Teaching during times of emotional hardship

One of the things that does not get taught in school — whether that be undergrad education degrees, upper-level continuing education, or Centers for Teaching and Learning that help pedagogues transition to their new positions, is working through times of stress and personal hardship while still teaching. Whether it be personal trauma, family difficulties, issues with relationships, or political frays within your faculty, emotional stress and anxiety can add an extra layer of burden to an already hectic school semester; indeed, this is what has characterized the Fall 2018 semester for me, and I have been thinking a lot about how teachers and colleagues and communities can support each other.

First, what I have learned this semester is that it is acceptable to reach out to those professional support systems that we surround ourselves with at conferences and in the workplace; obviously, we’d like to think that these people are a professional network, but what I’ve found is these colleagues are empathetic, kind, and caring, and often are going through similar straits themselves. I have found it so heartening to know that my colleagues are not simply professional automatons who only want to discuss work, but are willing to lend an ear and a shoulder during hard times. Further, I believe that this betters the relationships — that once you break that barrier, your colleagues may call on you in the future, forming friendships and collaborations that would otherwise not exist.

Second, one of the things I’ve learned from friends who have gone through traumas is that finding ways to share that pain, whether directly or indirectly, in the classroom can be exceptionally helpful. A colleague of mine, who underwent severe trauma as a child, worked with a class through a composition he wrote that was inspired by that pain. He let me know that it was one of the most difficult, but also most productive, sessions of the course he’d had, and it fostered trust and relationships between his students and him.

Finally, I’ve learned this semester in particular not to be so proud. Sometimes, you really cannot put on a brave face, and there have been several times this semester where I’ve had to enter my classroom feeling lower than the dirt on the bottom of the sea. In these moments, even though I originally felt it was unprofessional and felt that I should be a little prouder, smile through the pain, one of the most amazing things I found is that students are so empathetic — they see that pain, whether you want them to or not, and they know how it feels. One particular day, a student, who saw my face before I could fix my smile on, just casually asked, “Are you ok?” and I could not lie to him — while I didn’t divulge a thousand details, I simply said, “You know, I’m really not, but I appreciate you asking.” That simple moment of connection, his kindness and empathy reaching out, honestly helped re-frame the day: I wasn’t lost in the weeds of my emotions and pain, but was rather among my students and (in a loose sense) friends. They wanted to have a good class, they wanted to learn, but most of all, they actually wanted me to be ok, and that care felt really good. I have had multiple days this semester that started like that, and that ended with me feeling better because a student asked, or a student gave a hug (or a student needed a hug!).

The thing that is striking to me about this is that I always talk about how classrooms are a community: working and learning and growing together. However, what I lose is that I am also a part of that community, and my community will rally behind me. We matter in our classrooms, too, and that can be one of the most enriching and fulfilling parts of teaching.


Rules vs. Conventions and Guideposts through Part-writing Land Mines

I will avoid wading into the argument over the relevancy and effectiveness of teaching part-writing rules, openly disclosing my bias that they are highly relevant to the understanding of common-practice musical syntax.  Having said that, I would agree that the manner in which pedagogical approaches to part-writing are sometimes presented can be off-putting and seemingly irrelevant.   What might be some reasons why this activity is critiqued or construed as arbitrary?   I believe much of that construal lies in the fact that part-writing conventions are mistakenly presented as rules.

The irony of this is is that, not unlike an effective accountant wishing to avoid taxes for a client, a student versed in following rules may end up with “error-free” part-writing assignments that are not at all exemplars of  the conventions that said assignments are supposed to be reinforcing.  A further irony is that rules are less accurate, at least in the study of the arts, than conventions.  The former legislate, but do not teach style.  A case in point: doubling conventions.  If doubling conventions are evaluated as “sometimes” or “on Tuesdays” guidelines, not unlike mandating no more than three consecutive thirds or sixths in a two-voice counterpoint exercise, problems can arise.   An instructor, in a zeal to offer more freedom to students, perhaps in an attempt to emulate the “real” open-ended body of solutions to voice-leading in actual repertoire, may suggest something like “as long as you resolve x, y, and, z properly, and there are no parallel fifths or octaves, and everything is spelled correctly, then I could care less what you double ,” perhaps adding a caveat such as “as long as it’s not a tendency tone.”  As I see it, however, the instructor is doing the student a disservice.   Furthermore, such an instructor, while correcting assignments, may end up having an inner monologue something like this:  Well, if the student would have doubled the bass of this passing six-four in contrary motion, like I did in lecture, instead of leaping up oddly and doubling its root, then the move to the next chord wouldn’t have had issue x, but, technically, there are no parallels or unresolved leading tones, so I can’t mark this moment (leading to the more obvious error) wrong!”  To the contrary, yes you can.  And you should.  Your student is coming to you to learn style conventions, not to learn circuitous ways of jumping through hoops to get perfect scores.

