When I was in A&P school I struggled a lot with the electrical portion of the training. I have always been good with concrete concepts rendered concretely, and abstract concepts rendered abstractly, but there was something about a concrete event (the movement of electrons) rendered in the abstract that just kept stumping me.
Similarly I have tried several times to understand music theory. Several piano teachers tried to explain it to me, and it never stuck at all. Then I took a class in high school and managed to make a very unpleasant arrangement of Steely Dan’s “Deacon Blues” which my high school choir was then forced to sing. I always regretted choosing that song. If I remember correctly I chose it because I had sheet music for it and I didn’t have any money (or transportation, or the internet) to buy anything else. Suffice it to say, “Deacon Blues” does not make for a good choral arrangement.
Also, I had to change the phrase “drink Scotch whiskey all night long, and die behind the wheel” to something more teen-friendly. I was a weird teenager, so my new lyric was “drink warm Jello all night long, and watch it congeal.” I like to think it added to my mystique, but probably not.
I started a theory class in college and quickly dropped it when I realized I was in over my head. Then, in mid-adulthood I purchased a “Theory for Dummies” book, and discovered that it was, apparently, written for dummies less dumb about music theory than I because I got nowhere with it.
That was then. A couple of weeks ago I took an electrical troubleshooting class with my employer. And I rocked it! Once I figured out which way things were flowing in the wiring diagrams, I was a troubleshooting fool! I found shorts to shield, shorts to ground, shorts to the wire next door. I found opens and even mysterious high-reistance opens. You name it, I was able to find it. Suddenly it all makes sense and I no longer fear the multimeter.
Similarly, I started taking piano lessons recently. I told my new teacher that I wanted to learn theory. So, she has started assigning music that she believes will help me understand. Then she explains things in my lessons. And, amazingly, it is making sense. Things that my long-ago piano teachers explained are starting to click and new information is sticking in my brain pan. Already I feel qualified to apply my new knowledge to the analysis of some of the simpler Bach pieces.
Speaking of Bach, part of the reason I want to learn theory is that there are times when I’m sightreading and I play something that I KNOW makes no sense. I think to myself “now why did you play THAT?” because it will have been the absolute wrong note or chord. But without an understanding of theory, I don’t know that it’s going to sound wrong until I play it.
My theory (heh) is that theory will help with sightreading because I’ll have a better idea what’s coming next based on classical forms. This assumes I’m playing tonal music, which I am, and which I always will be, because I’m not a fan of atonal stuff. Music snobs, too bad – I also don’t like the New York Times because they don’t provide comics.
My ultimate goal with music is to be able to play at least one of the Bach keyboard concertos before I depart this mortal coil. It’s going to be hard and I’ll need all the help I can get, so bring on the theory.
I don’t know why these topics that eluded me for so long are finally making sense to me at a stage in life when my brain is supposed to start atrophying. I think it might be because I’m engaged and want to know this stuff for a reason, so my brain has a place to hang the knowledge and keep it sorted and useful.
When I master that Bach concerto, I’ll be sure to invite you all to the recital.