Music Theory–Do we have to?

It seems that with my piano students, they either love theory…or hate it….or THINK they hate it actually!  So many of my students ask me why they need to learn it.  Can’t they just play the piano with having to do that theory? But how can you really enjoy making music or succeeding in your piano performance if you do not know how music works. The study of theory helps with sight reading, technique–those scales won’t seem so confusing if you know how they work and how to write them, and with memorizing your music. Music Theory is the study of how music works and without this knowledge a student is missing a big piece of the pie!

I have always incorporated theory into each and every lesson.  All of my students learn to harmonize scales with primary chords—this is theory!   I also usually assign a page of two of theory each week–this is sometimes met by limited success so I have had to take a step back with some of these students and think about what music theoyr should look like in order to make sure it is a part of each and every one of my student’s education.  If not, then I am not doing my job!  So, here is how I try to make sure each and every student is getting their dose of the Music Theory Vitamin:

1. Pointing out Theory elements in their assigned pieces:  identifying the key, the primary chords, naming intervals, naming notes, clapping rhythms, covering up the time signature and letting them tell me what it is by looking at the measures.

2. Games–yep, even when it looks like I am just playing a game with the student, it really is learning…and they love it! (and here they thought they hated theory!)

3. Group Lessons–I try to incorporate group lessons into the schedule throughout the year and they are perfect for incorporating music theory through games and partner worksheets and activities–it’s also a great time to add in some music history…again the students enjoy them.

4. Theory books–I still think that incorporating a page or two from a theory book is necessary.  Even the smallest student should be able to write a quarter note or draw a bass clef–but hopefully through the games and activities they will begin to realize that music theory really isn’t that bad after all! 😉 My MYC students have H pages of a Bright Ideas book and do a page of two of theory a week.  For my private students I use Piano Adventure Theory books corresponding to the lesson book they are in OR if they are a little older I use Ultimate Music Theory books.

For some of my students, that theory component is vital.  This year several of my students are working towards intermediate and advanced level national exams with the Royal Conservatory of Music.  These piano exams have theory co-requisites.  Which means:  if the corresponding theory exam is not completed along with or prior to the piano exam, they will not receive their certificate.

Since I had four students needing to do their Basic Rudiments theory exam this year, I decided to offer a Saturday morning class.  It was a bit of an accelerated program using these incredible new Ultimate Music Theory books by Glory St. Germain–we completed all the concepts for the exam along with a few weeks of review in only 12 weeks!  And I think they actually enjoyed it! 😉  My own 12 year old daughter was a part of the class–she was one of those students who thought music theory was a bore–and she told me she loved the class and feels she knows so much more about music.  She is convinced that she is a better performer because of it, and that her sight reading has improved immensely by being able to easily identify chords, intervals, notes and key signatures.

These students just wrote their Basic Rudiments exam on May 12th and are waiting anxiously to hear their results!  As their teacher, I am confidant we are going to see some great marks as they were all getting First Class Honors on their practice exams, one student even earned 99.5% on his last practice exam.  But, no matter what the mark, I know they have gained so much knowledge and confidence from our class and I will definitely be offering another one in the fall!

If you are looking for a great theory method check out:

https://www.ultimatemusictheory.com/umt/

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Inspiring Creativity!

The month of May has been full of inspiring professional development opportunities for me, and last Friday’s session really took the cake! Forrest Kinney came to Edmonton to do a workshop on his Pattern Play and Chord Play book series and his 4 hour workshop turned into 5 hours of improvisation and inspiration!

My husband had recently been saying that he’d like to see our own children working not just on practicing their repertoire pieces and technique but also spending 5 minutes each days just making up their own music–not composing necessarily, just creating. Knowing only a little bit about Forrest’s work, I went hoping for some ideas to encourage my children and all my students to create their own music and I came away inspired and refreshed!

Forrest is an incredibly down to earth man and he took the time to really connect with the teachers he was working with, giving us all several opportunities to get up and create with him on the piano—it felt like child’s play!

And so this week, I used some of those techniques with each student. As we drag our poor, tired heels toward the end of the year and prepare for recital, our little improvisation sessions this week have been such a breath of fresh air–even my own husband (who does not play an instrument) sat down with me at the piano and we played an improvisational piano duet with a blues theme. Some of my parents even sat down with me and played and were thrilled to just sit and create! As the week progressed, with each student coming and creating, my excitement grew and I thought how perfect this is for every student.  Then Thursday arrived and with it one of my sweet little students who had had a very rough day.  She arrived late and her dad said she had really not wanted to come.  So I sat down with her and told her about my chance to be a student at Mr. Kinney’s workshop and suggested we just create some music at the piano.  She seemed to like that idea, so I began to play a blues on black pattern and told her to listen and then play whatever she liked on the black keys.  I played and played and played and encourage her to start but she just sat there with her hands in her lap.  Then I thought maybe she just wasn’t feeling connected to blues and started a slower more reflective pattern on white keys and suggested she just play on the white keys.  Again I played….and played…and, honestly, disappointment started to build.  I was so sure that this would work for everyone and after such a high of excitement this week, this felt like such a low.  Just when I was going to stop and return to the regular lesson, she lifted her hands to the keys and started to play….and I broke out in goosebumps! What she played was so beautiful, so haunting and so honestly emotional.  It was amazing.  At first her little melody was timid but it began to build and she added her left hand and I was stunned by the beauty of it! By the time we finished she was grinning from ear to ear and I was holding back tears!  Then I asked her if she’d like to try the blues on black and she grinned again and this time dove right in as soon as I started to play. Wow!  What a great way to finish off the week!

I am really hoping we Edmonton teachers will have the opportunity for a follow up session and with Forrest and more inspiring ideas in the near future, but in the meantime, this has reminded me how important teaching improvisation to my students is and I am determined to make it a regular part of our lessons!

Want to know a little bit more about Forrest??
Check this out:
http://patternplay.com/index.php?option=com_content&task=view&id=18&Itemid=41

Here is an improvisational duet he did with his wife, Akiko: