Music theory is a subject that can make the heart sink; it’s often associated with dull work books and exams (pass g5 theory to take g6 practical) that must be taken. However theory is always taught, to some degree, when an instrument is learnt; it includes note reading, basic rudiments and music terms and signs. Without it, playing would be limited. When theory is linked imaginatively to pieces, learning can be quicker and more fun. I often give my pupils a Quick Quiz before they play a new piece: what will we count, what is in the key signature- play me the scale, which bar has only minims in it, where does the first bar come back again? etc. With older pupils it can include questions about form, style, ornaments, modulations and cadences. All this can be effectively linked to sight-reading, scales and arpeggios, music history, composer bios, aural and technique.
Only when theory comes out of the dull box we often consign it to, can it become truly relevant. Holistic learning where every aspect of playing an instrument is linked is the most effective, thorough and long lasting way to learn, and theory is a key part of this. For example: teach a scale by demonstration, by listening, by reading, by writing in the notes, by colouring in the piano keys, and by naming the fingering, embeds it deeply. Teaching theory as you go along using tutor books with linked theory pages, separate theory books, or your own ideas in a manuscript book, will pay off in the form of good sight-readers and intelligent, aurally aware pupils. They will also make life easier for their classroom teachers when GCSE music looms. Teaching theory is like teaching a child to read; it gives them access and understanding to all the music written.
Luckily the rather deadly books I remember as a child are long gone. Harris shows us how to teach holistically in his books; Bullard’s Joining the Dots series links technique, sight-reading, solos, duets and improvisation together beautifully; Lina Ng and Ying Ying Ng have colourful theory books where games reinforce learning; and if you must do exams Theory is Fun, Cox and Pass Grade 5 Theory, Dingle, take the sting out of it and the valuable First Steps in Music Theory, ABRSM, helps teachers help pupils. There are also the more tactile aids such as flashcards, magnetic note boards, card games and some fantastic music theory apps- all children enjoy theory taught via technology of some sort. So get out that new grade 1 piece, draw a mind map of theory activities to help teach it and include a quick quiz, some flashcard composition using the piece’s notes, use Flip-a Rhythm to reinforce the note values, find theory exercises related to it and challenge your pupils to learn the new musical terms in it for the next lesson. Music theory is the language of musicians and it opens up the world for us all.
Written by Fiona Lau
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