Music theory is a strange child in music education. Many teachers ignore her, yet she is basic to everything in music. The basic ideas in music theory can be taught to a kindergartner, yet music majors and minors sit in college classes learning music theory that no one taught them for the last ten years while they were learning their instruments in grade school.
Fundamentals of music theory for all musicians:
Order of sharps and flats
Write all major and minor scales and play them on your instrument.
Read time values of notes and rests.
Identify time and key signatures
Know the meanings of tempo markings (i.e. allegro, andante, largo etc.)
Know the meaning of dynamic markings (pp, p, mp, mf, f, ff)
Know how to write basic major triads I, IV, V7 in any key.
I’ve had several months of lesson, as I could afford them. I learned most of my piano technique during piano proficiency group class at WSU. I grew the most during 2010 when I was the primary pianist at my church for nine months. At first I had to practice an hour a day to learn all the repertoire. The song leader had me learn about fifty songs, in batches of about ten a week. I found the fastest way to improve on an instrument is to have to perform weekly, in public. For me, avoiding embarrassment was a huge motivational factor. I enjoyed playing the songs and miss being with the children, now that I’m doing something different.
I’m still performing weekly for church. I’m playing hymns, which are more difficult than the children’s songs, but I have only three songs to learn a week.
My husband took piano lessons for eight years. He’s much better at playing lots of notes at the same time. I’m better at reading keys with lots of sharps or flats. I’m better at playing scales (piano proficiency class). He’s better at accompanying. We like playing together. If we’re sight-reading we might each take one hand and then we can play most music up to speed.
I started playing the flute in fifth grade at a public school during lunches. In sixth grade I joined the beginning band.
In eighth grade I moved to Utah and thought I was doing well because I was in my fourth year of playing. Well the new public school band in jr. high was much better then the one that I had come from in middle school. In ninth grade I took my first private flute lessons. I didn’t know how to look for a good teacher. She helped with my sight reading and rhythm skills, but didn’t do anything for my tone quality.
I took band all four years in high school and was required to take private lessons again my senior year so that I could be the flute section leader. I went to a different teacher who expected me to memorize. I didn’t even know what a good flutist sounded like until mid-high school, when my dad bought me a bunch of James Galloway CD’s. This was long before ITunes and YouTube.
In college I was required to play at a whole new level. My teacher, Cindy Henderson, took me back to the very beginning to start me over learning good tone quality. It was frustrating to start over with a new embouchure for the second time, but very necessary. I felt like an awkward beginner all over again and here I was in college!
I played bass clarinet in the band, because they were needed and flutists were not.
After four years of lessons with Cindy Henderson I played a Junior Flute Recital and received my flute performance music minor.
I learned more in the four year of private lessons then I did in the eight years of playing in public school bands. Part of it was the expectations placed on me at the college level, but most of it was the one-on-one tutoring of my playing ability.
For some, playing the flute comes more naturally than others. I find that the biggest three factors in how well someone plays are: the amount of daily practice, private lessons, and the amount of listening to good music.
In January and February I had the fun of arranging about eight pieces of piano music into full orchestrations for the elementary school musical. I’ve done arrangements for small groups of many songs, usually a piano part for a solo accompaniment or a small ensemble group. This was my first experience with an arrangement project of this size. It took me about two months. I did about a piece a week.
I did the arrangements in Finale Printmusic. I love the extract parts feature, without that, it would have taken me much longer. One of the challenges was nine verses of “When Johnny Comes Marching Home.” Each verse had different pauses and entry cues. I ended up giving each instrument nine versions of that song, with the pauses specific to each version.
Another challenge were the original compositions. I had to compose short snippets of a foxtrot, waltz and a swing dance. The foxtrot and waltz were easy, but writing jazz was a theory… a theory… much beyond the one year of college music theory I’ve had. I read a lot online and ordered a short book, Voicings for Jazz Keyboard by Frank Mantooth. The articles online were the most help. The challenge was getting the melody to sound jazzy with only my traditional theory background.
I achieved the jazzy sound by playing around with a raised and lowered sixth and third tone in a regular major scale. I had to dig out my theory notes and go over 7th and 9th chords. Rhythms are hard to notate and learn because they are swung and not straight. I had to teach the beginning band how to play it in the right style by singing the parts to them. But in the end it was one of their favorite songs to play and they played it well.
I got to substitute four days of jr. high choir in March. I have developed a new admiration for jr. high choir teachers.
I felt like I was performing on stage for 4.5 hours each day. The classes were huge and unlike in band where the students are looking at their instruments or their music, there was nothing between me and the students, no desks, no music stands. I didn’t realize how comforting a protection those simple objects were. Performing onstage doesn’t normally bother me, but that length of time was very draining. The longest performances I’ve participated in were about 1 hour and 45 minutes.
Because of the size of the room it was impossible to keep all the students in my view at the same time. Some of the choirs had over fifty students. I was constantly turning my head back and forth to watch them. I don’t think this a big issue in college, community or even high school choirs, but in junior high, when students aren’t watched they tend to talk.
When they watched me and were singing it was thrilling. I especially enjoyed conducting the women’s chorus, made up of mostly ninth graders.
The teacher who wrote the musical, that I conducted the pit orchestra for, asked me after one of the performances, “How long have you been playing the violin?”
I answered. “Two years.”
She looked at me funny, “I thought you had played forever?”
I shook my head. “I’m a flute teacher. I’ve played the flute forever, but I’m a violin beginner.”
She was surprised because I arranged the music for the orchestra and seemed to know what to do with the violinists.
I found that being a beginner was helpful in arranging the violin parts for the elementary students. I didn’t write parts that I couldn’t play.
It was fun that she thought I had played the violin for longer than I had played. Though if she had ever heard me play violin, she would have known I was a beginner.
If you had told me last fall that I’d be conducting several groups in the spring. I wouldn’t have believed you.
December 2012 I offered to help an elementary school teacher by doing the music for the musical. She agreed to the idea of letting me do music arrangements so we could have a pit orchestra. She wrote original lyrics to several folk songs and then I took the piano parts and turned them into orchestrations, some for band only and a few for full orchestra. (The grand finale and the overture)
In January she asked me to lead the pit orchestra rehearsals. I led the first rehearsal and then the elementary school’s orchestra teacher volunteered to help the strings. She took them for about a month and taught them the string only songs while I worked with the band on the band-only songs. The orchestra teacher also did the arrangements for the string-only songs, which was a huge help. We split the songs, because learning ten pieces of music was a lot for beginning orchestra and band students.
In mid-February we put the groups back together with me conducting the full pit orchestra. We rehearsed the group numbers for about four rehearsals and then we added the chorus. At the end of March we had our four performances. I had so much fun conducting the elementary pit orchestra. They practiced hard and played great at the performances.
We even had to recruit some fourth graders to fill in for percussionists who were characters onstage part of the time. I and the sixth grade percussionists got to train them over about one month. I had a little too much fun writing percussion parts and they were scrambling to get all the instruments played at the right time.
During this time I also got to conduct some junior high choirs as a substitute teacher. Choir was very different from the pit orchestra. I love conducting.