Theory-Musicianship and Composition

Faculty Liaison – Dr. Stephen Taylor

COVID-19 UPDATE: The Illinois String Academy will resume in-person instruction in the Fall 2021 semester. We will share safety guidelines and requirements with students and their famiiies via email.  

Program Offerings

Taught by an engaging team of graduate student and postdoctoral instructors, we offer two main categories of study in General Musicianship, Theory, Ear-Training and Music Composition. 

Classes—meeting on Saturday afternoons throughout the academic year.

Intermediate/advanced classes in Music Theory and Composition: Open to youth, age 10-18 – with exceptions based on instructor consent. Students should have studied an instrument for at least one year. 

Theory classes are organized in four levels based on the skills of the student (descriptions below).

The Composition class is held in the lower level computer lab, giving students access to state-of-the-art musical composition software. Students of the Illinois String Academy will perform student compositions during our end of the year recital in May.

Acceptance into all classes is contingent upon class size, instructor availability and section openings based on a theory assessment and/or interview with our instructors. 

Dr. Zhanna Lehmann – Theory / Ear-Training
Carolyn Borcherding – Theory and Composition
Rebekka Price & Stephen Burian, Public Engagement Office

Saturday Class Schedule

12:30–1:20, Musicianship and Composition
1:30–2:30, Music Theory (four sections)

Orientation and Dates of Instruction 

Fall 2021 Calendar

  • Orientation and theory assessment – 2:00 PM, August 28, 2021
    • Parents should plan to attend our initial meeting, which will be followed by a theory assessment for all new students.
    • Students will be dismissed upon completion of the theory assessment. 
  • Instructional dates for Fall 2021: 9/11, 9/18, 9/25, 10/2, 10/9, 10/16, 10/23, 10/30, 11/6, 11/13, 12/4, 12/11

Attendance Policy

  • Only one absence is permitted per semester. Additional absences or systematic conflicts (sports seasons, marching band, etc.) should be discussed with our theory instructors. 

  • Extenuating circumstances affecting student attendance will always be taken under consideration at the discretion of the theory instructors and the Public Engagement Office.

  • Students are billed the full tuition rate regardless of attendance. 

  • If a class is cancelled due to extenuating circumstances, every effort will be made to reschedule. 

Class Descriptions 

Theory 1

Pitch notation
Rhythmic values
Meter and time signature
Major and minor scales
Major and minor key signature
Relative and parallel keys
Triad and chord quality
Diatonic chords
Notating chords
Structural units and musical form

Theory 2

Triad inversions
Cadential 6/4
Voice leading and part writing with triads
Seventh chords
Musical forms and styles
Non-chord tones
Secondary dominant chords
Augmented sixth chords
Musical analysis of small chamber works


The composition class is geared toward a broad and flexible conception of creativity. While basic notational and computing skills are preferred, there is no compositional experience level required for the class — it is open to any student with an enthusiasm for creative expression and a curiosity about how that creatifvity can be productively harnessed.

The possibilities for how one can compose in the 21st century are quite literally endless — traditional styles of tonal harmony, timbral music, improvisational music, graphic scores, film music, computer music — the list goes on an on. As such, the most crucial skill for the contemporary composer is his or her ability to hone in on a unified idea, and then to be able to create a plan for executing the clear expression of that idea. This is no easy task, but the cultivation of this skill — applying creativity directly to problem solving — will help students in every facet of their lives. Studying composition teaches us how to better organize our lives, how to better express ourselves in conversation, and how to mentally organize and manipulate complex concepts.

The first semester of the composition class is very much focused on these more generalizable skills: we will spend the semester discussing various pre-compositional planning strategies, formulating and refining some compositional plans of our own, looking to existing works of art for guidance, and getting familiar with notational conventions. The second semester of the class will be geared more toward preparing a new work for our end of the year performance. Some weeks we will simply have open work days, when students will spend the entire hour working on their piece, and I will come around to help individually as needed. As the deadline approaches, we will work together to budget our time — there’s never enough time! — and as we move into the rehearsal phase, we will discuss how to best communicate our compositional goals to performers.

ISA Composition Accolades: 

  • Dante Freund's work The Yellow Wallpaper was selected for performance by the ISA Chamber Orchestra (May, 2018)
  • Sarah Stelzer's work Musical Mentality was selected for performance by the ISA Chamber Orchestra (May, 2019)
  • Works by Dante Freund and DJ Wang were selected and performed by newCELF in Wales, United Kingdom
  • Emily Wilson, Noah Hankin Samuel Hummel, Raaghav Tiwari, Dante Freund, and DJ Wang will have their Fluxus compositions published in newCELF's Fluxus Workbook
  • Joyous Hippopotamus by Samuel Fifield Larsen, DJ Wang, Emily Wilson, and Keshav Gandhi was selected and aired by the Australian radio festival Moonah Community Radio
  • Flute and Piano works by Sarah Stelzer, DJ Wang, Samuel Fifield Larsen, and Emily Wilson were selected for performance by DuoMotive for a Northeast Summer Tour (now online).