Assessing Tamara Hey’s Intensive, Practical Music Theory Class

by delarue

One aspect of the New York music scene that this blog hasn’t covered until now is music education. You can get as high-level training as you want in this city…if you can afford it. But you also don’t have to come from robber baron money to take advantage of some of the opportunities available to musicians who are hungry for practical knowledge.

It might be an overstatement to say that you get a semester’s worth of music school out of one of Tamara Hey‘s intensive Alphabet City Music workshops, but there’s still an enormous amount of material packed into a five-week course. Hey describes her Basic Theory 1 class – which this blog attended the previous time it was offered – as a way to learn to read and write music, understand keys, transpose melodies, create basic charts for songs, and have fun in the process. All of this is true…and there’s much more to it.

Be aware that Hey’s courses, taught in small groups with plenty of attention to students’ individual needs, are not for people who want to goof off in class or skip homework. On the other hand, if you want to get the most bang for the buck, you’re committed to learning a great deal of useful information in a short period of time, and you’d rather not spring for a huge student loan or pay conservatory tuition, these courses are a real bargain. The Basic Theory 1 with an Intro to Chart Writing Workshop will be offered again beginning on Tuesday, Oct 28 from 6:30 to 8:30 PM and continuing weekly through December 2; the classes are located close to the Astor Place 6 train station and 8th St. N and R stations.  No advance payment is required for preregistration.

And the material you get for outside of class is just as substantial: there are exhaustive ear training exercises based on a vast library of mp3s – enough work to keep you busy for a whole night – and also a workbook that enables you to build your understanding intuitively . It nudges you along so that if you don’t get something the first time around, you will the second time if you’re paying attention. Yes, there’s homework, every week, and yes, you’re expected to participate in class. That’s how it is in an elite conservatory environment, the kind where Hey received her training. But this is a lot less stressful and more fun.

Hey’s bona fides are her education (she’s a Berklee grad), her background (twenty years of teaching, beginning in her undergrad days) and her own tunesmithing. Her songwriting is catchy, counterintuitive and urbane to the nth degree, spiced with humor and clever puns. Maybe somewhat ironically, she’s not the cutup in class that she can be onstage. Leading a workshop, she’s all business. Don’t expect to be ignored in class: she likes to get a handle on what your individual goals and reasons for studying are and will direct her attention to you when a topic or device is particularly applicable. Her approach is friendly and down-to-earth but very focused.

What was class like? Intense. Hey moved through the material methodically, using examples from the past five decades of music as diverse as Roy Orbison, Chuck Berry, Cheap Trick and Tom Petty (remember, this was an introductory course). Who takes these classes? The students in this one included one of New York’s elite rock songwriters, who is now performing choral music as well; a longtime sideman with designs on leading a group and therefore in need of a refresher course in chart writing; a busy jazz singer, who was able to fix a messy chart in a pinch at a high-profile gig based on information learned in this class; a beginner singer-songwriter and guitarist; a retired pianist, and a nonmusician. While there wasn’t the kind of competition you might find in a music school environment, being around good musicians is like being in a band with them: they’ll push you to take your game to the next level. And there was plenty of that, with lively debate over technical issues, and terminology, and the minutiae of notating a melody, which Hey arbitrated with considerable relish. Moments like those are clearly fun for her, and she made them fun for the class as well.