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Theory Conspiracy: Helping Students Find Meaning Inside the Music

Nick Little | February 2013

    Two years ago, schools in Kentucky were in session for 187 days. During that time, the Campbell County High School Band program, which consists of multiple concert bands, a pep band, a marching band, multiple jazz bands, and chamber ensembles, gave 67 performances, which averages to one every three days during the school year. Throughout the year, I found myself frequently worrying about the next performance, always convinced we would not be prepared. I began to worry more about the next performance than developing my students and helping them grow into mature musicians.
    My ensembles became a cycle of handing out music, hammering the desired sound into their ears, having them regurgitate it for an audience, and repeating the cycle a month later. The process was a stressful rush to the finish line, and students felt worn out at the end of the year. They experienced copious amounts of great music, but their understanding of it was so shallow, they couldn’t appreciate what they had accomplished. I expected my students to have a feeling akin to completing a masterful painting, satisfied and fulfilled, but instead they felt that they just finished a year’s worth of painting by numbers.
    This disappointment made me rethink not just my approach to performances but also my overall teaching strategy. Last year, I began experimenting with using more music theory in my ensembles in an attempt to increase their musical understanding without sacrificing their technical ability. I had tried this before, but in my previous experiences, music theory in the ensemble setting was a cumbersome, time-consuming endeavor that slowed the pace of rehearsal and was completely disconnected to the performance responsibility of the ensemble. I wasted too much rehearsal time talking, it was difficult to teach the same concepts to students at mixed ability levels, and it was even more difficult to hold individuals accountable for the information. With 50 students in class, it is impossible to pull each into your office one by one to assess their knowledge. It takes too much time.
    What I wanted was a way to teach theory concepts during rehearsal that made it easy for every student to participate and related to the responsibilities and expectations of the performance of their concert repertoire. I chose the simplest manifestation of tonal harmony, the major scale. Major scales are something that every band student understands on some level. The scale relates to every piece of music we play, even those in minor tonalities, as well as to many upper-level music theory concepts.

From the Circle of Fifths to Scales
    Previously, part of our warmup included playing all major scales, both out of the book and from memory. I thought this meant that my students understood major scales but I was wrong. They only memorized and regurgitated major scales. We abandoned the scale portion of our method book and began relying solely on the circle of fifths for constructing major scales. The circle of fifths has all the information students need to do this.
    In method books and concert literature, transposition is done for the students, so many never make a connection between concert pitch and their instrument. I have heard transposition referred to as an upper-level concept, something that would be nice if students knew how to do it. I could not disagree more. Transposition is a requirement. If we cannot discuss music in concert pitch fluently, rehearsal time will be wasted. The first thing students should know is how to deduce the tonic for their instrument and the accidentals needed for the scale. The circle I draw has G to the right of C and F to the left of C. For students who play Bb instruments, I teach them that because Bb is two ticks to the left of C, when I call out a note in concert pitch, they can find what note that is for them by moving two clicks to the right, to offset the fact that Bb is two clicks to the left of C. F instruments move one click to the right, and Eb instruments move three clicks to the right. For directors who have the notes in the circle going the other way (F to the right of C), the directions are reversed.
    I strongly discourage counting whole and half steps when building a major scale, especially in an ensemble setting. This reduces tonal harmony to a math problem and becomes a tedious and time-consuming exercise; it has no application to ensemble performance. Instead, draw a dotted line on the circle of fifths between F and Bb. Teach students that counting from C to the current key will show how many sharps or flats are in the key signature, and the dotted line between F and Bb  will tell them which notes are sharp or flat. (F is the first sharp and B is the first flat.) I don’t want students thinking note to note, I want them thinking in a key signature. When a flute player has music in Bb, I want the student to see that the scale has two flats, B and E and be sure not to miss those notes rather than figuring out whether the next step of the scale is a whole or half step. Worrying about whole and half steps prevents students from getting the whole picture of the key.
    It takes time to get students used to thinking in a key rather than note to note. The first couple weeks of school are perfect for this. We sightread frequently so students can think in the key. We use etudes in many keys and actually work back to the major scale from the music.
    While working on playing scales this way, I also teach students the terms for the diatonic function of each note, such as tonic, mediant, and dominant. This is one of the few times when I just write the terms on the board. I also use the words anywhere I can, giving such instructions as “Play the first degree of the scale, also known as the tonic.” We sing scales using these names, as well. This can be quizzed by giving students a key and asking them to play the dominant. If everyone plays the same note, they understand the concept. Another good test is to have students play an Ab concert scale and stop on Eb, but tell them to play an Ab concert scale, tonic to dominant in half notes.
    I might also ask the band to play five notes of a scale up and down but to start on the supertonic. At first, this produces blank faces and wrong notes, but with review students will get it. Always move toward having students perform; never get to the point where they are simply regurgitating information. If the answer cannot be played on an instrument, the information is useless. These basic concepts will prove vital in later exercises because these terms will then be used to discuss the tonic/dominant relationship in melodic patterns, harmonic patterns, and triad construction.

