Thriving Not Just Surviving in Music Theory

The words “music theory” can evoke all sorts of memories for music majors. For some, it reminds them of a series of mnemonic devices and memorized strategies, like humming the NBC call sign or taking the last sharp and sharping it. Others remember it as a class that perhaps felt easy, like an extension of instruction that began years earlier with piano lessons. But for many, it brings back memories of a class that was feared and dreaded.

To provide some simple tips and strategies to help singers embrace music theory, I reached out to three friends and colleagues whose musical and professional lives have thrived and benefited because of a productive relationship with the tenets of music theory.

Breaking It Down
Rob Rokicki teaches music theory to incoming freshmen musical theater majors at the Pace School of Performing Arts and is on the faculty at CAP21 in NYC. His relationship with music theory has resulted in a cadre of unexpected, yet well earned performance opportunities as both a stage artist and musical director—and as the Finale guru for the nationally recognized children’s theatre publishing giant, iTheatrics.

We spoke by phone the day after he attended the 2017 Drama Desk Awards, where his new musical, The Lightning Thief: The Percy Jackson Musical, was nominated for three awards, including Outstanding Musical. Our conversation focused primarily on his teaching approach and advice for young performing artists in his music theory classroom. “In some cases there is this terror/fear of the vulnerability of sight-reading out loud, either one on one or in front of peers—being overwhelmed about seeing an entire page of new music and feeling like it’s hard to tackle,” Rokicki says. “One of my approaches is breaking it down into steps: What can we do to manage this in little, bite-sized chunks so it doesn’t feel so overwhelming?”

To approach this in class, he furthers, “OK, ‘let’s breathe—what can we identify first?’ I take it apart so that we can tackle it in a way that’s a little more digestible: ‘Let’s start with the key signature. Are there any intervals we recognize? Where’s the tonic?’ They can go back to their training/homework and start breaking this down a bit more on their own, rather than feeling like they have to dive in and do this all at once. It helps them feel empowered.”

Rokicki was quick to reference some of the many online resources he finds especially useful in supplementing a music theory student’s coursework. “I absolutely adore teoria.com,” he says. “I encourage students to use it all the time—especially for interval and rhythmic dictation training.”

Teoría is a website dedicated to the study and practice of music theory with numerous exercises and tutorials. These exercises help students to, as Rokicki advises, break down the tasks of music theory coursework into bite-sized study activities.

“The other main resource I encourage is the app Sight Reading Factory,” Rokicki continues. “You can also address time signatures, key signatures—even work on clefs or getting at a tricky time signature. What’s great about it too is that you can check your answers! You can use it on the train, or with a group in a class! It’s really fun!”

Sightreadingfactory.com—which notes that their resource “makes practicing the important skill of sight-reading easy, effective, and fun”—is subscription based but affordable and offers discounted educator pricing. It’s also the perfect warm-up for a theory quiz or a confidence/skill booster on the way to a church gig!

Broaden Your Observations
Cary Boyce has taught numerous theory classes and composition lessons in the U.S. and currently serves as president and general manager of Spokane Public Radio. He’s also an Emmy award-winning composer and former figure skater.

Like Rokicki, Boyce stresses the importance of approaching training in smaller but consistent activities. “Five or ten minutes a day of sight-singing and listening deeply are much better than trying to cram large chunks of time and study before a test,” he says. “It’s easier to develop fluency this way.

“When practicing, it’s also good to spend a moment thinking about not just the physical aspects of the music but the conceptual as well,” he continues. “What key or mode is it in? What’s that weird-looking chord doing there? Is this part in a piece foreground or background? Where does it modulate? Where are the cadences? The more you do it, the easier it gets—and the easier music is to learn, perform, and keep in your head. And you’ll have a better concept of what it is you’re trying to interpret.”

Boyce also recommends taking this observation outside the classroom. “I can’t help analyzing what I hear in daily life,” Boyce says. “You’ll hear shifting meters in Bernstein or the Beatles or borrowed chords in John Barry’s James Bond film music. Music surrounds us. This pervasiveness presents opportunities for learning to think about and interpret what you hear, be it a television commercial or jotting down some riff you’d like to use later. Once you get used to thinking this way, it becomes increasingly automatic.”

He also advises students to keep the bigger picture in mind. “Theory wasn’t designed to torture young musicians,” he says. “Research indicates that successful musicians have these particular skills, and systems were developed to help attain them.”

