Sight Screaming and Ear Trauma: A Percussionist's Journey through the chasm of Aural Theory

To understand percussionists, you must have:
Experienced several years in middle school band sitting in the back, bored to tears, waiting for that single suspended cymbal roll or triangle solo...
Learned the life of a roadie by being your own roadie...
Mastered the skills of the human octopus...
Embraced contemporary classical music...
Unexplicably struggled through the class innocuously labeled "Aural Theory Training".

Now, as a disclaimer, there are many percussionists that have thrived in aural theory. Of course, I have only known one in my experience. Lenny (name changed to protect the guilty) has perfect pitch, that blessed gift from the muse above which makes classes like ear training little more than your kindergarten phonics class. I recall one recording session where the percussion ensemble spent an hour with Lenny asking him the pitch of his elbow, or knee, or head. With a vacant smile he would strike his appendages and forehead, and answer back "C#" or "A". Lenny could listen once to a recording of any composition and quickly reconstruct a passionate condensed version within minutes on the nearest piano.

Lenny had an "A" in aural theory.

My first two years of aural theory taught me two things:

1) Basic sight singing
2) Voice majors in my class rehearsed best when they were whining about rhythm

One mezza soprano in particular would often put on the sweetest puppy dog eyes for the professor, who would look down at her with the knowing gaze of a mother duck about to walk her children over a storm drain.

"We don't have to worry about the rhythm here, as long as you have the melody."

(In my head I imagined this train wreck of a chorus, tripping and skipping over eighths and sixteenths, a polytonal mesh of voices lost to the beat of a different, out of tempo, drummer.)

Passing my first four semesters of aural theory, I transferred schools...only to find that I tested back into freshman aural theory. The aural theory professor at this university was nationally known for her WebCT ear training series. You may have heard it...the one with the inebriated professor slushing, "Recorded example...(pause, hiccup)...1". (No?) I could have started in Theory 2, but seeing the difficulty level had exponentially increased, I opted to start at Theory 1...where all of the percussionists, except for Lenny, struggled for their F's, D's, and C's.

This professor, however, seemed to be a clairvoyant. She would listen to a student sing or look at botched dictation, and be able to tell the student exactly what they were thinking at that time to make their mistakes. She was the Guru of Aural Theory...the omniscient, omnipresent deity who each day blessed us with her presence and infinite knowledge.

AND in HER universe...RHYTHM counted as much as MELODY and HARMONY.

Maybe I could not dictate Bartok after three hearings, but I could tap out any complex polyrhythm that came my way...and I still knew how to sight-sing. That gave me at least 60% of the class that I could breeze through.

I don't know if it was the head injury I suffered that last year, or the two head injuries before it, but my memory was shot. Dictation became almost an impossibility. I couldn't (and still can't) retain much short-term memory. My computer is covered in stickies, my arm covered in notes to myself...encrypted things that I often have to puzzle over...I would try singing the dictation over in my head and stop after three notes. I found my fingers did a better job of remembering than my brain cells, and even created a paper keyboard for my desk, to allow my hand to recreate the dictation.

(Seven semesters)

In the end, after spending several nights in a row pounding out chord progressions on my mom's old Casio keyboard, sight-singing by the soda machine, and practicing my triads until I dreamt about them, I passed aural theory.

(Ok, maybe that visit to the professor's office right before the final helped...the one where I looked up at the professor with those puppy dog eyes and she looked down at me with the knowing gaze of a mother duck about to walk her children over a storm drain.)


Anonymous said…
I've laughed a lot after reading your essay. Thanks.

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