I tell my students that there may be ways of voicing a given exercise that avoids “breaking the rules,” but I’m not interested in that as much as I am interested in instilling voice-leading conventions that you’re indirectly paying me to teach to you.  Yes, there may be possible ways to avoid breaking “rules” in a deceptive resolution other than moving two voices up by step and two voices down by step, but I’m here not to teach you the possible, but the probable.   In situations that might merit a “compositional” rather than “analytical” theory, sure, we may seek new “possibles.”  But, for the most part, we study part-writing conventions as opposed to rules.  So, if you double the A in either the passing tonic six-four or the cadential six-four in A major instead of the E, I’m going to take a point off, for your sake.  Am I going to find moments where a student can argue that, “in this case,” the A worked better?  Sure, but those situations will be the exceptions.  I’m unabashedly here to teach norms.  And if that student has enough prowess to convince me that, “in this case, my A is better,” then likely she or he has already internalized the benefits meant to be garnered from studying part-writing conventions.

Given the initial arbitrariness of some of the conventions, how might we, as instructors, instill them in the students?   I find the “land mine” approach to be very effective.  That is, I create an in-class part-writing exercise with parallel (no pun intended) challenges to the exercise about to appear in their homework assignment, and we move from chord to chord, discussing “trip-wire” issues.   I ask students to tell me what to be aware of as I move from a tonic to a passing six-four dominant (doubling the bass in contrary motion), or what to be aware of as IV in root position progresses to V in root position (the need to move the upper three voices down in contrary motion to the ascending bass to avoid parallels), or what to double in a first-inversion diminished triad and why, etc.  Am I giving the students the answers to their homework?  Well, in a sense, yes.  Is it less effective a learning tool?  To the contrary, it gets them thinking of particulars germane to a common-practice progression’s chord-to-chord motions as opposed to just locking in on spelling the chord correctly and checking for unresolved tendency tones and/or parallel fifths and octaves.  The latter approach is like building a house without a plan, hoping for the best, and then immediately remodeling it microcosm by microcosm to get it to function properly or look desirable.  Rather, learning this kind of part-writing functionality—not just in the chord-class sense, but in the situational “when x moves to y, be aware of the need to do z” sense—leads to far deeper understandings of the relationships between voice-leading and common-practice harmonic syntax.

Such an approach, one prizing conventions over rules, also renders the exercises less arbitrary, and, thus, more interesting, to the students.


Aural Skills and Music Making in Time of Stress

It has been an incredibly challenging week here in the state of North Carolina.  Hurricane Florence made land fall on Friday, September 14 in the eastern part of the state and here it is, almost a week later and flood waters are still rising.  In the mountains around Boone, we were cautioned about mudslides, landslides, and flash flooding.  Fortunately, the flooding was minor and no injuries were reported.  The storm decided to move a bit north of us on Sunday.  Our university cancelled classes for four days so that students could safely travel to and from home and safely return to campus after the storm.  I have students with families still without power and colleagues at UNCW who do not know when they will return to school.  Missing four days of classes leads to schedules having to be overhauled and lesson plans to be altered.  But my philosophy has always been humans first, students second, so I support Appalachian’s decision to cancel classes so students could weather the storm.

My students were supposed to have tests all last week, but it would not be fair to have these tests on the exact day they returned to classes.  Yes, I would be altering the schedule even more, but I needed the students to get back into the routine before I even began to think about assessment.  This was to be the first aural skills test and I know how important that first test grade is in setting up the tone for student success and work ethic.  Today was the first day back for aural skills and I was excited to be back in the classroom.  I hadn’t met this class in over a week, so I needed to figure out a way to have them get back into the routine of aural skills quickly and return to the trust level and environment I had worked hard to set up the past four weeks.  I had a full day planned and they rarely were in their seats.

8:00-8:05 Conversation about the College Music Society and how to get involved in research as an undergraduate.  The conversation evolved into music theory as a discipline and how to gain more knowledge through independent studies.

8:05-8:10 Warm up on solfege using hand signs.  We stood in a circle and sang through various scale degrees as I lead them through skips and leaps.

8:10-8:20 Students were asked to pick one of the 4 corners of the classroom.  I handed out a four part piece from the masterworks series and then assigned parts randomly to the four corners.  (They never know which corner will be each part!) We sang through the selection a few times and students had the option to move between parts.

8:20-8:25 I handed out kazoos for the first time this semester.  It always amazes me how there are students who have never played the kazoo, so we spent some time singing the four part example on the kazoo.

8:25-8:30 Back to scale degrees.  I had students play the pitches on the kazoo based on the solfege syllable I indicated with only hand signs.

8:30-8:35 This was our first attempt at improvisation for the semester.  Students were asked to play the Do-Sol bass line while improvising the melody line.  (More about this exercise can be found in a previous blog post).  This may be the first time where I didn’t have to ask for volunteers.  Once a student had finished improving for about 8 measures, they would point to another classmate.  I was incredibly excited about the lack of anxiety in this 8 a.m. class.


8:35-8:42 Quick review for the test.  I played through a few scale degrees and intervals, gave a rhythmic dictation, and talked to them about the error detection example for their test.

