Theory Class Leads to Super Music Learning

Doctoral candidate’s creative approach connects with grade school audience.

Community Music School-Detorit instructor Tia Harvey teaches a group of students music theory during the Aspiring Musicians Program (AMP) Camp.
Harvey discusses musical concepts such as rhythm, note values and chord progressions with a group of students.

Students at the Michigan State University Community Music School-Detroit are pumping up their musical educations with the addition this year of free music theory classes, which the school has dubbed “a musician’s secret super power!”

While theory class is a must for the serious study of music, most students wouldn’t encounter such a class until high school. Beginning in February, students at CMS-D age 9 and up could take a five-week music theory class that met each Saturday for one hour. Students were divided into three classes based on age and musical experience.

And thanks to the creative teaching of what may be perceived as a dry subject, many of the approximately 40 students are ready to learn more theory, says Jill Woodward, director of CMS-D.

“The kids are loving it. They’re playing games and doing ear training and learning some very sophisticated concepts. The way Tia is teaching it is very innovative and engaging,” Woodward says of class instructor Tia Harvey, a candidate for Doctor of Musical Arts in music theory and Master of Arts in musicology at MSU. “The kids are stopping in and saying how fun the class is.”

Woodward says she was approached about a theory class by CMS-D faculty who felt it was an important part of musical training that they didn’t have enough time to cover effectively during classes.

“Studying music theory is fundamental to understanding how music works,” says Velda Kelly, one of the instructors who asked for the class. Kelly teaches violin, viola and cello at CMS-D. Outside of the school she has been a highly visible member for years with groups such as the Michigan Opera Theatre and Chamber Music at the Scarab Club.   

Learning musical concepts such as rhythm, note values and chord progressions at a young age can speed the pace of learning new pieces, “which naturally propels the students to success,” Kelly says. “The theory class helps students grow and become more sophisticated musicians, making decisions based on the theory behind the music and tapping into what the composer actually wanted.”

Class instructor Harvey is in her third year of doctoral studies at the College of Music, studying percussion performance.  She also earned her master’s degree in music performance from Michigan State University. In addition to designing creative ways to teach theory, the class has become Harvey’s own laboratory for exploring ways to effect social change by bringing music to underserved young people in urban areas such as Detroit.

“Making the classroom into a place that belongs to the students is part of the social empowerment aspect,” Harvey says.

For example, on the first day of class she asked students to list their favorite songs. She created a playlist and each Saturday those songs were playing as the students entered the classroom. As part of a listening exercise Harvey asked them to draw a picture of how the music made them feel. Sometimes students brought in their own instruments to help make the connection between what they were learning and playing.

“Anything to get them up and moving and interacting with music theory,” Harvey says.

CMS-D will continue the theory classes this summer and into the fall with the help of a $75,000 grant from the Community Foundation for Southeast Michigan.

“Theory classes are perfectly suited to a community music school like CMS-D,” Kelly says. “The classes offer our students a leg up, even if they don't have access to those private lessons. It also makes our jobs as teachers much easier. We can explore in more detail exciting ways to make music because they already understand the basics.”

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