From Scales to Triads
  As students become familiar with scale construction and scale tone names, introduce triad qualities. This basic idea will relate to later intonation exercises. Many directors split their bands into three groups (low, mid-range, and high instruments) to play a major scale in thirds as a warmup exercise. This can be used to teach major, minor, diminished, and augmented triads. Play the scale in a round, stopping when the low voices are on the tonic, middle voices are on the third, and upper voices are on the fifth. Introduce this to students as a tonic major triad. This triad can be manipulated to create all four triad qualities. This is not a groundbreaking exercise in any way, but few bands take it to the next step.
    Discuss with students how to alter the tonic triad to make minor, diminished, and augmented triads. After students understand how to alter the major triad to create another quality, begin moving between them. The ensemble might start with F major and move to F minor, then to F diminished. I use hand signals to show which triad I want played. I use a fist for major, a flattened hand for minor, the okay sign for diminished, and crossed index fingers for augmented. These last three symbols are designed to represent what students might see on a lead sheet. This is not a groundbreaking exercise, but the aim is to get students thinking about the chord quality rather than lowering their note a half step. To get students accustomed to hearing the differences between these triads, I have three students play, and the rest of the band has to figure out who was playing the root, third, and fifth.
    Such exercises inevitably lead to a discussion of balance and blend in triads. I tell students there should be more root than fifth and more fifth than third. My students draw triangles over sustained chords and will shade the top, middle, or bottom depending on which part of the chord they have.
    It is also much easier to explain intonation, something students struggle with. Students want to play well, so they use tuners frequently, but they have no concept of when to pin the needle at zero and when not to. Students have no idea what it means to lower the third of a triad if they don’t know what thirds or triads are. They think that if the tuner says they are in tune, they are on pitch.
    Students were good at playing the tonic triad in every key; that was an easy concept to grasp. To get them to understand the notes they were responsible for in a different triad was difficult. Students struggled to build a triad off of a note other than the tonic. I think it is because we drill the key signature so much. When students are in F major, they want to think about F all the time, and asking them to play the dominant triad in F major is a stretch.
    When students have a functional understanding of triad qualities and pitch tendencies, the possibilities are endless. An example of a great listening exercise is to have half the band students close their eyes. Then, using hand signals, have the other half play a triad while students try to guess the triad quality. I was shocked at how much my ensemble intonation improved after this exercise. An advanced extension of this exercise would be to introduce seventh chords. Use the same techniques for introducing triad qualities to teach seventh chords.
    It takes longer to change the terminology, but it pays dividends by spring; you can actually have musical discussions with your ensemble. When you get into performance music, you can ask what quality a triad has. If it is major, the follow-up question can be, “If you have the third, what do you do?” We discuss these things in warmups, and the way to asses them is whether students do them in performance. For extended chords, such as a dominant seventh or ninth chord, I have the students with the extra notes sit out while the rest of the band plays the triad. Then we add the other students back in and students understand how the chord is supposed to sound.

Interval Qualities
    Interval qualities are secondary to triad qualities in ensemble performance, but it is also beneficial for students, especially brass players, who might miss partials, to learn these. Below the circle of fifths, post the following diagram, which permits students to identify interval quality based on the tonic of every major key. When working on intervals, write the current key in the center of the diagram.

    Pick a key and have half the group stay on tonic while the other half ascends the major scale. Stop on any note, then have the students with the upper note alter the interval to different qualities by moving by half steps. This will lead to discussion of perfect and major intervals and the different qualities stemming from each. The importance of this exercise is not only for the learning interval qualities but it is for aural development. Students can play and sing all intervals, adjust qualities, and tune different intervals without ever having to write anything down.

Chord Progressions
    Now that students understand triad and interval construction, the possibilities are endless. Students can construct chord progressions, such as Bb major-F major-C minor-A diminished-Bb major. This can then lead to a discussion on chord symbols in popular music. This all takes place over multiple rehearsals, and integrates seamlessly into the band’s already established warm up routine. which are then played through using the triad hand signal exercise.

    Many high school students are taught to be very talented to performers but very limited musicians. This is not due to a lack of effort or knowledge on the part of the teacher; it is because there is always a performance looming, and ensembles can be trained to perform at extremely high levels without this knowledge. These theory exercises will take time to install in your warm up routine, but they will pay dividends in the future. Students that understand chord structure will then understand intonation, phrase structure, balance ,and blend. If students are treated as musicians in regards to conceptual musical ideas, they will make musical decisions and perform on a higher level.