8:42-8:50 I finished class with a contextual listening mini-assignment on Chopin’s “Etude in E major”

Answer the following questions based on “Etude in E major”

  1. What intrigues you or excites you about this piece?
  2. What musical elements do you find engaging?
  3. What more do you want to learn about this piece?
  4. What instruments do you hear in this performance?
  5. When do you think this piece was composed and why?
  6. In the melody line of the first 5 measures, what is the highest note played by the piano?
  7. Write out the solfege for the opening five measure. Do not include repeated notes.


Write out the main opening line with correct rhythms and notation.  Several pitches are given to you.

Screen Shot 2018-09-20 at 9.33.11 AM       8. Why are the ties so important in the melody line?

I had the students listen to the entire selection knowing full well that #6-8 would be homework.  As mentioned in previous blog posts, I love this type of assignment because it allows my students to truly think about the overall picture and not just isolated pitches or rhythm.  Every skill I teach leads them to the point where they can have a true conversation on number 2.  “What’s the story behind this?” one student said while another said, “The title of the song just doesn’t do this piece justice.” We continued in the conversation of what made the piece so riveting, especially in the middle section.  They had no score, it was 8 am freshmen level aural skills and yet, here they were, using their ears to create this discussion of the how and why.  I love these teaching moments.

As they were packing up to leave, the students were talking about how much they loved the Chopin piece as most had never heard it.  Another student stayed behind for a minute and we had a conversation about how lucky we were  to be surrounded by music every day.  I could have gone ahead with the test for today.  But after the week we have had, I thought it best to make some music and to listen to beautiful music. And yes, we are lucky.



Remediation Groups and Fingers

Hey, all!

It’s been a long time since I’ve been able to write! However, I am once again teaching AP Music Theory, so I am super excited to get started again.

I want to write about something that may seem fairly intuitive, but worked tremendously in my AP Music Theory class today. We are gearing up to take our first unit quiz: a short assessment on pitch, octave register numbers, rhythm, beat, and meter type. To review for the quiz, students completed textbook exercises for homework, and came to class to discuss.

For each exercise, I had the students hold up fingers to show me their comfort level on a scale of 1 – 5. A score of 1 would indicate discomfort and confusion, and a score of 5 would indicate complete comfort and mastery. I structured class in the following way:

For each exercise, students who showed numbers less than 4 were put into groups with students who had fingers above 4. The below-4 students were instructed to outwardly talk through the process of solving each problem (i.e., identifying a time signature by its beat and meter type.) Once the student hit a roadblock in understanding, the above-4 peers would step in and tutor, while they worked through each problem.

Finally, at the end of the exercise, each student was reassessed to show their new number. Every student who had a score below 4 could now confidently show an increase in understanding, and my above-4 students had the opportunity to enrich their understanding through teaching. Groups would then be reconfigured based on the comfort scores of the next exercise’s focus. By the end of class, all of my students demonstrated clear mastery and understanding of the topic!

I know this may seem like such a simple concept, but I am so excited to continue remediating my theory kids with this number system.

To growth!

  • Alex Alberti

Ho Hey and Hey Ya: Experiencing Contextual Listening Through Questioning

This past semester, my music theory pedagogy class focused on the teaching of aural skills, including topics on sight-singing and dictations of rhythm, harmony, melody and everything in between.  The conversations were enlightening for me both as a scholar and a teacher. It seemed that one word continued to come up in our conversations: Experience.  “How do we make an aural skills class a musical experience?” was the question that came up from my group of undergraduate and graduate student pedagogues. I shared with my students the intentional ways I strive to implement experience in my own aural skills classes. We bring in instruments, we often have a physical stretching session when class begins, we practice audiation with hand signs and conducting, we improvise on solfege daily, and we even stand in a circle and improvise on takadimi while listening to “1000 years.”  I’m constantly trying to broaden my student’s repertoire and this past semester, all of our out-of-class dictations were from various works by female composers.  (Shout out to the wonderful people who run the website Music Theory Examples by Women).   While I hope I was able to reach most of my students in my aural skills classes, I felt that there were still a few that didn’t quite grasp why the material was important to them as a musician. Were they truly listening? Not to me, but to the music?

I asked my pedagogy class to read through Rebecca Jemian’s article entitled “Ho Hey, Having Some Say in Contextual Listening” from Volume 5 of Engaging Students. I’ve had the opportunity to see Rebecca’s integration of aural skills firsthand in a recent form and analysis class and I know how intentional she is with integrating contextual listening in her own classroom. But this particular article gave me even more insight into her teaching style as she offers students the opportunity to use their own repertoire within contextual listening.  I constantly have students bring in their own repertoire to the theory classroom, but I had yet to make that happen in aural skills. With Rebecca’s article and my pedagogy class discussion at the forefront of my mind, I decided to change up my lesson plans for a week so I could devote time to contextual listening.  I started with two musical examples, “Ho Hey” by the Lumineers and Mozart’s Symphony No. 25. After listening to the piece in class, I asked my students to respond to the following three questions taken directly from Jemian’s article.

