I'd like to announce that I've finally launched my latest project, a new podcast where I interview teachers, composers, and performers of music for winds and percussion. The first episode is an interview with Cleveland area teacher and fellow composer John Pasternak. The conversation touches on John's early influences, his time as the arranger for the Kent State Marching Band, his publishing company JM Publishing, composing for band, and the importance of staying humble and approachable. Please give it a listen!
The direct link to the feed is http://everythingbandpodcast.libsyn.com/rss.
A few years ago I created a flowchart to help my second year music theory students decipher chromatic harmony. It's by needs a bit simplistic and certainly not exhaustive (e.g. it doesn't address popular harmony nor does it help for extensions past the seventh), but I think it's a good start and has been a useful tool for my students in moments when they just can't seem to find an answer. Feel free to download a .pdf version for your own use! Note that the flowchart uses "movable do" solfege to identify scale degrees, something that I find helpful when teaching concepts involving modal mixture.
When asked to write a paper in a music theory class, remember that the course focuses on the structures of music and your writing should reflect this emphasis. With that in mind, examine the following excerpt from a fictional student paper:
“In measure 23 the music makes me feel as if I’m flying away to far-away lands filled with magic and mystery. This section reminds me of dancing unicorns and whimsical fairies playing in meadows of rainbow flowers.”
This passage, while a bit exaggerated is a good example of several problems that are often encountered in first papers for music theory: It is not only far too fanciful and metaphorical, it is NOT ABOUT MUSIC! The focus should not be the listener’s emotional or imaginative response to the music but rather the structures that might evoke that response. Here is one potential re-write:
“The virtuosic sixteenth note arpeggios in measures 23-30 evoke the sensation of flight before subsiding into a repetitive dance-like rhythmic motive in measure 31 that emphasizes this section’s compound meter.”
The re-write preserves some of the metaphor (flight) but presents it within the context of specific musical structures. Always avoid providing “program” to the music when there is not a story explicit to the work.
The next problem typical of student papers is that they can often become a musical “play-by-play” that serves as nothing more than a list of musical events as they occur without any explanation or interpretation. Here is a good example:
“In measure one the subject is introduced in C minor. In measure 2 the subject modulates to G minor and it is a tonal answer. In measure 2 the countersubject also enters for the first time. Measures 4 and 5 are a sequence that modulates back to C minor.”
This is nothing more than a robotic regurgitation of the facts. It is not analysis, it is identification. Here is an actual (edited) student example that is a bit closer to course expectations:
“It is clear with the pauses in the alto voice that the piece is about to conclude and the pause in measure 28 supports this feeling. The terminative function is further made clear with the added voices and tonic pedal in measures 30-31 that makes the passage sound more polished and conclusive.”
While not a perfect piece of prose it does strike a good balance between providing facts and identifying structures and providing the reader with an interpretation of what those structures mean for the music. Here is another example from a student paper:
“Measure 11 contains a G7 chord which would be analyzed as V7/IV. This then resolves to a C chord (the tonic triad in the subdominant key) and repeats this pattern two beats later. This modulation is subtle and difficult to notice in the recording, but when tonic shifts back to the original key with a D7 chord it causes tension for the listener until its resolution in G two measures later.”
This isn’t a bad bit of musical analysis. The only criticism is that the reader probably needs at least one more measure number to identify where the shift back to the original tonic occurs.
Another common student problem is an over reliance on historical background to fill pages and word counts. It is useful to provide your listener with some basic historical background to help provide context for the music, but it is unnecessary to provide biographical information. Here is a good excerpt from an actual student introduction that is perfectly clear and to the point:
“Johann Sebastian Bach was one of the most famous composers of the Baroque era. He is considered to be a master of the fugue because he wrote them in such an intelligent way. Bach published two volumes titled The Well-Tempered Clavier. These books contain a set of preludes and fugues in every key. The first volume was publish in 1722 and the second in 1744.”
You should assume as a writer that any audience interested in a paper about a fugue is probably aware of Bach’s stature as “one of the most famous composers of the Baroque era” and would not require a reminder! Any more information about Bach’s background of the history of the Well-Tempered Clavier would be more appropriate for a paper in a music history course rather than one in music theory.
The best way to avoid many of these problems is to focus on a single unifying feature of each piece, section, or passage (depending on how long the paper.) Avoid generalizations about structures and instead provide a few examples of musical structures that tie together to provide explanation for any conclusions. For example, it is good to know that the middle section of a small ternary ends in measure 32 but what marks the conclusion? How does the music change to provide contrast and to help the listener and performer know that something new is happening? Was it the cadence, the texture, the dynamic, the melody, the harmony, the key or a combination of these and other musical phenomena? Explain to the reader, in specific musical terms, the logic that led you to make analytical decisions.
The final and most difficult step of writing that A+ paper is finding a unique common thread in the music that you can tie together and present in a way that is engaging and informative. You should formulate a hypothesis about the music and then base your efforts on providing support for that point of view. This is what makes for interesting analysis and is how you get an A! For example, a paper that writes about the repeated use of a descending chromatic stepwise motion in the principle motive and then points out that the composer modulated to the Neapolitan as a large-scale reflection of this motive would be insightful and show that the student has spent time learning the structures of the piece before attempting to write about it. This should be your goal!
