Monday Mailbag – 5 Tips for Teaching Theory to Transfer Students

I have a 13 year-old student girl who came to me this fall after having had piano lessons for a number of years, but she has little to no theory background. She plays better than average, but doesn’t know simple things like what a sharp does to a note. The songs she played when she first came were Early Intermediate level, but although she could play the songs it was obvious that she did not understand what she was playing – no dynamics, no accents, no crescendos, etc. – just notes. She is more than willing to learn the information. I need suggestions on a method book that can cover the theory she is so far behind in and not be boring for her to study at home. She is in the Talented/Gifted programs at school so intelligence is not the problem. She also wants to play songs that are too difficult for her to learn right now and gets frustrated that she cannot execute the more difficult levels of music. We started a new song in 6/8 last week and she seemed so defeated when she could not understand that an eighth note would receive one beat in that time signature. I don’t think she had ever played in 6/8 time before – much less had to read the rhythms.

What a familiar scenario! Not only have I taken on numerous students that fit this description…I was one of them. I have learned so much from my own teacher and from experience as I’ve worked with gifted students who just didn’t have the benefit of a comprehensive music education when they were first starting out. Here are my suggestions:

  1. Accept the student for where they are at. It’s easy to get frustrated when a student doesn’t know even the most basic music concepts, but maintain a positive attitude toward the student and envision the two of you working as a team to learn and grow musically.
  2. Be open and honest with the student. I often say things like, “You play with beautiful expressive sound, but it’s obvious that you aren’t familiar with a lot of the symbols and terms on the page. I think you’ll be able to learn them really quickly if we work together to come up with a plan so that you can increase your knowledge in this area.” If you include praise for what they do well, clearly identify the area that needs work, and express belief in their potential for growth, the student will usually jump on board eager to learn! In the case of the 6/8 time, I might say something like, “Thanks for working so hard to understand this new time signature! Most people have a really difficult time when they first encounter 6/8 because we’re so used to play with the quarter not getting the beat. 6/8 is a compound time signature [then I usually do a little illustration using a white board and marker to explain what a compound time signature is as opposed to a simple time signature], so it can be confusing, but once you get the feel of it, it’s really fun to play!”
  3. You are your best teaching resource. That may sound odd at first, but rather than relying on a particular method or workbook, especially in cases like this, it’s important for you to have a very clear idea of where you want the student to end up in terms of theory knowledge. You can do this via making a checklist of sorts or just by maintaining a conscious awareness of what the student knows and where they are headed. Then, you can use every piece of music, every technical exercise, every tune learned by ear, etc. to integrate a comprehensive understanding of music theory.
  4. Aim for comprehensive understanding not just reiteration of facts. This is one of the main reasons I don’t use theory books, at least until students are quite a bit older and already have a good grasp of the relationship between theory concepts and the music they are playing. Talk about theory concepts as they relate to everything that the student plays. Also, aim for meaningful discussion to help gauge a student’s level of understanding. Ask questions like, “Do you know what it means to say that a piece is written in a particular key?” “How can you tell whether this piece is in G Major or e minor?” “Can you explain how to figure out if this chord is a major or minor chord just by looking at it and not playing it?” And so on. When a student can confidently identify and explain concepts to you, that’s when real learning has taken place.
  5. Use supplemental resources to reinforce theory concepts and transfer head knowledge to applied knowledge. This is one of the reasons I put together the 5 for Fun! booklet of games and activities for the lesson. It’s a fun way to test students and see how well they really understand the theory. It’s also really helpful for each student to have a manuscript book that they can use for notating compositions, writing scales and chords, etc. For older students who are ready for a more systematic approach to written theory, I love the Just the Facts series written by Regina Roper and Ann Lawry. And of course there are tons of printable worksheets and resources available on-line to address various theory concepts!

These are more along the lines of underlying principles rather than specific suggestions, but hopefully it will help give a framework for working with transfer students with varying levels of theory knowledge. It’s very exciting to work with these students and watch their eyes light up as they discover a world of musical understanding that they never knew existed before!

Remember, if you have a question you’d like to contribute to next week’s Monday Mailbag, leave it in the comments below or send me an e-mail sometime this week with Monday Mailbag in the subject line!

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