As an undergraduate student I was not fully able to recognize the true importance of music theory. Harmony, counterpoint, and piano classes seemed like a chore on top of the demands of rigorous flute lessons. I was willing to spend hours in the practice room trying to make something sound beautiful, but attending these courses took away from my beloved practice time.
One class I did particularly enjoy was sight-singing. Our lovely teacher was from France, and she had a great authority and flair for teaching us the traditional “Fixed Do” system, more typically used outside of the United States. We would sight-sing music of Varèse, Berio, and Messiaen, and somehow I found this challenge more artistically worthy of my time. I also enjoyed the dictation aspect, even though four-part harmony was often difficult to discern. I had no training in this area prior to college, but the idea of solving an aural puzzle kept me interested and curious.
As a graduate student, I admit I needed some theory review. I still found the analysis approach to music a bit dry, and I would often spend my time delinquently (and silently of course) sight-singing my way through flute etudes during my theory classes. Although this is certainly not how I recommend that students spend their time during class, I realized at the time that this was allowing me to learn my etudes much faster, and basically I knew them all even before I played them on the flute. I was grateful that I took solfeggio classes seriously.
As my general musicality matured through flute study, I began to recognize the true importance of structure, form, and harmony. While I had developed a diverse set of musical tools and a wide palette of colors on the flute, with a better theoretical and harmonic understanding, I started to recognize not only how to use these tools, but when, where and why. As I look back on my undergraduate years, I realize that my interpretations were often based on my own sentimentality and expression, and not always on a knowledgeably guided or theoretically applied approach.
Now, as a university professor, I work with my students diligently on understanding the harmonic structure of the music in order to offer sensible phrasing and inflection of the melody. Studio teachers should aim to correlate what the students are learning in their academic classes with lesson material to enforce the importance and relevance to their progress on the instrument and with the music.
The flute is typically a melodic instrument, so it is possible to go through the basic high school lesson curriculum easily and to progress well without having to think much about harmony. Because of this, flutists and other treble instrumentalists and singers often have trouble hearing or discerning lower voices because the ear is so drawn to the top voice. If students are exposed to the idea of harmony and voicing at a younger age, they are more likely to progress well through theory and piano study in college. It will also be much easier for students to work with pianists on solo repertoire because they will have a better understanding of harmonic structure. If at all possible, before entering a college music program, students should begin piano lessons, theory classes, sing in choirs, and play chamber music to lay a better foundation for mastering the university curriculum.
College music majors usually choose a university or conservatory based on who the applied teacher is. Four years working one-on-one with a skilled studio teacher is one of the most important aspects of serious music education. However, all too often, students do not take into account the other kinds of opportunities that contribute to a well-rounded and complete approach to learning. Taking the required music history and theory courses, sight-singing and dictation, rhythm and movement, piano and conducting classes seriously are a key element in achieving future success. Most aspiring young music professionals are typically willing to devote much time to the mastery of their instrument; however they often lack a true understanding of the music itself, through a multifaceted viewpoint.
While searching for music programs, students should thoroughly investigate the course offerings of each school. It is also important to understand the school’s balance between general academic requirements and music curriculum requirements. Each student will have his or her own goals, and achieving the goals will be less of a task if a student clearly understands the expectations of the school before enrollment. When visiting a campus, students often take a lesson with the studio teacher and observe large ensembles; however it is also wise to sit in on academic classes, if possible, as well.
Course offerings will vary from school to school. Some schools offer separate harmony and sight-singing classes, while others combine the two. Some schools use the traditional solfeggio system of “Fixed Do” while others employ the “Moveable Do” system. Each system has its advantages and disadvantages; however it is important to understand the difference between the two and how each system could be beneficial to your learning. If music theory is of particular interest, you may want to seek out a school that offers a graduate program, as many schools allow undergraduates to take graduate-level courses while still an undergraduate. These courses typically go beyond the traditional offerings of basic undergraduate harmony, form and analysis.
While an undergrad I may not have been musically mature enough to understand the artistic importance of theory, it has been through my own curiosity and study over the years that I have realized how relevant and integral this foundation is to have as a performer and teacher. The more we recognize this importance, the better we will be able to nurture each aspect of our musicianship, and the more success we will have ourselves and with our students.