important for children of young ages to gain experience by just “making music,” and that it’s preferable for students to learn how to read music only after a considerable amount of practice with singing only. Their argument is something akin to , “Well, you wouldn’t teach a baby to read before he can talk, right?” I’m definitely not in this camp, for the simple reason that I’ve had a lot of success in teaching even first graders how to read music. In my opinion, it all comes down to 1) proper delivery of instruction by the teacher, and 2) proper selection of music. While the teacher here tells the students, “This is a half note and it gets two beats,” they have no real concept of what that means because they haven’t witnessed it in practice. In addition to the reading issue, there is also the serious problem of the voice being the only instrument. One would think that if this is the sole instrument being used in the class that the students would be very adept. Sadly, many are pitchy shouters. No instruction appears to have been given to breathing, intonation, tone, or any other specifics.
In the music school, the situation is very different. The school is about a 2.5 mile walk from the lyceum. It’s housed in an old newspaper factory, as evidenced by the old sign that still remains fixed to the front of the school. It’s an old, dark building in need of repair, but is of a good size. The first floor has some offices and an art school, and the second and third floors house the music school and the music school director’s office (which is quite nice). There are no elevators, so hauling the pianos up three flights must have been a great joy to those lucky enough to have had the job of moving them.
The school offers instruction only in piano, violin, accordion, trumpet, and xylophone. This is because they lack the instructors necessary to teach more instruments. In addition, there are two choruses for older and younger kids (but no voice teacher) and a sight-reading class taught by the director herself. It’s interesting to know that the director’s husband also works at the school as a piano tuner and teacher. He also boasts about knowing “every piano in Ceadîr-Lunga,” because he is the only piano tuner in the area. Students attend the school Monday-Friday, and sometimes on Saturdays. Instruction is given from 3-5pm, but students often arrive long after three and leave by 4:45pm to catch the last bus that leaves for the villages outside of town.
On the days that I was at the school, only about 5-6 students out of the 11 enrolled in the sight singing class actually showed up on a regular basis. It seems that grade school and “life” often get in the way of attendance. The class, called сольфеджио (simply, “Solfege”) teaches both melodic and rhythmic reading as well as theory. I haven’t witnessed any dictation, though I was very happy to see that students had creative assignments. They would be given chord progressions, and had to compose their own melody to accompany them.
The book used by the Solfege class is the exact same one that students used in the Soviet 1950’s. I was told that instruction also remains the same. This isn’t, I think, a bad thing. It’s very interesting to see and if it isn’t broke, then don’t fix it, right?
3rd “grade” book
Unlike in the grade school, students move through the books by ability. The third “grade” class has one student from the 4th grade, two from the fifth grade, one from the 6th, and two from the 7th. They pass to a new grade level both by written and creative performance. A full copy of the 3rd grade book can be found here:
Recitation of rhythms was accompanied by quite a forceful downbeat of every downbeat onto the desks. The following words were used for counting:
раз, два, три, четыре (1, 2, 3, 4)
raz, dva, tree, chitiri
раз-и, два-и, три-и, четы-ре
raz-ee, dva-ee, tree-ee, chiti-ri
раз-да-и-та, два-да-и-та, три-да-и-та, че-тыр-и-та
raz-da-ee-ta, dva-da-ee-ta, tree-da-ee-ta, chi-tir-ee-ta
For quarters and eighths, the numbers and “and’s” translate directly. For the sixteenth’s, random sounds are added to the numbers much in the same way that English adds the vowel sounds of “e” and “a.”
For solfege singing, a steady beat is kept with the forearm, which moves up and down. The elbow is placed on the desk and acts as a hinge, and the hand slowly and gently rises from the desktop and falls back down. The tempo never exceeds 50-60 bpm. This dirge-like speed is maintained while students focus on melodic accuracy. No emphasis is put on students’ tonal quality or other important aspects of singing – only pitch and rhythmic accuracy.
I was confused why the students were using “si” instead of “ti” for the 7th, and why the “l” in “sol” was being pronounced. After a little looking online I learned that in most romance and slavic languages the solfege is pronounced in this way. Also, it’s used to name notes the same way that the letters C, D, E, F, G, A, and B are used to name notes in English. So, if you ask a mezzo what her lowest note is, she will say “fa” and not “low F,” no matter the key. The key is unimportant because I also discovered that to native speakers, solfege is simply singing the names of the notes. They omit sharps and flats when reading. It’s called “fixed do,” which makes our English “movable do” that much more comprehensible. 🙂
The older kids’ chorus (which I saw much more than the younger one) was a sight to see. They sang in three part harmony, and their attention to rhythmic and melodic perfection was irreproachable. The only thing that I noticed was, once again, a lack of breath support and a beautiful tone. I really think this is due to the fact that no teacher can be found who has a voice background. It’s a shame, because they really could be so incredible.
The chorus also suffers from an unbalance. There are many more middle voices than low or high ones. The lack of low voices is, of course, because some voices haven’t changed yet. But why so few sopranos? It turns out that they just don’t have the range! This is very strange. I have two theories: 1) they may have range, but are unable to access their head voice due to lack of a a proper vocal instructor, or 2) there is a biological difference in throat thickness between people from slavic nations and western nations, which is coupled with other factors like language and environment to produce a sincere difference in voice. The only Russian soprano that comes to mind who possesses a lighter quality to her voice is Rita Streich (whose father is German, so…). The most famous Russian soprano, Anna Netrebko, has a soprano range but a dark, dramatic color to her voice. This particular “chocolate” coloring is what I’ve found in 98% of my voice and chorus students. In the U.S., I’m used to having to convince true sopranos who have a low range to sing alto because there are so few low voices. Here, it’s the opposite!The differences in voice is very intriguing.
Consider the difference between white and black voices, for instance. Regardless of national origin, a person can distinguish both the singing and speaking voices of these races without needing to see them. For me, it’s the same with slavic vs. western voices. This topic is very interesting to me, and I’d love a straight answer but, sadly, I don’t think there is one to be had. It’s likely a mix of several different factors, including language, environment, and biodiversity. We must simply continue to wonder…