Skills to Get You Hired
Professor of Music and Chair of the Department of Voice at Indiana University Jacobs School of Music Mary Ann Hart’s celebrated performance career spans the style periods, as does her recorded legacy, ranging from definitive collections of Lieder, Ives, and Hundley (and many more) to the enchanted castle in Disney’s Beauty and the Beast (a fabulous recording gig offered to her because of her reputation as a fine musician and expert sight-reader).

This last June, Hart and I spoke by phone, and she affirmed that the ability to sight-read—and do it well—results in satisfaction and opportunities.

“When I was in New York, I always would prefer doing singing gigs of almost any kind instead of working in an office,” Hart says. “Being able to sight-read was hugely important because most of the people I worked for were on shoestring budgets and didn’t have the money to pay for lots of rehearsals, so you had to be able to sight-read when you got there. The quality of singers in New York was so high—and so exciting—and the ones I ended up singing with the most had such amazing musical skills. It was sort of like a game: How close can we get on the first time through? How perfectly can we sight-read this? And, then, how can I lead from within the section without sticking out?

“The Disney thing—that came through my church job,” Hart continues, “so half Broadway, half legit singers. The legit singers, I knew. The Broadway singers, I didn’t. The Broadway people that came in were pretty good readers, and anything they didn’t get the first time through, they had perfectly the next day. So the ability to learn on your own—really fast—was crucial for that gig.”

Hart was also offered a major gig lending her voice and musicianship to the study tapes made for Philip Glass’ opera The Voyage. “The music was hard, and we would record phrase by phrase, measure by measure, section by section—whatever it took to get accurate readings of this new opera, so that the people who were cast at the Met could use those tapes to learn their parts—a little high pressured, but I thrived on that,” she says.
Hart also stresses another practical benefit of good sight-reading skills. “It just makes everything so much easier,” she says, “and coaching is great, but coaching is another expense—and when you’re starting out, everything adds up. So the more you can do for yourself, the better off you are.”

A quick Wikipedia search defines music theory as “the study of the practices and possibilities of music.” When we step back and embrace that broader definition, we’re better able to take that breath and explore what we’re actually looking at: the possibilities of musical and communicative style, color, and language. We’re also creating the possibilities of exceling on theory finals, booking the gigs that will pay our rent, and better understanding the music we’re performing.

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Try these tips for enhancing music theory training:
1. Breathe, divide, and conquer—Whether you’re looking at homework, a quiz, or 16 bars to sight-read, take a beat and embrace the many things you know and recognize, and then proceed with confidence.
2. Strategize and theme—Make a series of empowerment plans for the week, semester, and an attainable, theory-related longer-range goal. Focus on the needs of the moment or assignment; acknowledge that satisfying those needs will empower your next task. Keep in mind that those tasks will ultimately help you reach the end goal of knowing your music fully and reading expertly.
3. Take time for TECHnique—Utilize the many resources at your disposal, ranging from a class TA/tutor to the wide range of online opportunities to practice theory skills and exercises available on your laptop and phone.
4. Make time to sing with friends—Pull some friends into your practice room and challenge them to improvise harmonies to the aria you’re working on. Or switch parts in a choral piece that you’re all working on. See how the tenors do on the alto line and the altos on the bass line and so on. Make it a game!
5. Listen and determine—Be empowered by the fact that music theory is at work all around you and has had tremendous impact on why you started singing in the first place. Ask yourself why you find a harmonic rhythm so appealing, and then take a moment to zero in on what you know about it. You’ll identify key intervals, rhythmic shifts, and elements of style that you might otherwise glance past on a quiz!

Peter Thoresen

Dr. Peter Thoresen is an award-winning voice teacher, countertenor, and music director. His students appear regularly on Broadway (Almost Famous, Beetlejuice, Dear Evan Hansen, Hamilton, Moulin Rouge! and more), in national tours, and on TV and film. He works internationally as a voice teacher, conductor, and music director in the Middle East and Southeast Asia with the Association of American Voices. He is an adjunct voice faculty member at Pace University and maintains a thriving private studio in New York City; he also serves as music director with Broadway Star Project. Thoresen has served on the voice faculties of Interlochen Summer Arts Camp, Musical Theater College Auditions (MTCA), and Broadway Kids Auditions (BKA) and holds a DM in voice from the IU Jacobs School of Music where he served as a visiting faculty member. He teaches a popular online vocal pedagogy course for new voice teachers and performs throughout the U.S. and abroad. To learn more, visit peterthoresen.com, @peter.thoresen (Insta), and @DrPetesTweets (Twitter).