Which topic is frequently neglected? Which topic is all too often starved of attention? Which subject is repeatedly only dragged out when its presence is required in order to make the rest of the house look pretty?
The neglected, the unloved, and the much maligned, music theory.
But why is theory given such a second class status in musical education? Why is it so often poorly taught, and regarded by students as nothing more than a stepping stone to get past that Grade 5 ABRSM block?
Relevance is the biggest issue in theory tuition today.
A great deal of theory lessons are taken up with making sure that a certain grade exam is passed (usually grade 5), rather than attaching understanding to the practical side of the lessons. A good example is the common way of teaching key signatures – by writing out a chart with the cycle of fifths, and writing out how the majors and the minors fit into this chart. This works in an exam setting (of course it does), but if we assume a student is sitting at the piano and looking at a piece of music with a key signature of six sharps, do we really expect him or her to grab a pen and paper, write out a long-winded graph, and after scribbling away finally work out the key? Or would it be better to teach that the major key will be a semitone above the last sharp? Is it better to give a student a multiple set of theory exercises to write out and work through? Or are more skills gained by grabbing a copy of Bach’s Well Tempered Klavier, and working out the keys of each piece (without using a pencil, even once). Grade 4 ABRSM asks for knowledge of the primary chords. And yes, our students can work out the chords by knowing that they are in root position, so they can simply read the bass line, but in reality that isn’t going to get them very far in music. Why not teach from the start to work out the entire chord? It doesn’t take long. In exam terms they will have to do it anyway, and in non-exam terms, they will also have to do it anyway.
Again, we come down to relevance. How relevant are we, as teachers, making theory to our students? How often do we have students who have passed their grade 5 theory (often with distinction), but have no clue how to work out the key of the piece of music they are playing?
But what about those students who are not taking ABRSM grade exams?
Theory, as part of a continual musical education is vital to all students. However, there is a point at which we do have to look at people who are not interested in ABRSM exams or in pursuing music as anything other than playing the piano as a hobby, and wonder whether taking the whole grade 5 syllabus is worth it, and in these cases, I think it is well worth thinking about teaching theory in a more topic based method. Does a student need to know about keys? Undoubtedly yes. Does he need to know about the viola clef? Possibly, depending on his other musical interests, or any compositional curiosity. Does she need to know about trills and ornaments? Most definitely. But is anything gained by using an exercise book rather than lots of repertoire? Probably not.
Questions I regularly ask myself when teaching theory…
1) Do I teach theory as a essential part of music education?
2) How is theory relevant to each student?
3) How can I teach theory in a relevant way to each student?
4) Does my individual student need the exams or just the knowledge?
5) How can I integrate theory and practical for my student?
Theory is not just an exam, it is a relevant part of music.
For more details about my teaching practice, including prices, vacancies, and information on distance theory marking, or learning piano as a beginner, intermediate, or a post-grade 8 student, please go to lynnephillipspiano.moonfuit.com