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Music Theory and Piano Study: It doesn’t have to be drudgery

Music Theory doesn’t have to be drudgery

If I turn the clock back to my early days as a piano student, I can say without a doubt that I absolutely HATED “Music Theory” or anything remotely related to it. And I can clearly thank my very pedantic teacher, Mrs. Schwed for this aversion. She made the hefty German army look like a bunch of weaklings when she hammered out the names of chords and keys. I didn’t know what hit me!

A complex vocabulary of “triads,” “inversions,” and “modulations” was like pig Latin, and such dizzying labels seemed completely removed from my pieces.

That’s not the way it should be.

The elements of music theory should be woven into the music we assign our students from day one.

For example, a Primer like Faber’s Piano Adventures, offers the opportunity to teach the PARALLEL minor by replacing E with an Eb in Lesson Book, p.24. Why wait for Red colored Book, Level 1 to expose young pupils to the “sad sounding” minor, as compared to the bright and “happy” Major. The word PARALLEL doesn’t have to attach to this discovery until a later time, but an awareness of bi-tonality can be imbued a lot sooner than most teachers would plan.

And how about having beginning students transpose the “C-D-E-F-G March” into different keys, exploring C Major/minor, through E Major/minor as a start.

What’s wrong with introducing a flat in the early phase of study. It works with “Hot Cross Buns,” for example, p. 6, Primer Performance Book.

Faber begins Primer Piano Adventures with unlabeled black notes but abandons them by page 19, deferring to a sea of favored white notes. Why postpone an early sharp or flat among the whites? Insert it when opportunity knocks!

Theory is Wedded to Music-making

Middle C fixation has already been regarded in many progressive quarters as stultifying, so why not similarly reject theory isolation from the nuts and bolts of PLAYING.

Let’s open our eyes to a wider universe that INTEGRATES theory into the pieces we assign our pupils, making the DOING, BEING, FEELING, of music-making allied to a deeper understanding of its form and content.

Fast forward the clock to the Intermediate stage of learning. By this time, the student should have had decent exposure to scales and arpeggios around the Circle of Fifths. A Fundamentals of Theory series, such as the one produced by Keith Snell and Martha Ashleigh is a valuable companion if tied to repertoire-based study.

Kabalevsky’s “Clowns,” for example, sets up a perfect illumination of the Major/minor bi-tonality, and has a crisp and catchy staccato frame that engages students. Why not run with it and make annotations directly into in the music.

In one or two pages, (depending on the edition) a teacher can map out A Major and A minor in a close temporal relationship (two bars at a time) and compare a middle section that has the theme INVERTED or notated “upside down.” It’s not a stretch to perceive a change in tonality. The ostinato or repeated bass line fleshes out a transition to F, with its Major/minor duality reflected in the treble.

This engaging composition, tightly packed with harmonic duality, is a wonderful vehicle to teach an aspect of theory that would otherwise be spoon fed in an unappetizing way. (In worksheet form)

In this vein, I can say with perfect honesty, that the assignment most ignored or forgotten, relates to THEORY. Examples of student responses: “Ugh, Did I have to do it?” OR “I was too busy to remember.” More often: “I forgot that I had a theory assignment.” Sometimes a pet is used as an excuse in an insalubrious way. By then the student has used up the usual time-worn pretexts for forgetfulness.

Composing can be a motivator:

Finally, a word about composing as a vehicle for learning THEORY, especially in the formative stages of piano study. Right now I have a 7-year old student with 6 months of study under his belt who has been nursed along on Piano Adventures, and transposes most of his MAJOR sounding pieces to the Parallel minor by lowering the third. He thinks nothing of it and enjoys the tonal/emotional contrast. As a follow-up to bi-tonality exploration, he’s composed a phrase in C Major (five-finger position) followed by the same in the parallel minor.

Why not enrich his treble melody with a bass line? (That’s where the teacher’s assistance comes in) Inserting a bass part is a great springboard to understanding how a melodic outline fuels the choice of bass. Filling in voices as the process continues, creates an awareness of chords and later amplifies their function in a particular key or keys.

For certain, “Piano Students as Composers” is worth another blog, but I will defer that discussion to a later time. For now, I think of composing as an additional creative activity embedded into lessons.

For the Advancing Student

For an advanced player, theory should be interwoven into the fabric of learning so that it becomes second nature. (Add in a hands-on knowledge of scales, arpeggios and chords in every key and the joy of music is deepened)

Unfortunately, too many students who are technically proficient, lack an adequate understanding of how their pieces are composed. It’s like residing in a house with a shaky foundation.

For teachers who acquire transfer students with little if any theory knowledge, they’re faced with a huge ground-up endeavor to make up for lost time. But it’s worth the effort.

In summary, music theory shouldn’t be considered as archaic as Latin. It’s a living, breathing part of piano study that widens a student’s musical horizons and makes practicing more meaningful.


Supplementary video:

I sent an adult SKYPE student in Anchorage Alaska, a tutorial on “Major,” “minor,” and “diminished” chords that fed directly into her study of the J.C. Bach Prelude in A minor, p.2. Such an infusion of theory advanced and solidified her learning.

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