For the Love of Music- One on One with Dr. Warsaw

In February of 2006, The College Board recognized Andover’s advanced placement music theory course as “the strongest in the world” based on the results of recent advanced placement exams. This soaring standard of excellence is largely due to Peter Warsaw, Instructor in Music. Dr. Warsaw began to study the piano at the age of nine. However, he clearly remembers a love for music predating his first lesson. Thinking back, Dr. Warsaw shared, “When I was six, I heard a piano concert and I thought the coolest thing I could do was to play piano. It would take three more years before I could convince my parents, though.” Dr. Warsaw excelled at the piano throughout his youth, pursuing his music through attending school at Phillips Academy Exeter and then Harvard College. After graduating, Dr. Warsaw freelanced as a private piano teacher while pursuing a performing career. Finding that himself more and more interested in teaching music, Dr. Warsaw began considering a permanent career in education. “When I was at Exeter, I was struck by how important various teachers were to me. I thought I might return the favor. It also seemed like something I would enjoy doing on the other side of the equation.” Twenty years ago, Dr. Warsaw took on Andover’s AP music program in its infancy. “I was passed on a class of three students,” said Dr. Warsaw. “For many years, it was very small.” Today, the course has about thirty students taking the AP each year. Over the past two decades, Dr. Warsaw has served on the board of the AP test writing committee and continues to participate in grading them. In that time, the test and Dr. Warsaw’s class has undergone many developments. “When I first began,” he remembers, “there was two APs, one in theory, one in listening and literature. Theory was a new thing they had just added. It was unclear what was about to happen. It had just started growing, and becoming more popular. Around that time, they asked me if I could be on the AP community and I got to help write the AP exam. Whenever we met we would move around the country we’d do some workshops and help new teachers work with the syllabus. That proves to be a much better professional development. Once I did that, I really felt I understood what the AP was trying to do and how they were doing it.” Brainstorming techniques to create a better program, Dr. Warsaw developed components outside of conventional theory. “I inherited one piece of advice Mimi Revera [the previous theory teacher]: instead of teaching a straight theory course, I should try to add some composition.” The composition component of the program became integral to the program’s success. Despite the anxiety it might cause students at first, it allows students to put their theory to practice. “It’s one thing to listen, it’s another to turn it around and make it your own. I think once you have the experience of composer, you see it differently. You can see what they are thinking.” In spite of leading the same program for so long, Dr. Warsaw continues to keep his classes new and fascinating. Explaining his interest in the material, Warsaw said, “The thing I love about this course is that there is such breadth of skill and knowledge required for students to succeed. First, virtually nobody excels at all the tasks we engage, so everybody can find one or more challenges that stretch them. Secondly, and more importantly, everybody finds one or more tasks in which they excel: nobody struggles in every area; everybody experiences some success.” Dr. Warsaw is as infatuated with his favorite aspects of music as when he first discovered them. Raving about his favorite aspect of music, Warsaw shared, “My favorite is non-dominant sevenths – they’re so beautiful – they open up a whole new realm of harmonization. Once you introduce them, by taking a small leap, you can suddenly understand romantic music. I love that dimension. It opens up so many doors. And they are so beautiful.” Motivated by his passion, Dr. Warsaw hopes to begin a comprehensive understanding of music theory. Explaining his goals, Warsaw said, “To lead of a life of quality, I think we have to examine the world and not take it at face value – challenge assumptions. And for many students, this is the first chance that students have to look in-depth into the study of anything. Up until then is building scales and things like that. Realize that there are whole worlds and universes underneath the surface. You never quite understand music the same way again, you hear so much more.” Outside of teaching the AP theory course, Dr. Warsaw also directs several ensembles and orchestras at Andover. He also performs on occasion, and hopes to do so more in the future. In twenty years, Dr. Warsaw has immortalized Andover’s advanced placement music theory program. Beyond the theory, Dr. Warsaw teaches lessons in learning and passion. “My favorite part of the experience is the ‘Ah-ha!’ expression when students get the recognition response – eyes light up – involuntary smile – that’s the reward, that’s why I do it,” he admits. For the Love of Music