In One Ear and Out the Other: What Natalie’s Students Taught Her About Teaching Music Theory

This article was written by Natalie Weber, NCTM. Natalie has operated a private music studio in Derby, Kansas since 1998. She teaches a wide range of ages in private and group lessons and loves dreaming up creative ways to motivate and inspire her students. She is the founder of MusicMattersBlog.com, a site for teachers that is devoted to inspiring creativity in music education….and making sure everyone knows how to identify key signatures!

In One Ear and Out the Other Facebook 1

When I was in high school, I attended a three-week music camp where the most pressing question on my mind was, “How can I know what key a piece of music is in?” I was determined to find the answer to this elusive question. And I did.

A daily music theory class during the music camp helped me acquire that knowledge, along with many other fascinating concepts which I felt sure I was hearing for the first time.

I say “felt” because, upon returning home and rummaging through years’ worth of piano books and theory workbooks, I was shocked to discover that I had completed many exercises identifying key signatures.

But somehow, in all those years of completing assignments, I had failed to actually learn. I bemoaned my loss, but even more, when I opened the doors of my first piano studio shortly thereafter, I resolved that my own students wouldn’t suffer the same fate.

Wake-up Call

To avoid falling into the same trap as my own teachers, I knew I needed to talk about theory all the time. So I explained, re-explained, and re-re-explained theory concepts to my students ad nauseam until I was sure they had heard me.

But were they really learning?

A number of years ago I made a shocking discovery. During a routine lesson, one of my intermediate students was struggling with a portion of her music, so I pointed to a note and asked her what it was. She hesitated. After far too long, she finally arrived at the correct answer.

I was mortified.

She had been taking piano lessons from me for years, but she didn’t know the names of her notes?! How was she supposed to work through these difficult sections if she didn’t have the foundational knowledge??

3 Keys to real learning

Since that day, my continual quest as a teacher has been to teach in such a way that students actually learn.

But how do we do this?

And how can we be sure our students actually know what we think they know?

Let me share 3 keys I’ve learned which help me more effectively teach piano students and assess their learning.

1. Cultivate Curiosity

An old Chinese proverb says “Tell me and I will forget; show me and I may remember; involve me and I will understand.”

teacher involving student

Here’s how I see this play out in a piano lesson when a young student finishes playing his piece and then casually asks what the pedals on the piano do.

  • I could tell them how each of them functions and then move on to the next part of the lesson,
  • I could show them how they work by depressing each one and playing a few keys or having them play them to see what effect they have, or
  • I could involve them by asking him to see if they can figure out what each of them do, then pop open the piano lid and let them explore, guiding them as needed to play keys, depress pedals, and arrive at a correct conclusion which they can explain to me.

This may take a chunk of our lesson time which I had intended to spend on something else, but they have truly learned how the pedals work.

Even more importantly, they have taken personal ownership for learning and understanding a musical concept – a habit which I want to encourage in them for every area of their musical studies.

2. Throw Away the Theory Books

As you might have guessed from my aforementioned experience, I am less than enthusiastic about having my students work dutifully through theory books. This is because I am so passionate about making sure my students truly understand music theory.

I know that sounds like a contradiction, but I believe it’s far too easy for us as teachers to rely on a theory book to do the teaching while failing to adequately teach students ourselves.

Music theory is not an esoteric subject confined to black and white pages; it is the very lifeblood of the sounds we create!

For that reason, a jar of colorful scale blocks sits near my piano so that we can arrange scales and construct chords with hands-on activities, and dry erase boards with blank staff transparencies and assorted magnets are easy to grab from the studio closet allow for quick interactive games and exercises during a lesson.

That’s not to say that written work doesn’t have any place in piano studies; I simply mean that theory should not be confined to disconnected and dispassionate workbooks on the side.

