Monday, June 27, 2005

An unsuspecting music major

I knew going in that Columbia offered a core curriculum. During the Spring 1994 semester two things happened that greatly affected the rest of my undergraduate career: first, I dropped premed and second, I enrolled in "Masterpieces of Western Music". At some point during that semester, and I can't remember exactly when or how, I decided I'd become a music major. College had become a disappointment (I was no longer a straight A student) so I figured the only way I'd survive was by studying something I actually cared about. Now you have to understand that I had almost no musical background at this point. The only thing I had done besides choir in junior high and high school was about a year of private piano lessons. These were very informal and consisted of me learning to play some well-known tunes like "Fur Elise". So really the only thing I did know was some basic reading.

I spent the rest of the semester going over the course bulletin, trying to figure out how I'd fit the music major and the computer science minor into my two remaining years. Aside from 20 credit semesters there was only one glitch. The music major included an introductory theory class plus two one year theory sequences (diatonic and chromatic harmony and counterpoint). In order to graduate on time I needed to start the first one year sequence that Fall. But I knew that I needed the intro course in order to not be completely lost. I went in to speak to one of the theory professors. I laugh now because I am so easily intimidated but when it comes to music I am way bolder than normal. The professor informed me that it was possible to place out of the intro course through an examination offered in the fall. He supplied me with a syllabus for the class and sent me off to work on my own that summer. My family and I went to the Dominican Republic for about a month in 1994 and I had my thick music book in hand. In DR the heavy meal of the day is eaten at noon and after that people go for naps or some other quiet activity. Every afternoon I would sit at my aunt's porch underneath the "roble" tree (that's what my family calls it but I am not sure it's the correct name). This tree would let loose a ton of tiny flowers as the breeze would shake it. For about two hours a day I'd lay down and enjoy the perfect weather while working on my music exercises. I learned the basics: key signatures, how to form triads, major and minor scales, etc. By the end of my vacation I had completed all the material from the syllabus and come September I aced the placement test and was able to start my theory sequence. Little did I know that it was only the beginning.

Truth be told I had no idea what music "theory" would be about. I was expecting a course on acoustics for a while until I started working on those introductory exercises. Boy was I in for a treat! I'd long been hearing harmony but did not speak its language. After the first few theory classes I realized that I was finally going to really understand music. For years I realized that I was always attracted to a certain "type" of song but I couldn't figure out what the common element was (minor keys). I could also sort of tell where the music was headed and was always delighted when they'd throw in some surprise (deceptive cadences). When I'd go see merengue concerts I'd notice that the pianist would never have sheet music yet he'd play a ton of chords and notes. Did he memorize it all? No, I eventually realized. He plays the chord progressions by ear. An entire new world opened up to me and I couldn't be more excited! I worked on my chord analysis exercises with gusto. Soon enough I became familiar with secondary dominants, suspensions, passing tones, etc. It turned out that I had a great ear for it and once I heard something once I was able to understand its function and identify it later on. I realized I had favorite chord progressions that I could trace back to the time I was 7! I also had favorite keys (f# minor is divine). Some suspected I may even have latent perfect pitch! This was not a good thing though because it was completely undeveloped and I tried to rely on it when I shouldn't have in Ear Training.

Ahh, ear training. When I saw that there was a course called "ear training" I laughed out loud for about a minute. WTF is ear training, I wondered? I imagined people sitting around a circular table pulling their ears in all directions. The course bulletin was very vague. If I had little clue what theory would be about I had NO clue what this ear training business was. The first few classes were innocent enough. They had us sing scales, recognize if something was major or minor, and do some very easy sight singing. Sight singing was (and still is) scary to me but I did know that it existed. When I was in my high school choir I noticed that the girl next to me (who was an amazing singer) would hum the tunes before the teacher played them by just looking at the music. For some reason before that I had assumed that the music was only for instrumentalists. I didn't realize that people could sing what was on the page. Hehe, poor little naive me. So anyway when I started the ear training I realized that this was part of what you needed to do to develop that skill. Cool! A few weeks into the class our teacher introduced the concept of dictation and said there were three kinds: harmonic, melodic, and rhythmic. Harmonic dictation that entire semester consisted solely of intervals. I found it incredibly fun and had nearly perfect accuracy with that. As soon as he'd play the interval I knew exactly what it was: minor third, major 7th, minor sixth, tritone. Soon I was getting impatient to do harder things like full chords and chord progressions (we did eventually do those in later semesters).

