Monday Mailbag – Not Using Theory Books

[Note: Sorry for the delay this week!]

You mentioned in your most recent Monday Mailbag post that you rarely use theory books with your students. Do you use other books instead? Or just do it all at the piano?

Almost all of our theory work is done directly at the piano and is based on their repertoire and/or technical exercises. And honestly, most of the theory is just applied theory rather than written theory. Written theory takes the form of analyzing chords and patterns in the repertoire, writing in counting if necessary, or notating compositions in their manuscript books. If I do feel like it would be beneficial for a student to do some written theory work to aid in their comprehension, we either do it on a dry erase board at their lesson or I write up a customized assignment on the manuscript paper that I include in the back of their assignment books.

My aversion to theory books is primarily due to the fact that I grew up doing written theory assignments every week, but by the time I was a senior in high school, I still didn’t know how to tell what key a piece of music was written in. There was a complete disconnect between what I was playing and the answers I was filling in in the theory books. I really want my students to understand concepts and to recognize theoretical concepts as the building blocks of music. For the most part, for me, that means forgoing theory books in favor of more concrete and musically relevant activities.

Once my students demonstrate understanding of the underlying principles of music theory, I often recommend completing a written theory course. Also, at the end of the year we have our state music progressions evaluation program and my students usually fare just fine on the theory portion of the testing.

I’m curious to know what others think. Has anyone else found the same thing in regards to theory books? If you do use theory books, why do you think it is beneficial for your students?

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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