A New Dawn for Music Theory at the New Jersey Youth Symphony with Kristen Wuest, Director of Student Services
Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, the New Jersey Youth Symphony (NJYS), a program of the Wharton Institute for the Performing Arts, had an almost non-existent music theory program. Throughout its 42 years serving over 500 students annually in grades 3-12, music theory has been offered sporadically to the youngest musicians in the youth orchestra program. As it became clear that NJYS would need to start the 2020-21 season virtually, Artistic Director and Principal Conductor Helen H. Cha-Pyo turned to Wharton’s Director of Student Services Kristen Wuest to help develop an online experience that would fill the gap for students as they continue to learn and grow as young artists while remaining socially distant. Read on as Wuest tells us a bit more about the new music theory program.
Q: Who spearheaded the 2020-21 online learning platform for NJYS?
A: Prior to the season kicking off in early September, Maestro Cha-Pyo developed a course listing of amazing class opportunities for every student wishing to participate in NJYS, and I was thrilled that music theory was one of these offerings. I have steered the music theory program at Wharton’s Performing Arts School for several years now and was happy to see an expansion of this area of study.
Q: How many NJYS students are participating in the music theory program?
A: I expected maybe 50 students would enroll—75 students would be a dream come true. I logged on the day enrollment closed and almost fell over when I saw that 250+ students had signed up to take music theory. I do not think our staff had any idea that the interest in music theory was there to this degree. Unfortunately, some students changed their minds, or their schedules changed, and we ultimately ended up with 175 students.
Q: Whew. That’s quite a turn out! How did you determine how to place students in classes?
A: Students received a placement exam to ensure that they were placed in an appropriate class level, and after carefully evaluating every exam, we ended up with five levels spread across 12 classes of 12-18 students per class, with 16 teacher’s assistants. The teacher’s assistants are students who wished to participate in music theory but are over qualified for our current curriculum. These students will assist the 7 lead instructors for each class and will receive credit for the course towards their season requirements.
Q: What are the logistics for the music theory classes?
A: The classes take place online via Zoom. The tech capabilities today are endless and my goal for these classes is to make them FUN while retaining great educational value. We want to debunk the myth that music theory is boring, stuffy, or hard to digest—for students at any level.
Q: Tell us about the program’s curriculum.
A: We are employing the Royal Conservatory of Music Development Program “Celebrate Theory” as our curriculum. This curriculum is the most comprehensive I have ever seen. It’s structured in a way that is fun—with engaging activities—while still diving deep into music theory. Each book covers rhythm, notation and pitch, music history complete with listening examples and activities, chords and harmony, melody composition, and so much more!
Q: What are your hopes and dreams for the music theory program at Wharton Arts?
A: We hope to see a continuation of the study of music theory for NJYS students even when in-person learning resumes. We would like to see more blending of our students at the Performing Arts School with the young orchestral musicians at NJYS, particularly in the music theory program. And lastly, we are exploring the idea of expanding music theory online—to adults and other audiences. Do you have a class request or idea for music theory programming? Reach out to me at firstname.lastname@example.org. We love to hear ideas from our community!
Q: Last question: Can anyone sign up for these music theory classes?
A: Classes have already started, but in the future—yes! Anyone can join and will be placed in the appropriate class level. We look forward to a thriving music theory program for many years to come.
Kristen Wuest, a New Jersey Youth Symphony alumna who served as principal flute for two years, has been playing the flute since the age of nine. She performed with the New Jersey Youth Symphony in Alice Tully Hall at Lincoln Center in May 2003. Wuest attended master classes with world renowned Julius Baker, Jan Vinci, Jeffrey Khaner, Bart Feller, and Paul Edmund Davies. She holds a Bachelor of Music degree in Flute Performance from Mason Gross School of the Arts at Rutgers University and a Master of Music degree in Flute Performance at The School of Music, Dance, and Theater at New Jersey City University where she studied under Katherine Fink. While at Rutgers University, Wuest studied under Kaoru Hinata and was a member of the Grammy-nominated Rutgers Wind Ensemble. She aspires to teach flute at the college level and has built a busy career in freelance performance.