Music theory & improvising. It’s important to have both in our teaching. But, what is the best way to teach music theory? To avoid the mistakes of the past, music theory should above all be done in a timely, hands-on manner that ensures students see the connection between theory & application. One of the best ways to teach music theory is through using the music students are already playing. The other way to combine music theory & improvisation.
Why not just use worksheets?
Worksheets ensure students are focused on one thing at a time, can help them read music better (at least we hope) & have worked for decades. Or have they? I don’t remember what I learnt from worksheets. I learnt from the practical application of theory concepts at the piano. And, in talking to other teachers & students, I’ve discovered I’m not alone. I don’t blame my teachers. Education research has come a long way in the last decades & it will continue to evolve as research is done.
There are a few major downfalls of using strictly worksheets (or even only apps) compared to combining music theory & improvisation. Worksheets are not relevant, disassociate between music & theory, (I know this is going to be polarizing) more about the teacher than the student. Unless the activity requires active listening, active involvement & a chance to make their opinions, students learn to parrot back the ‘right’ answer without thinking on why it’s ‘right.
They aren’t relevant because theory without real-world application means nothing. It’s a start, but life is much different than in a highly controlled setting. We have seen this in almost every category of theoretical thought. Theory means well, but the reality can be far from the utopian ideals they come from.
Disassociate between theory & reality
Students typically see a disassociation between music & theory. Think about how many students don’t know the names of notes on the staff even though you have ‘taught’ it many times. And, this can be after years! (Yes, this has happened in my studio as well which was the wake-up call I needed to do things differently.)
Worksheets are more about making things easy for the teacher than the student. After teaching in the school system, I can definitively say it much easier to mark worksheets than open-ended projects. I could fly through my marking when there was a clear right or wrong answer. To avoid biases, it took a lot more time & effort for those open-ended projects. Hearing from my students & my kids, worksheets are more often seen as “busy work” than anything else.
But, it doesn’t have to be all negative. There is a way to consistently teach music theory in a way that makes sense to students.
Music theory & improvising
5 Tips to get students improvising
- Keep it simple & focus on one idea at a time. This might be keyboard geography, meter, tonality, rhythm pattern, dynamics, or articulation … it could be anything. But, focus on one idea at a time.
- Chords give great structure both for the overall structure & melody notes! These are the basis of Western music & have one of the biggest impacts on student playing.
- Listen to many examples of the main idea behind the improvisation. Give your students many ideas to fill their improvising toolbox!
- Get students singing (or at least listening to you sing). What we can sing or audiate is something we have a much higher probability of playing.
- Always link it back to something they are playing or will be playing to really make it exceptionally powerful.
How to tie it all together
In my studio, you may hear something rather surprising. “Do you remember last year when you played [song name]?” “Do you remember music lab from 2 years ago when we listened to music with [music theory concept]?” My students have fun during music lab & lessons. But, what has helped their learning exponentially is continually showing them how it all ties together.
Does it work? Since going online, my students needed to become a bit more independent. After all, they couldn’t rely on Ms. Rosemarie to point to the page or guide their hands. This was when I saw the massive payoff of making the connection for my students. They remember what we have done & are starting to tell me “Do you remember when …? This song is like that!” And, so I will continue to make those connections for them until they can do it on their own.
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