Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Question of the Week: March 21, 2011- Using Theory Books

When I started student teaching back in high school (I won't date myself here... ;) ), my mentor didn't use theory books. In fact, she used an entirely different method than I use now.

So when I started out on my own and switched to using Piano Adventures, I was, understandably so, a bit prejudiced against the use of the corresponding Theory Book. There were a number of reasons. First, as a piano student I hadn't really been exposed to systematic theory training perse. I did do some theory testing as a young student, but that stopped as I got older. Second, I can still remember my horror when one of my teachers in middle school tried to give me a theory book. I wanted absolutely nothing to do with it. Third, it was outside of my teaching comfort-zone, and as a new teacher I wanted to minimize the uncharted territory as much as possible.

So for a few years, I supplemented. We did theory in lessons and group lessons, and I made scales and pentascales a part of the lesson, but no theory books appeared. For technique I used the Treasures in Technique series published by FJH rather than the corresponding Technique and Artistry books.

Then just in the past year or two, I decided to do the unthinkable! I introduced both the Theory and Technique and Artistry books into my teaching repertoire! It was a bit of a learning curve, but I managed to adjust.

However, as this term continues, I'm starting to rethink that decision yet again. I am pretty pleased with the Technique and Artistry supplement, but Theory has been a bit more of a challenge.

Theory is the part of the weekly assignment my students most often overlook, and complain about the most. I try to assign it as homework for the students to do over the week as a supplement to what we've learned in the lesson (after explaining the requirements of course) but I often find myself wasting lesson time trying to get kids to 'finish up' uncompleted pages.

So here's my question:

How much emphasis do you, as teachers, put on theory book assignments each week? Is theory inseparable from lesson and technique, or do you supplement with other theory materials? Is it too much to expect every child to do work in a theory book each week?

A few further thoughts from me. I had two students (siblings in fact!) who both recently moved up to the next level in Piano Adventures. After some deliberation, I decided not to provide theory books for them. Neither one practices as much as I'd like them to, and I'd rather they spend their limited practice time focusing on technique and the material in their lesson book rather than adding something else to the mix. We do worksheets and games from time to time to drill theoretical concepts, and the students actually look forward to these breaks from the normal routine.

Contrast this with another younger student who actually throws temper tantrums each week (so I'm told by his mom) when she tries to get him to do his theory homework...

I'm still undecided on this issue, and as you can see, am in the process of a few 'test cases'. But in the meantime, I'd love to hear some feedback from other teachers!


  1. I use Piano Adventures too with my students. And I am a stickler about theory. Maybe it's because I personally LOVE theory and am able to learn it quickly. I usually take a very positive approach to theory with my students- if they see the teacher groaning about theory, they are less likely to learn to enjoy it. But if the see the teacher getting excited about theory, it peaks their curiosity. I personally have never had a student resist theory- in fact, they ask me for more of it. There are some weeks where I will not assign new theory if I think they need more time to learn a certain aspect. At the same time, I think it is VERY important for the student to see the connection between the theory and the practical pieces they are learning. We have to help them see the vast world of potential that is in front of them by pointing out to them where they have applied (and how they can continue to apply) their theory in the songs they are learning. So, basically, yes, I think it is inseparable! I do not believe a student will develop into a good pianist without it. I am working on master's level classical songs myself for my pedagogy degree, and if I didn't know theory, it would be a lot harder to learn them. The composers used theory patterns on purpose when writing, and to discover those patterns and chord structures is just amazing! It is easier to memorize songs when you can follow in your mind exactly HOW you are easing in and out of all kinds of keys (while remaining in the original key signature) just by theory. OK, that turned out longer than I intended...I feel inspired to post about this topic on my own blog now! :)

  2. I do almost all of my theory teaching through games - the students never complain when they have the option of a game!

  3. I totally know where you are coming from because I have been there. Several years ago I ended up ditching the corresponding theory books (my only students that use theory books are my students that participate in the state music achievement program). Instead I have them do theory games at home for their theory assignment at www.MusicLearningCommunity.com. While I may have a few that I STILL have a hard time with getting their game assignment completed (eventually they get them done but sometimes it takes reminding the parents), it's a huge improvement from when I used theory books.

    I also play plenty of games and teach the theory as they are learning their pieces.

  4. I teach theory almost completely through games and activities at private lessons,group lessons and in my summer camps. I have found that not only do students learn it more quickly this way, but their retention is greater. I have also recently started a computer lab in my studio which I use to reinforce theory we are learning. My students respond much better to this approach rather than written theory books. In fact, I recently had one of my moms approach me about teaching theory to another of her children. He takes harp lessons with another teacher, but is struggling with theory. She is thrilled with my hands-on approach to this area of music.

