Whole and half steps are kind of like air. We tend to not pay too much attention to them unless something unexpected happens. For years they were certainly invisible to me – or rather, inaudible – unless I made a mistake in a musical passage, an easy enough thing to fix for pianists. It didn’t seem like such an important subject, just a way to label the movement between two adjacent scale tones.
In his solfège texts, however, Emile Jaques Dalcroze put this subject front and center for beginning students, and the longer I teach the more I appreciate why. As I learned to perceive them, I learned to use them to do all sorts of things. They are the keys (pun intended) to modulation and, maybe most importantly, and they offer great potential expressive power when playing a melody.
But inside a scale? They tend to just disappear. One of my first tasks then in the adult Dalcroze solfège class is to make them at least visible, hoping that in time they will become perceptible as well. I am working for bottom-up recognition, the kind that is instant and effortless, but to get there we may need to go back and forth between what we hear and what we know analytically for a while.
Fortunately there is the layout of the keyboard. Though they are literally invisible on a violin, the half steps stick out like sore thumbs on the piano, at least when you are in the key of C Major. This can create a kind of C major bias for some students, old and young. (I am reminded of Anne Farber often referring to “the tyranny of Do”.) However, it’s a good place to start. To combat the notion that the black notes sound different from the white I might play a Gb major scale and ask how many black notes they heard, some students will say, “None,” and are quite astonished to learn that I was primarily playing black notes.
Gestures come in handy, too. By creating a simple movement association for half and whole steps (for example, paint the scale in space, keeping the hand open for whole steps and closing it for half steps), I can ask a student to sing the scale with an absolute naming system (e.g. fixed do solfège or letter names) while gesturing for whole or half steps. As she sings, I can play exactly what she gestures, even if it is in conflict with what she is singing. This technique is a bit like mild electroshock therapy, but it can be startingly effective. This technique is supercharged by starting and ending the scale on different scale degrees (one of Dalcroze’s most brilliant pedagogical inventions).
For young children we’ll need a different approach. This is definitely one of those “teachery” subjects that invite eye glaze or outright rebellion if pushed too much (I can see watery eyes even from adults if I spend too much time on this). With elementary-age students I start with the keyboard, again no matter what instrument they play. I look for ways to physicalize the pattern of white and black. I play a game based on the American sidewalk game ‘hopscotch’ I call ‘hop-scale’. We move across the room imagining the chromatic layout of of whole and half on the keyboard, jumping with two feet when we would land on a black note, and one foot for white. I have them speak the letter names, thinking with sharps when we ascend, and flats when we descend. The trick is remember the two sets of adjacent white notes. The pattern is just off-center enough to keep students from going on auto-pilot until they really know the map.
We can do a version of this for adults, too, by having them sing the chromatic scale, but step only on the notes of the C Major scale (or any other key, even starting on any scale degree). If the students are seated, have them clap, snap or gesture on the notes of the scale. Another way to bring this perception into awareness is for me to play a whole or half step on the piano. If it is a whole, they will sing the two notes and put the gesture in the middle, if half they sing without the rest. When I do this, I try to make it feel like music, rather than the atonal randomness of my own college ear-training classes. It is in the context of a melody that the power of the half step becomes tangible, especially when I put them to use in a modulation. Which is just what they do in “real life”, outside of the ear training classroom.