Theory-Musicianship and Composition

Coordinator – Dr. Aaron Jacobs
Faculty Liaison – Dr. Stephen Taylor

COVID-19 UPDATE: The Illinois String Academy will continue to lead instruction 100% online throughout the Spring 2021 semester, or until University policies are updated to allow for ISA in-person instruction to occur. We are accepting new students and offering free trials, and all of our previously cancelled offerings have returned this semester in online formats.

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. 

  1. Private tutoring—scheduled directly with one of our instructors.
    • Open to students of all ages and advancements. No prior instruction in music is required. 
    • Instruction is available in any musical subject (e.g. theory, ear-training, composition, etc.)
  2. Classes—meeting on Saturday afternoons throughout the academic year. (Cancelled for Fall 2020)
    • Musicianship class: Open to students as young as age 7. No prior instruction in music is required.
    • 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. Chia-Ying Chan – Theory
Dr. Zhanna Lehmann – Theory / Ear-Training
Dr. Tatiana Shustova – Theory / Musicianship


Trevor Thompson – Assistant Coordinator, Illinois String Academy

Saturday Class Schedule

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

Orientation and Dates of Instruction 

Fall 2020 Calendar

  • Theory, musicianship, and composition classes are cancelled for the Fall 2020 semester. 

Spring 2021 Calendar (tentative)

  • Orientation and theory assessment – 2:00 PM, February 2, 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; Saturdays (13 dates)
    • 2/6, 2/13, 2/20, 2/27, 3/6, 3/13, 3/27, 4/3, 4/10, 4/17, 4/24, 5/1, 5/8
    • Academy will not meet during the second Saturday of spring break: 3/20

Attendance Policy

  • Only one absence is permitted per semester. Additional absences or systematic conflicts (sports seasons, marching band, etc.) should be discussed with the Program Coordinator, Aaron Jacobs. 
  • Extenuating circumstances affecting student attendance will always be taken under consideration at the discretion of the Program Coordinator. 
  • 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


  • Age range: 7 to 11—with exceptions based on instructor consent 
  • "Experiencing music" - "interactive" 
  • Fun and games
  • Notes on the staff
  • Basic ear-training
  • Basic rhythm training 

Theory 1

  • Note values, treble and bass clef notation
  • Introduction to time signatures and rhythm
  • Introduction to intervals 
  • Sharps, Flats, enharmonic equivalents
  • Key signatures
  • Melodic transposition
  • Tetrachords, scales
  • Primary triads and inversions
  • Harmonization with I and V
  • Musical forms and styles

Theory 2

  • Complete intervalic literacy
  • Triads and inversions in all qualities 
  • Introduction to seventh chords
  • Cadences
  • Musical forms and styles continued
  • Introduction to part writing 
  • Non-chord tones

Theory 3

  • Continued work in triads, inversions and seventh chords
  • Continued work in musical forms and styles
  • Diatonic roman numeral & figured bass literacy 
  • Intermediate part writing, including non-chord tones and cadences
  • Modulation, structure, texture and form 

Theory 4 

  • Requires mastery of materials in Theory 1–3
  • Chromatic Harmony, including secondary dominant chords, modulation, and augmented sixth chords. 
  • 18th and 19th century phrase models and forms
  • Two Part Counterpoint
  • Musical Analysis of small chamber works 
  • Musical Analysis of repertoire and one long form or notable work each semester
  • A Capstone Independent Analysis Project for interested and returning students


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).