  1. What intrigues or excites you about the piece?
  2. What musical features do you find engaging?
  3. What more do you want to learn about the piece?

I added my own questions to each selection and included topics that might not be seen on a traditional aural skills assessment.

“Ho Hey”

  1.  Why is the piece in quadruple and not duple time?
  2.  What chord is used throughout the verse?
  3.  Give two main motives used in this song using either rhythms or solfege.
  4. Look up the lyrics of the song.  Give a basic summary of the text and how this is highlighted through the song’s melody or rhythm.

Symphony No. 25

  1. Is there a modulation in this movement?  If so, where?
  2. What role do dynamics play in this piece?
  3. Write out the solfege for the opening 4 measures.
  4. Look up when this particular composition was composed.  How does this music reflect what was happening in Mozart’s life at the time?

The transformation in my aural skills class was immediate and I truly felt that we were all participating in the musical experience that I so crave as a classroom teacher. We had a great discussion of “Ho Hey” and due to time constraints, I asked the students to complete the Mozart questions for homework.  In the last ten minutes of class, I also asked the students to get together in groups of four and pick one composition or song and to write four accompanying questions to add to the initial three listed above.

The next day in class, after a brief sight-singing warm up, I asked the groups to put their song choice on the board along with their four questions.  The following are exact replications of their notes on the board.

“Funeral for a Friend”-Elton John

  1. What types of cadences are used in this song?
  2. What role does the instrumentation have?
  3. What point did the mood change in the song and why?
  4. What instruments are used?


  1. What time signatures occur in this piece?
  2. What is the rhythm of the claps?
  3. What two chords are used in the first verse?
  4. When does the time signature change and what does it change to?

“Home”-Michael Buble

  1. What meter is this song in?
  2. What instruments are used? How does this influence the song?
  3. What are some common progressions used in the song and how do these choices affect the mood?
  4. What emotion does this song emit?

“Hey Ya”-Outkast

  1. What is the solfege of the main chorus?
  2. What is the solfege of the main bassline?
  3. What is the rhythm of the main bassline?
  4. Describe the use of harmony in this song.

“If Your Love Cannot Be Moved”-Stevie Wonder

  1. What chords do the background strings alternate between?
  2. How does the musical style interact and/or change the meaning of the lyrics?
  3. What do you think inspired the lyrics?
  4. Although the chords and rhythm are quite repetitive throughout the piece, the vocalists are constantly building and becoming more free with the melody as the piece progresses.  Is this enough to keep you engaged with the piece?  Why or why not?

A few things surprised me.  First, the variety of songs chosen ran the gamut from classic rock to R&B to Indie Pop.  No one chose a classical piece, as one student told me, “We do that all the time, I wanted something different.” Second, the breadth of thinking and conversation in my freshmen level aural skills class was refreshing.  We were truly engaged in a conversation.  Phones were out while students checked lyrics, looked up when songs were released, or found information that gave insight into the performers or writers of each song. A few songs were new and in particular, the Empress song had my students counting out loud and conducting difficult meter changes in order to answer questions; they unanimously agreed that these changes in meter were what made the song so exciting.  But more importantly, we were all engaged in a musical experience, sitting and listening to music and contemplating multiple facets about a song beyond just a melodic line or rhythmic pattern.  I’ll admit it was the first time I have ever played Outkast in an aural skills classroom.  But with the lights off and the sound turned up, I watched my students sing along with (and have fun with) “Hey Ya.” I was transported  back to the early 2000’s when I remember listening to the radio and asking myself “why is this song was so catchy and exciting?”  Based on their responses to the questions, my students can now answer this better than I could have in early 2000.

This entire approach has altered my thoughts on ways in which we should assess aural skills. Scale degrees, intervals within context, four measure melodic dictations and basic harmonic progressions are all important, but what if that is where we stop in our assessment and perhaps even in our teaching? What if we never engage our students in the questioning process as outlined above? What if students think that aural skills is just a dictation/sight-singing class based on the assessments I give? This next semester I am seeking to alter my own assessments in such a manner so that students are truly listening to the music. My first quiz in the final level of our ear training sequence is all based around Gounod’s Marche funèbre d’une marionnette with questions such as:

1.     Write out the main motive presented in the opening of this selection?

2.     What is the overall form of the excerpt?

3.     The second phrase contains an example of a _____ (the answer is sequence!)

4.     Fill in the missing chords on the 2nd phrase (V i ___ ___ ___ V)

5.     What kind of cadence concludes the excerpt?

But I will take it one step further and add in the following questions:

  1. What intrigues or excites you about the piece?
  2. What musical features do you find engaging?
  3. What more do you want to learn about the piece?
  4. Create your own question and answer based on this excerpt.

It is my goal to give students the opportunity to really engage with the music and provide some ownership in the listening experience. And it is my job to help the students to figure out how to create a meaningful question and response. After all, isn’t that what we are all striving for in terms of aural skills pedagogy?