(I had the opportunity today to answer a question on the music teachers Facebook group from a high school choir director asking for tips for teaching AP music theory. I'm going to paraphrase some of that response here.)
My first bit of advice was to peruse some of the more commonly used music theory textbooks to see which seems a good fit. While most textbooks appropriate for teaching undergraduate theory are similar, they do have some differences, especially in the amount of prose and the amount of contextual analysis and Schenkerian concepts they use. I currently use the Musician's Guide to Theory and Analysis by Clendinning/Marvin but I have also used, and liked textbooks by Ralph Turek, Kostka/Payne, and Benward/Saker. In the end, with enough experience teaching theory, there really is no need for a textbook and you can get by with a resource like the wonderful Open Music Theory and worksheets and exercises created yourself.
For teaching aural skills, I'm a devotee of Gary Karpinski's pedagogical methods and thus highly recommend his Manual for Ear Training. There is an accompanying sight singing book that corresponds with the dictation text, but any set of melodies could be used. However, I do believe that you can probably teach the aural skills component of AP Music Theory without a textbook, though I personally wouldn't choose to do so.
There are also several references that are invaluable sources for pedagogical advice. There are two books that are must reads for anyone who teaches music theory. The first is Michael Roger's venerable Teaching Approaches in Music Theory and Gary Karpinski's Aural Skills Acquisition. Another great resource is the Journal of Music Theory Pedagogy which has now been made FREE (!!) for anyone to download and read any of the multitude of articles that address virtually every topic in theory teaching.
Finally, the College Board itself has study guides and curriculum guides available for all of its AP courses, including AP music theory. Careful study of that and a comparison with a textbook table of contents can possibly provide a good starting point for piecing together a curriculum.
I recently completed this really fun and interesting commission from the City of Troy Illinois for the Troy Community Band. The mayor, Allen Adomite (a former drum major) and the director John Malvin (his former teacher) put together the funding and I am honored to have given the city a unique piece of music. In an era where the arts need our support more than ever, it was very special to be a part of something where the music itself is valued by a local municipality and it's officials.
The march will be premiered on July 22nd in Tri-Township Park in Troy as part of the Lion's Club 75th Troy Homecoming Celebration. It will follow the parade which begins around 6:30pm.
For the past 10 years I've had the privilege of teaching, among other things, first semester music theory. Each fall semester I greet a new group of first-year music majors to my classroom with the assumption that they have very little background in music theory and fundamentals. As a result, the bulk of the fall semester is spent teaching the fundamentals of music before proceeding into two voice counterpoint and the heart of the undergraduate theory curriculum.
However, there are a few theory skills that I find to be extremely useful for incoming students. Some of these are pretty basic, which is precisely why they are on this list.
Happy Fourth of July!
Shortly before Memorial Day I completed a brand new traditional march and contacted the Mid-America Band of the United States Air Force about whether they would allow me to dedicate the work to them. I'm pleased to announce that my newest work, Mid-America March has an inscription on the score that reads:
Dedicated to the professional Airmen-musicians of the United States Air Force Band of Mid-America
My thanks to Captain Jason Plosch for his help and time in making this gesture possible. I am delighted to have been allowed to do this and happy that I could offer something back to the military for their service, even if it's only a token gesture.
On Tuesday night June 30th my work Elegy was performed on the second (of 10) chamber concerts featuring faculty and guest performers at the Eastern Music Festival in Greensboro, North Carolina. Violist Jamie Hofman, oboist Karen Birch Blundell, and flutist Ann Choomack gave perhaps the finest performance that any of my works have received. The review from the Classical Voice of North Carolina reads in part:
The rich colors and sonorities are explored before it culminates with gorgeous harmonics on the viola as it soars to the top of its range, as if, Connor observes "reaching toward the heavens." It would be difficult to imagine a more consummate performance than that of flutist Ann Choomack, violist Jamie Hofman, with Karen Birch Blundell on English horn.
I've been coming to the Eastern Music Festival for years in support of my wife Marta Simidtchieva who is been on the faculty for over a decade. It is such a privilege to share the spotlight with the many fine musicians with whom I've known and have been friends with for over a decade here at the festival.
It was also nice to have program notes written by the remarkable Paul Schiavo, who has written notes for recordings and concerts too numerous to list. Just a bit from the opening:
Verdi initally conceived his famous Requiem as an homage to another great Italian opera composer, Rossini, on the first anniversary of his death. The Polish composer Witold Lutoslawski wrote his beautiful Musiqui funebre to honor the late Bela Bartok. And as far back as the 15th century, the great Renaissance composer Josquin des Prez wrote a motet in honor of his teacher, Johannes Ockeghem, upon learning of the latter's passing, in 1497.
It is this kind of insightful prose that makes Paul's work a commodity, and I'm certainly flattered to be compared to Josquin, Verdi, and Lutoslawski!