Sunday, March 14, 2010

Music theory as a key to unlock the world of sounds - to the memory of Dorothy Payne

The only time I met Dorothy Payne in person was at the MTNA National Conference in Washington, DC in 2001. I knew Dorothy’s sister, Rebecca Shockley, and we had planned to get together at the conference. That’s where Rebecca introduced us. We had a brief conversation, about music theory, about the theory classes I had had in college.
As a music education major, I had to take a lot of theory - harmony, counterpoint, ear training and more. Memorizing all these terms and trying to find whatever they signified on the keyboard and in musical scores was quite a challenge for me. It had to do a lot with thinking, rather than feeling music.
Dorothy Payne' s presentation at the conference was the best theory lesson I’ve ever had. She divided the audience into sections, and we sang. Scales, intervals, patterns, chords, as she directed us. Under her guidance we experienced music theory as a system of names for sounds, sounds of different colors and different emotions.  I think if I had had the chance to study music theory with Dorothy, the subject could have become the key to unlock the secrets of the world of sound, rather than an intellectual obstacle course. 
Some time later I found out that a colleague of mine in Germany had had theory classes with Dorothy Payne at the Eastman School of Music. My colleague said that those classes had  helped her understanding of music tremendously, and she remembered them with great fondness. That’s not something you hear from piano majors very often.
There were a couple of summers when I wasn’t working on any major projects and had always wanted to ask Rebecca whether her sister taught any classes outside of college that were open to teachers or the general public. But something always got in the way, and I never asked. 
I learnt from Rebecca that Dorothy retired, and then, that she was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease. She passed away last Thursday, March 11, in Cincinnati.
I will never forget her presentation at the conference. It changed my way of understanding music theory. Some people leave a trace in your life even though you’ve only met them once. 

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