For those occasions when I want to reinforce a particular concept with students during the week, a blank keyboard picture and music staff are included on the back of every assignment page I give my students. This allows for adaptable and customised assignments which correlate with what we’ve discussed at the lesson.

For example:

  • If a student is learning a minor scale as a technical exercise, they might label the keys on the keyboard and then notate it in both clefs on the staff.
  • If we’ve analysed an interesting chord progression in one of their pieces, they could copy the chords and label them, then improvise on the same progression during the week.
  • If they are just learning the names of the piano keys, I’ll draw arrows and have them label those specific piano keys.

In sum, theory is inextricably linked with the music they are playing – not divorced from it.

In my experience, if you discuss concepts endlessly during lessons, students can’t help but learn and understand the theory which lives in their music.

3. Ground Them with Grammar

Grammar might sound like a strange term to associate with music learning, but it comes from the Classical education model of the Trivium (meaning the three roads or stages of learning).

The Trivium’s Stages of Learning

The Trivium includes a Grammar stage, a Dialectic stage, and a Rhetoric stage.

A helpful analogy is to think of the process of making a batch of cookies:

  • In the Grammar stage, the student must acquire the raw knowledge which is necessary for the task at hand. For the baker, this would mean knowing what each of the ingredients and tools are which the recipe calls for.
  • The Dialectic stage is when the various pieces of knowledge intersect with each other to create deeper understanding. Now that the ingredients have been added, they are being mixed into a dough.
  • The Rhetoric stage is when a final product is delivered. The cookies are served! All learning and acquisition of skills depend on this process.

In the context of a piano lesson, it’s helpful to think of the final product first: What do we want students to be able to do?

There are many possible outcomes we desire, but let’s say we want them to be able to perform a piece of repertoire with excellence (e.g., correct notes and rhythms, proper dynamics, musical artistry, etc.) That’s a lot of ingredients!

And far too often we expect students to deliver an excellent finished product even though we have neglected to supply them with the grammar, or the raw knowledge, they need in order to succeed.

Course-Correction

Let’s return to my wake-up call from earlier, when my intermediate student revealed she didn’t know her note names.

Upon that discovery, I conducted a studio-wide survey of sorts to assess how well the rest of my students knew their note names. I dusted off a set of flashcards and timed them to see how long it took to get through the deck.

The results were depressing.

I declared a studio-wide crisis and confessed to all of my students that I had failed them as a teacher by not insisting they master the basics (at least in this one area, for starters!)

We stopped everything else and I established a flashcard challenge which every student was required to pass in order to return to their other assignments. Drastic? Yes. But necessary, in my opinion.

We worked for weeks drilling flashcards and playing all kinds of games until every student could name the notes instantaneously and play them in organised groupings within a given time frame.

Every one of my students succeeded and, when we held our year-end evaluations that semester, every one of my students said it had been their greatest accomplishment.

flashcard

Needless to say, flashcards have returned as the surprise secret ingredient in my studio which we use every week to help students master everything from note names to key signatures to intervals to chord inversions. We only spend about two minutes out of every lesson on flashcards, but they are built into our practice incentive theme for the year so students are highly motivated to master whatever set they are working on each week.

My students have gained confidence through real knowledge, and the continual repetition of music fundamentals – appropriate to their own skill level – helps me quickly assess what they actually know.

This Grammar stage knowledge then forms the basis from which they can understand and relate other music concepts in the Dialectic stage and, in my experience, ultimately succeed in the Rhetoric stage.

Making Sure Students Actually Learn

As I discovered the hard way, teaching is most effective when we:

  1. Cultivate curiosity in our students by involving them in the learning process in meaningful ways.
  2. Throw away the theory books and take ownership for helping our students make meaningful connections between the music they are playing and the concepts they are learning.
  3. Ground them with grammar by ensuring that students have the raw knowledge they need to succeed in their musical endeavors.

If we do that then maybe – just maybe – they’ll know how to tell what key a piece of music is in by the time they are in high school. 🤩

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