Music, in theory
When I was in grade school, the year nearly always began with writing the same report: “What I did last summer.” It was usually a simple recital of the fun activities (and boring ones) we experienced with our friends and family.
I don’t remember ever being asked to draw lessons from the experiences, or even to think seriously about them. But it was grade school, and the point I suppose was to give us an assignment to improve our writing.
Well, this past summer, I went to sleepaway camp for the first time. Granted, it was for less than a week and it was “piano camp” for adults. But I can’t help feeling an urge to write about it now.
The program at the Peabody School of Music in Baltimore brought together amateur pianists from the East Coast and Midwest to learn from Peabody faculty and award-winning performers in both classical and jazz repertoire.
Some readers may recall the cover story I wrote about this program in 2017. Spending a day there in order to write that story made me want to experience the whole thing. I finally signed up to go this summer.
I was never more than a day camper as a kid. But I now understand much better what a bonding experience it can be to spend a week living with a group of like-minded people.
From early morning lectures to evening performances, from breakfast to dinner to nightcaps at the hotel down the block (unlike camp), we spent the long days sharing interesting times and making new friends.
This was also my first experience participating in a “master class,” where I played a piece I love rather badly (a case of nerves, I like to think), and got a kind critique from the teacher. He said something along the lines of, “What good would it do for me to be teaching here if you played everything perfectly?”
One day, I was playing a jazz number by the late Billy Taylor in front of some new friends in the jazz workshop room when in walked our teacher, Larry Willis, former keyboardist for Blood, Sweat & Tears. “Go on,” he said, as I froze mid-chord.
He went on to give me some basic but important pointers about playing jazz. “Keep the beat going throughout.”
One lecture that I expected to be a snooze turned out to be among the most interesting. It was billed as a “refresher” session in what is known as “music theory.”
All through my 12 years of piano lessons as a kid, my teacher included theory lessons. I never really understood what was theoretical about it: either it’s music or it isn’t, right?
But music theory, it turns out, does have some interesting elements. The lecture reminded us about key signatures (what sharps or flats apply to a scale to make it a particular key). For example, the key of C major has no sharps or flats, while the key of C-sharp major is nothing but sharps.
The insight that really took my breath away, however, was the one about “relative minors.” (The term has nothing to do with how much older some campers were than others, though we ranged in age from our early 30s to mid-90s.)
Rather, the relative minor is the minor key that shares the same key signature as a major key. Every major key has a relative minor key that starts on the note exactly one and a half steps down from the major key’s first note. So, for example, the key of A minor has the same key signature (no flats or sharps) as C major.
When a performer sees a new piece of music, the first thing to notice is the key signature, so we know what notes to make sharp or flat. And then we generally look to see where the piece (or first theme) starts and where it ends. That usually tells us which key the piece is in: whether the major key or its relative minor.
I had learned this as a kid, but suddenly, I found myself facing a huge question. How can it be that a minor scale — which most listeners can identify immediately upon hearing — uses exactly the same notes as a major scale? The only difference in the scale is where we start: on the A or on the C.
Why should the way we perceive a scale or feel about pieces written in a minor key depend solely on where we decide to start and stop playing?
And then it hit me. This is a metaphor for life in general. Where we start and where we stop has an inordinate effect on how we evaluate nearly everything in life.
Start a day feeling great and end it angry, anxious and with a headache, and it was a very bad day. Start a day with a backache and end feeling like a million bucks, and it was a great day.
This goes for stages of life all the more so. Looking back, how do you feel about your childhood? Your teenage years? Your early career? Your parenting years? Your more recent years?
In so many cases, the overall flavor of those time periods depends on how you were feeling as you exited them. Was the overall trajectory onwards and upwards? Or the opposite?
How much of this perception do we have in our control? In some cases, at least, we can decide where to start and stop our own music.
Are we primed to begin each day in A minor? Or can we jump up a few notes, and decide today will start (or at least stop) in C major? I’m still wrestling with this concept and with my newfound appreciation for music theory.
There are a number of other interesting things I learned about — or learned again — at camp: augmented intervals, seventh chords and bluesy notes, for example. Each one of them can jazz up a tune.
But to continue the metaphor, it seems to me we are all making our own music every day. Each note and chord we “play” in life can either keep the jazzy beat going or bring us down. What counts is knowing that it’s all in our hands.