A Musical Cornerstone


Image by flickr user Steve Snodgrass.

In architecture, a cornerstone is “a stone that forms the base of a corner of a building, joining two walls” (New Oxford American Dictionary). In our classrooms, sometimes it is difficult to join the two ends of a semester or year. On one end, we have excited and nervous students beginning a new adventure alongside their peers. They may have studied music theory before, or they may be starting this class with little or no prior experience. On the other end, we have students who have finished a leg of their journey to become music scholars and gained significant insights into the music they studied. How can we help our students see how far they have come in their music theory studies while also challenging them throughout an entire semester or school year?

For the past two years, I have chosen specific pieces of music for the first two semesters of music theory that are “cornerstone” pieces—we begin the semester with this musical work, we end the semester with this musical work, and we revisit it during class about every five weeks, for a total of four class sessions with the piece. For Music Theory I, that piece was Bach’s “C Major Prelude” from the Well-Tempered Clavier Book I; for Music Theory II, Fanny Hensel’s “Nachtwanderer,” Op. 7 no. 1. Within the first two days of the semester, everyone receives a copy of the score, listens to a recording or performance of the work, and takes notes on what they know about the piece. These are collaborative notes in a Google Document, so everyone can contribute and share their insights. This alternative mode of communication is key, especially at the beginning of a semester, when some students are not comfortable speaking up during class. During and after each session, I will monitor the notes and make comments only for correcting wrong or misleading information.

In the case of Music Theory I (Fall 2017) and Bach, week 1’s notes featured some basic observations about the piece: it is in C major, has the same rhythm throughout, is in common time, has lots of arpeggios, and changes harmonies once per bar. Week 5 began by reviewing and commenting on their notes from week 1 and adding to it with their recently acquired music theory knowledge. By this time they were able to discuss how the piece begins on a I (tonic) chord and that the V chord appears quite a bit also, the beginning of the piece is diatonic and the middle is more chromatic and has more accidentals, there are some four-bar phrases, and it is not entirely in C major, though it never gets very far away. In week 11, my students uploaded a picture of a chord reduction that was created in class outlining TPDT function and commented on the strong fifth relations present in the piece. At the end of the semester, they began discussing cadences, phrase structure, and following up with identifying chords they had missed in previous weeks.

It is during the last session with the cornerstone work that I ask students to reflect on how much they have learned over a 15-week semester. I also ask them why anyone should care that they know all of this information about one piece of music—I challenge them to consider real-world applications for these new analytical skills and how they might transfer these skills out of the music theory classroom. There is often a pressure to get as much content squeezed into the short amount of time we have to spend with our students, but it is equally important to give students the opportunity to reflect and congratulate one another on their shared journey in music theory.

David Shernoff’s (2013) research on optimal learning environments stresses the connection of perceived learning and perceived investment of effort: “to feel fully engaged and invested in learning, students needed to value the activity as important both to themselves and the process of learning, and they also needed to feel like a valued, active, and contributing members of a learning community” (pp. 140–141).
By revisiting the same piece of music at set intervals of time, students are able to observe and reflect on their growing understanding and mastery of music theory topics discussed in the course. Additionally, they are able to contribute to discussions and a growing collaborative document as members of the class’s community. At the end of the semester, the class as a whole has a visible record of their learning. Including a cornerstone analysis in a course serves as both a connection to the beginning and end of a semester’s learning process and as an element of a student’s foundation in music theory.

Widening the Lens: A Holistic Approach to Music Theory Introduction & Part I: Rhythm

Mr. Erik Lynch, Verona High School 

I love theory. Actually, I really love theory. More importantly, I am proud to say our students in the Verona High School Instrumental Music Department here do as well. Theory is a powerful tool, and perhaps one of the most effective modalities at our disposal to help us connect with our students.

My best musical days are invariably tied to theory: I love to study to my scores and to analyze the harmonies (or lack there of), whether they are rooted in the traditional language of the Western European canon, or whether they are grounded in more modern, esoteric, and singular sonorities. The most invigorating part, however,  is bringing the notation to life in in band or at the piano in theory. In is truest artistic form, theory emancipates us, giving us the tools to make informed choices about the directions of our melodic lines, our conducting gestures, intensity of our climaxes, etc.

However, it is imperative that we approach the discipline in musically and pedagogically sound ways. If we get to caught into the “rules” of tonal harmony, or bogged down by prescriptive, paint-by-numbers curricula, theory can become bland, dull, and myopic (I hope our goals supersede a “5” on the AP exam). Mostly sadly in this manner theory is neither musical or fun. So, I pose the question:

How wide is the lens in which we look at music theory? If our lens is thin and narrow, we may foster a mindset in our students that “all” music follows the parameters of four-part voice leading, or that parallel octaves do not exist in music. Though our students might leave our class with a great knowledge of ii-V-I’s, they might have trouble articulating their thoughts on Steve Reich’s Nagoya Marimbas.  Though the traditions of 18th century tonal harmony are important tools for musicians, they do not and can not encapsulate all music, as no single approach can.

