Working with Triads in the Ensemble Setting

Introduction

This past fall I completed the edTPA Assessment, a recent addition to the Georgia teaching licensure requirements. Since I enjoy teaching music theory, and our students had diverse levels of knowledge, my mentor teacher and I thought it would be wise to choose a relevant topic that was directly applicable from “theory” to daily ensemble skills.

Why spend five classes working on these skills? Here are some thoughts I had during the process:

  1. The bulk of the repertoire we play uses these chords. Students should understand how the music we play is constructed.
  2. Students should (ideally) be able to confer with the section and figure out who has which note in the chord, so you can tune triads without the conductor’s assistance.
  3. With these two things in mind, rehearsal can go into deeper topics, versus surface level tuning, balance, and blending triads. Additionally, this will be useful when playing chamber music with friends and peers.

Providing these reasons to the students helped with buy-in, although I found many of them curious and interested to learn the mechanics behind the repertoire they play daily.

Pre-Test

The first step was creating a theory pre-test that covered a variety of topics. Both aural and non-aural and skills were assessed.

After reviewing the results, I narrowed down the goal: I wanted my students to be able to become fluent in major and minor triads — identification, construction, balance, and tuning procedures. To satisfy the edTPA requirements, my last lesson focused on having students arrange provided chord progressions.

Lesson 1 — Creating

Materials: Lesson plan and handout with an exit slip

In the first lesson, we defined necessary vocabulary (e.g. intervallic pattern, inversion), discussed the relevance of what we were learning, and worked in pairs to create triads on a given root note. Slides are below. (As a heads up, all of the “Demos” were done on the whiteboard, which is why content may appear to be missing.)

Lesson 2 — Identifying

Materials: Lesson plan and handout with exit slip

In lesson 2, we quickly reviewed the two most common mistakes from the exit slip:

  1. Unclear note heads, usually due to imprecise penmanship.
  2. A lack of understanding of inversion. Pitches should never change when a chord is being inverted!

After a brief review of previous topics and new vocabulary, we recorded our first take of “Horkstow Grange” for our next lesson, and I taught my students the six step process for identifying triads:

  1. Write all notes on external staff paper, removing octave duplications.
  2. Stack the three notes in “snowman” form, AKA, root position.
  3. Check the distance between the root and third. (2W = major, 1.5W = minor)
  4. Check the distance between the third and fifth. (1.5W = major, 2W = minor)
  5. Label the chord by its root and quality (M/m) below the system or staff.
  6. Label chord tones as R, 3, and 5.

We continued class with a group chord identification, a few “gotchas” to be mindful of, and then students were assigned their own measure to analyze from Aaron Cole’s “Horkstow Grange” chorale. (At the time, the ensemble was preparing Grainger’s Lincolnshire Posy for an upcoming guest performance.) Here are the slides:

Lesson 3 — Tuning and Balancing

Materials: Lesson plan and handout with exit slip

This lesson put our recently analyzed “Horkstow Grange” chorale from theory to practice. We started by listening to the recording from the last lesson’s reading, and used think-pair-share to solicit feedback from the students on their performance. After, we explored tuning roots, percentages for balancing chords (and how they’re obtained), and other concepts. Throughout the lesson, we recorded each performance so the students could critically listen and hear the improvements. Slides are below:

Lesson 4 — Transposing and Analysis

Materials: Lesson plan, handout with exit slip, and score excerpts

In lesson four, students reviewed transposition and analyzed chords from a full score. Each section studied a passage of Lincolnshire Posy relevant to their own instrument: clarinetists studied the beginning of the fourth movement, other woodwinds studied the sixth movement, and brass studied the opening of the fifth movement. While most harmony consisted of major and minor triads, I walked around and assisted students that attempted labels on non-triadic chords.

Slides are below:

Lesson 5 — Arranging

Materials: Lesson plan and handout with exit slip

In the final installment, students learned how to arrange a short chord progression, I—IV—V—I, in F major. Instead of spending time reviewing many part-writing rules, I just gave them two: (1) avoid voice crossing, and (2) avoid doubling the third of the chord. Each section also had a different “twist”, which would promote deeper listening during performance. These “twists” included, e.g., doubling the third exclusively, voicing the bass clarinet above the soprano clarinets, and writing all the triads in inversion. Students were very successful identifying each twist, and labeling what effect each compositional trait had on the resulting sound.

Here are the slides:

Post-Test

Since this test is fairly challenging, and students work at different paces, the assessment was designated as a take-home assignment. While some questions were directly answered in-class or through an exit slip, many require application and extrapolation from topics explored in class.

Conclusion

Overall, my mentor teacher and I were pleased with the outcomes of my theory lessons. Students developed a serious command of the vocabulary necessary to discuss harmony in rehearsal, and students were much faster when we discussed chords and tuning moving forward. One of the wishes we have for the future is to develop these lessons into shorter segments, split during the course of the school year. It was difficult to take so much time from rehearsal during the Fall, but it was necessary for the completion of edTPA.

If I can be of help with integrating theory in your ensemble skills, let me know!

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