Melodic dictation was an entirely different beast. When he talked about it I was in shock. Is it humanly possible to hear a melody and copy the entire thing down? Woah! Maybe that sense of amazement lead to me starting off on the wrong foot and being scared of melodic dictation the entire time through. I managed to do ok when things were stepwise but once we introduced jumpy melodies and modulations I was pretty much lost. I was relying either on my interval ability (which doesn't work as well when the melody goes by you really quickly) or my newly discovered ability to be able to identify certain pitches (the only ones I could do at that point were A, F#, and C - so I could rock G major). This, I now realize, was a very wrong approach to melodic dictation. I should have been focusing more on the entire line rather than going pitch by pitch. For the rest of my ear training courses the thing I was always worst with was melodic dictation. To this day my melodic ear is still way weaker than my harmonic one. And here I am playing the oboe. So I will have to face my nemesis head on. After doing the music major I always figured I'd end up playing keyboards or bass because I think about music harmonically. I do love harmony and always will, but for some reason, now that I'm more mature, a part of me feels like I do have something melodic to say. I really long for the day when I can sing through my oboe. I now find myself following melodies while still being able to appreciate the harmony underneath. Back when I was studying the Handel Sonata I was having trouble feeling it until I did a chord analysis of the accompaniment and had my husband play the chords out for me (the piece's key signature is g minor but it acts like it's in c minor which helped me understand why the end sounded like a half cadence).

At one point after I started oboe I wrongly thought that I'd have to give up thinking about harmony. But after my Handel experience I see that it is still essential to my understanding of the music. I was pleased to come across this article where Carter Brey talks about how he analyzes pieces. How sexy! I really loved the article and his way of thinking about music (particularly example 2). I thought that once you were done with theory classes that you'd never have an opportunity to examine music that deeply again. Now I see that there is room for this in ensemble playing. Happy, happy, joy, joy!

This weekend JC and I tried a new exercise. For almost 10 years I had been playing electric bass (very, very badly I assure you) in our choir and singing backup vocals. I had never had to play the melodies of our songs on any instrument. For a few weeks I had been feeling uncomfortable about not being able to play any melodies on my oboe unless I had the music in front of me. I don't want any crutches. I want to know my instrument inside out. So I decided to start off small, with melodies that I am *very* familiar with. So JC got to pick the tune and would name it. I would then give him the key it's in (don't ask me how I've memorized them all for our hundreds of songs) and he'd start playing the accompaniment on his guitar. I had to go in and start playing the melody on the correct note and at the right time. Getting the correct starting pitch was easy. Unlike before, I can now hear what scale degree a certain pitch is (this is MUCH more helpful than trying to figure out exactly what pitch it is). So JC would start playing his chords and I'd sing the pitch in my head and I knew if it was the tonic, the third, or the dominant (it was usually one of these three). Playing the rest of the melody was much trickier. Again, the stepwise melodies were not all that hard. But I found myself struggling with any bigger intervals. I struggled a lot at first but by the 4th or 5th tune I was getting more precise. And I was actually starting to have some fun. So this is what it feels like to play melodies? Interesting ...

This weekend I went to Patelson's Music store to get some Woodwind quartet music. I was very tempted to buy an expensive ear training book and CDs. But I figure I have enough background to work on it on my own for a while. I think I may have finally gotten JC interested in it so we might start working on it together. I have one of my old sight reading books that we can use. Once we're ready to do melodic and rhythmic dictations then maybe I will consider getting that book and CDs.

Ooooo I would *LOVE* to re-do my music major entirely. All of it. The history, the theory, ear training, and even that composition course. I would do so much better this time around. My ear is amazing comparatively and everything is so much more relevant now that I am actually playing something. I'm surprised I even survived with half decent grades.

Maybe someday I could do this. That would be dreamy!!

1 comment:

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