However, we can expand the lens in which we look at music theory! I would propose three additions to the traditional music theory curricula to foster a broad, comprehensive, and musical approach to our daily ventures:

  • Rhythm: More emphasis on the development of rhythmic skills and the role rhythm plays in composition
  •  Full Score Study: Theory has an overwhelmingly tendency to emphasize short passages, never giving the students the opportunity to see and hear the “big picture”
  • Infusion of Scholarly and Philosophical Readings: We undoubtedly want our (music theory) students to be critically reflective thinkers, not just doers

Part I –  Rhythm 

Full Disclosure: I am a drummer. I have been known to take rhythmic dictation of the windshield wipers on the cross campus buses at Rutgers, or to point out an accelerando motive at my door when my egg drop soup arrives.  Putting aside your pre-conceived notions about me, I will endeavor to continue.

Theory has a serious problem that leading doctors have termed “VCS” (Vertical Chord Syndrome).  We have all been trained to look vertically at a chord, stack it into thirds, and put down a roman numeral. Though this is certainly a functional skill, placing too much emphasis on this can take away from other pedagogically sound theoretical endeavors, including the analysis of form, growth/development, and melodic contour (to name just a few). But the most glaring omission is when we angle our lens away from rhythm. 

A Tchaikovsky Example 

Let us look together at an except from Tchaikovsky’s Symphony 5, Movement II. Click on the following link and peruse the score a bit: Tchaik. Excerpt Clearly the harmonic structure at the onset of this excerpt rests on the simple diatonic chords of D major. However, if we ignore the rhythm here we lose the true essence of Pyotr.

Take a peak again at four measures before G, and we will see the graceful, delicate, and nimble way that Tchaikovsky uses the oboe slightly off the the beat to answer the beautiful main theme in the 1st violin. By starting this oboe line on the third eighth note of the measure, Tchaikovsky creates an ethereal and effortless conversation that can not be captured by looking at the vertical chords.

Now look at two measures before G in the same oboe counter line. Tchaikovsky ingeniously and subtly uses augmentation and diminution to embellish the mid-point of the famous horn melody (obviously now sounding in the violins) that we all know and love. I do not believe that the IV6 and V7 chords here fully encapsulate Tchaikovsky’s intent, as his choice of rhythm is paramount.

Rhythm in Our AP Classes at Verona 

Our theory classes often start with me at the djembe playing rhythms to the class that the students count back right away (and I do mean right away). To get the most of our time together (especially considering that we embrace a myriad of activities in one class period),  I purposely do not have the students write down the patterns, as we are able to get much more concentrated practice in by counting aloud. I try to keep my ears as open possible to what the students are counting back to me. If I hear they are not counting it back to me with precision, I may slow down the passage, or slightly accent/emphasize the portion they may have missed.

We typically start the year with variations of 16th Note Rhythms. From there we tackle basic triplet rhythms, and from that point on all bets are off: 6/8, 9/8, 7/8, hemiola, poly-rhythms, shifting meters,etc. You name it, we try it~ I am actually in pure amazement on how well my classes have handled these activities this year, and I am even more grateful that they apply these skills to to their daily musicking.

Finally, and with all transparency, I did question myself when I first began to integrate these activities into the class. I was quite nervous to attempt this considering the demand of the AP exam, and how busy they are already in our theory  class and beyond. However, a few years down the line I find that the ventures in rhythm prove to be transformative in my student’s musicianship.

Erik Lynch is in his seventeenth  year as Director of Bands at Verona High School, where he leads the Marching Band, Concert Band, Chamber Ensembles, and a two tract Music Theory program. Before coming to Verona, he served as Assistant Director of Bands at Immaculata High School in Somerville, NJ.
A proud graduate of Mason Gross School of the Arts at Rutgers University, Mr. Lynch completed his undergraduate studies in Music Education with a percussion emphasis, studying with William Moersch and She-e Wu, and was a four-year member of the Rutgers Wind Ensemble as a Naumburg Scholarship Recipient. During these years, he attended the Eastern Music Festival twice, studying timpani with John Feddersen, and in his senior year was one of six timpanists selected to participate in the Vic Firth Timpani Seminar at the Tanglewood Music Center.  Mr. Lynch has also played timpani on the Gramercy Brass Orchestra’s of New York recording of “Brubeck in Brass. Additionally, Mr. Lynch completed his Masters of Music Education and Supervisor’s Certificate, also at Rutgers.

Mr. Lynch was a finalist for the College of New Jersey’s Outstanding Educator’s Program in 2006, as well as a finalist for Yale University’s Distinguished Music Educator’s Program in 2011. Additionally, he was nominated for the Grammy Outstanding Music Educator Award in both 2013, 2014,  2017, and advanced to the quarterfinal round in 2014 and 2017. Consequently, Mr. Lynch is a Legacy Candidate for 2018 Grammy award. He serves as the chair of the Essex County Honor Band and NJSMA Marching Band.