  5. WOW! Thank you all so much for all your helpful feedback. This has been a tough issue for me recently...feeling like I am somehow not teaching something correctly because my students just aren't getting into theory (but then remembering my own attitude toward it!), wondering how to counter that, and trying to decide if there really is a pat answer for each student.

    I firmly believe that theory is an extremely important facet of the lesson, the question is how can I get it across in a way that students enjoy (or at least don't hate), retain, and can apply to their repertoire.

    As it's the middle of the term I'm not going to try anything drastic, but this at least gets me thinking about the future. I'm going to be writing several follow-up posts on this issue- I have too much more to say for just a comment- you all have inspired me and gotten my creative juices flowing :) THANK YOU!

  6. PS- Jennifer, thanks for the tip on MusicLearningCommunity! Definitely going to check that out. Sheryl...would you mind filling me in a bit more on the computer lab? Did you blog about it? I'd love to find out more- so many teachers seem to be going that route.

  7. Sarah, I set up a computer lab about 6 months ago. As it's a new thing in my studio, I've wanted to start slow, not spending too much money until I could see how much of a response I would get from my students. I subscribe to MusicLearningCommunity, I purchased MusicAce Maestro and also a couple of other simplye computer programs for younger kids. I already had Finale, so that is something I use with my older kids. I have found that for those students who take advantage of the computer lab, it works great. I put together a list of what I want them to accomplish and the 30 minutes after their lessons is spent working on the computer. Those students are learning much quicker than students that don't take advantage of the computer lab. I can give you more specifics about what I give them for a lesson if you want. I hope this helps!

  8. Sheryl- thanks so much for the additional information. This is really helpful!

  9. Hi Sarah,
    Just found your blog via Music Matters blog. I also use Piano Adventures and this year am trying to be much more thorough with the theory! Usually it gets tacked into the last five minutes of the lesson ... Sometimes we spend more time on it. But here's the thing I'm finding ... Some of my students LOVE theory, they can't get enough of it! So what I am doing is starting all new students with the PA theory book for their level, and see how they go. Some of them will continue with every level and some we will skip, according to their ability, time availability etc. so hang in there, is my advice! If it's killing some families to get the theory done then you get to play games in lessons :-) with those students, I guess.
    Here in Australia theory is kind of compulsory if you want to do piano exams, for 6th grade you need to do 2nd or 3rd grade theory, and it's too hard to catch up later if you haven't started early! Doing theory also helps my students do well in high school music lessons.

    1. Fiona,

      Thanks so much for your feedback. I can totally identify with the "last five minutes of the lesson" comment. ;)

      I've been trying to be a LOT more thorough with this recently, though, but checking their theory homework FIRST THING while they warm-up with scales or technique. Then we look over it together, discuss problems, and put it aside. Later in the lesson, if we move on in their other books, we'll re-visit the theory book and discuss what their assignment for the week will be.

      I'm finding that students will be MUCH more likely to complete their theory if:

      a) they know I'm going to check it every week!
      b) we discuss the assigned pages for the coming week during their lesson.

      I don't at this point have any students who LOVE theory- wish I did! Any ideas on how to inspire that type of response? I'd love to hear any advice you might have!

  10. I try to weave theory organically into the lesson, where it comes up in the music. Also, when doing technique work such as scales, we will talk about intervals, patterns, etc. I rarely use theory books, because there is so much fluff and games that are difficult to understand. Oh- I use the Faber series, for the most part. Alfred is ok. BUT, when programs through the MTNA come around, I give them worksheets and hold a separate theory session for those taking the test. Not sure if this is the best way, but since parents cannot afford to pay for longer lessons (understandable), this method has been the trade-off.

    (sigh)- I most often feel like there is a better way to go about teaching things... so happy to have found your blog!

    1. Morgan,

      You sound exactly like me! That's what I did for many years when I first started teaching. Then I decided to give the Theory books a try. Several reasons brought about the decision- the main one being that I just wasn't having time to cover it all in lessons and felt like the Theory assignments at home would help to reinforce concepts. However, I've found that it's often a source of stress for both me and the student.

      I currently don't have all my students in Theory books, but I've been feeling like I don't have a very good across-the-board approach. My current approach (some in theory, some not, throwing some theory discussion and games into lessons when we have time...) needs some help!

      I LOVE your idea of separate theory sessions. Maybe I should think about doing that over the fall- holding monthly optional theory classes that students can attend if they're interested.

      Hmmm...the wheels are turning! ;)