The VHS Marching Maroon and White has a proud tradition of performing the iconic repertoire of the symphonic, orchestral, and operatic canon on the field. The band won the State Championship in 2003, All State Championships in 2004 and 2006, and Two Cadets Awards of Excellence in 2012, while finishing second National in Championships. In October 2017, VHS will host the inaugural NJSMA Marching Band Festival!

The VHS Concert Band was the first school group to play the iconic “Wednesday’s at Noon Concert Series” at the Cathedral Basilica and was hailed by the staff as the “highlight of the series”, in addition to an iconic performance at Carnegie Hall in March of 2013 as part of the Eastern Wind Symphony Symphonic Gala. Last April, the Verona Concert Band returned to the Cathedral Basilica where they  premiered David Gillingham’s Organic Matters for solo organ and band with famed organist Vincent Carr. The concert band premiered Mr. Bruce Yurko’s “Anorev Fanfare” on May 18th, 2017.

Risk-taking in the Classroom

In my classroom this year, I found myself wanting to embrace a lot of new teaching methodologies that allowed students to risk-take in a safe, encouraging environment. (I feel confident in my creation of an inclusive, safe risk-taking space, as my Student Perception of Teaching (SPoT) scores for “The instructor supported a class environment of mutual respect” were, for Aural Skills I, avg. 5.8; Materials III, avg. 5.94.) I was bolstered by my incorporation of improvisation in the aural skills classroom in 2016-2017, and continued its inclusion in the Aural Skills classroom this year. In addition to improvisation, though, I began to use two methods that I’ve grown to like and which I feel strongly engage critical engagement with material and risk-taking.

The first, which I had not previously done, was incorporating ambiguous materials that require evidenced argumentation for in-class discussion and analysis. I had previously shied away from examples that were ambiguous because of a concern that students would feel confused rather than engaged. However, my experience from this semester has shown me that that worry is unfounded. I began work on the incorporation of ambiguous examples with the help of Elon’s CATL center, which held a workshop entitled “Encouraging Students to Take Intellectual Risks: The Role of Metacognition and Motivation”. This workshop engaged using ambiguous examples in class which required debate and discussion, and presented evidence that these types of examples create a more engaging, memorable atmosphere in which students have to reason using foundational concepts, therefore better cementing their understanding them. Thus, I began regularly incorporating a two-fold process in my classroom. On the first introduction to a topic, students would engage with “normative” or “expected” examples, and would be walked through genre expectations regarding form, voice-leading, or concepts. Beyond that first day, however, while I did emphasize the “expectations” to which the students were originally introduced, I only used examples that were more difficult, defied expectations, or used expectations in a creative way for a purpose. We would then discuss the way in which the deviation occurred, how it was creating meaning and provided a venue for interpretation and use of evidence, and revisit any unclear ideas. On SPoTs, I received positive feedback about the challenge provided by these materials (“Course assignments fostered analytical and/or creative thinking” avg. 5.82; “The instructor challenged students to think critically about course material” avg. 5.86; “The instructor expected students to support assertions with evidence and/or reasoning” avg. 5.96).

The second practice I engaged was continuing to incorporate World Musics, popular music, and lesser-known composers into the classroom. Last year, I attempted to do this, but felt that I was only incorporating short examples while still foregrounding “Master” composers, such as Beethoven, Bach, or Mozart; my concern with this practice was that it gave students an inappropriate impression about who could participate in composition and analysis, and how far music theory could reach for interpretation and understanding. This year, while I did use many short supplemental examples similar to last year, I also regularly included analyses of full popular pieces from jazz, rock, and Broadway musicals, and incorporated composers of many nationalities, genders, and races. What I found was that students were delighted to talk about these non-canon composers and pieces, and particularly loved exposure to new styles and musics they hadn’t previously encountered. I often included short lectures about history or background, for example, the formation of classical music styles in Cuba, the formation and style of the Prog Rock genre, or the autobiography of artists. These not only helped students understand the broader range of how musical styles get communicated to different people at different times, but also stimulated conversations about interpretations and the creation of music that were deeper and more interesting than I had previously experienced in prior implementations of this course. I have included some selected SPoT comments below that engage this topic:

“Dr. Palfy pulled materials and examples of her own that helped us relate.”

“The way all different examples from all different genres were tied in really helped me learn the grand scheme of the musical context.”

“She teaches the material in a multitude of ways which really helps me apply my knowledge in more ways than one/helps me figure out how.”

Remember this! Some “Vertical” Thoughts on Doubling and Chord-positioning rules in the Context of Common-Practice Part-Writing

After a long and enjoyable four-year stint being a “post-tonal” undergraduate theory instructor at my university, this semester I’ve made a return to teaching common-practice harmony.  It’s nice to be able to visit this world once again!  Two weeks in, I’m reminded of how, as instructors of common-practice harmony, we often give our students guidelines that we know will make their part-writing and voice-leading sound better (that is to say, more stylistically sound), but how we sometimes do so without offering the students a clear rationale for why a given guideline is in place.  It is that very rationale that transcends the guideline from the arbitrary into the realm of meaningful.  Given that, I share a few rationales that are often only cursorily addressed in standard sources (theory texts), but that are by no means consistently discussed.  One could argue that some of the rationales below are speculative, but the speculations are based on acoustics, consonance/dissonance conventions, or other practical matters.  So, aspiring music majors, remember this!  Without further ado…

The preference for first-inversion diminished triads, and doubling their chordal 3rds

Simply put, in Western art-music traditions dating back to around the 16th century, dissonances are measured in relation to the sounding bass.  The first inversion position affords the only possible position where its tones above the bass avoid either a diminished fifth or an augmented fourth in relation to that bass, instead sounding a minor third and major sixth above, both of which are consonances.   We instructors know that.  But we need to share that with our students to make the guideline more meaningful.  While on that topic, an instructor may also point out that doubling the chordal 3rd avoids adding emphasis to either note of the tritone.  Composers like the “spice” of the tritone, but don’t want to take the lid off of the pepper shaker, so to speak.

Doubling the soprano of a first-inversion major or minor triad

Within the High Baroque chorales that have served as a foundation for our pedagogical part-writing guidelines for the past two centuries or so (of whom J.S. Bach is usually cited as the gold standard), the penchant for doubling the soprano of major or minor triads in first inversion is on full display.  Yet, as this is not always the case, as representative composers sometimes double something else, we sometimes are tempted to throw out the baby with the bath water, and tell our students, “have at it, as long as you avoid x, y, and z,” or something to that effect.  But one can surmise the practicality of doubling the soprano in simple acoustics.  In either a major or minor chord in first inversion, the bass note’s first “new” overtone (i.e., that is not the same pitch-class as the fundamental) comprises a perfect fifth above it.  Thus, there is a degree of soft dissonance to a first inversion chord, adding a kind of vibrant energy to the chord.   For example, The E bass of a C major 6 chord subtly projects B a fifth above, whereas the E-flat of a C minor 6 chord projects a B-flat.  The former chord thus has hues projecting C MM where as the latter hues comprise C mm.  In order to project the melody during this vaseline-on-the-lens effect, a composer will often double the soprano (i.e., the melody) to ensure it is not lost in the subtle haze.

Is this too much detail for an undergraduate in Theory I or II?  I don’t think so, especially if it helps her or him to remember that there is some reason other than “just do it” that is behind the stylistically sound guideline.


Like the guideline on avoiding parallel or contrary octaves or fifths (in order to maximize independence of each line, given the acoustic “blend” of a parallel 5th or 8ve), certain rationales for the doubling dos and don’ts are obvious, such as the desire to avoid doubling tendency tones (of which chordal 7ths and leading tones are primary examples).  But others, such as the cases discussed above, are less so.  Do we tell students, for example, to “double the 5th” or to “double the bass” of second-inversion major or minor chords?  I would argue for the latter, and then discuss the fact that a composer is acoustically “anchoring” the bass tone while it is passing or sustaining through a pleasingly dissonant moment.   Can I absolutely prove that was a composer’s intent?  Of course not, but it makes quite a bit of sense acoustically.  And aren’t some of these conventional rules grounded in fostering better linear (voice-leading) outcomes, not just the vertical concerns addressed here?  Yes, certainly.  Nonetheless, these vertical factors offer the student a straightforward rationale for certain guidelines discussed above, rendering them infinitely more meaningful and thus more memorable.

An Internal Struggle: Product vs. Journey

I have always prided myself as a band director that embraces music theory. Growing up, in some of my music courses, I felt that the two fields were largely disparate: you learned how to perform on your instrument in ensemble courses, and you pulled out staff paper and learned four-part voice leading in music theory. However, I entered into the music classroom five years ago bright and excited to be the teacher that integrated theory fully into music performance.

However, each year, I find myself caught in my own head. I am slowly realizing that a large part of my anxiety as a director in the band room is product-based. At my current school, a small charter public school, I have somehow become obsessed with the way my program presents to the outer world in the concert setting. In my small mismatched and awkwardly orchestrated ensembles, I push out literature to them and subconsciously keep my head glued to the end-of-semester concert. Who has time to teach about scale construction and melodic dictation when I only have [X] rehearsals until the concert? Are my students going to sound bad? What will my administrators think? Why can’t my violins sound good reading this flute part? Why are my low brass players struggling so much with articulation?

Now that my concert has inevitably come and gone (and went just fine!), I find myself disappointed in the web of anxious thoughts that prevented me from appropriately integrating theory into my classroom. I bet my students would be more confident about their role in the ensemble if I spent time teaching them about how the different parts of music come together; I bet my students would have been better in tune playing chords if they understood which part of the chord they were.

My goal for next semester is going to be an internal soothing: the concert will come and go just fine, and your administrators will love and support you no matter what; however, your students will love you more if you take the time to slow down and just teach!


  • Alex Alberti