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#3160913 09/30/21 06:43 PM
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I've recently picked up some piano students from my instructor (she is on extended medical leave) and most of them did not have their theory knowledge where I would like it, so I've been going pretty hard on that, spending about 5 or 10 minutes in their half hour lessons.

They are learning in Faber books and my question is should I stop where they're at? For instance, I've taught them how to construct scales and chords, where key signatures come from, inversions of chords, etc. A couple of them are in Faber book 4 which talks about minor keys, harmonic minor so I discuss that as well. But for the students who are only on book 3 for instance, do you think i should continue teaching theory that is beyond what Faber shows? Like if the books don't talk about minor keys, should I still go ahead and introduce those ideas? And even beyond this, discussing ideas of secondary dominants, borrowed chords, common tone diminished, etc.

I guess I'm asking if their theory knowledge is beyond what they play/are exposed to, does that seem reasonable? Or is it unnecessary? I like teaching theory a lot and I know they pick up on this, and they're generally good with theory too, so I don't want to stop just because they won't be playing secondary dominants in Faber anytime soon. What do you guys think? I think back to taking music theory classes in college, and what I learned was far beyond what I had played and helped me understand more music going forward and give me ideas for my own works.

Last edited by CodySean; 09/30/21 06:47 PM.

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I’m not a teacher, but my opinion is that 30 minutes is not a lot of time for a lesson, and if I were a student, I’d much rather use the time to work through things at the keyboard than to use the time learning theory, especially if it’s going to be a while before I am using that theory in the music I play. I think some time with theory is great, but I don’t know that it should be consuming so much of the lesson time.

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Originally Posted by CodySean
Like if the books don't talk about minor keys, should I still go ahead and introduce those ideas? And even beyond this, discussing ideas of secondary dominants, borrowed chords, common tone diminished, etc.

I guess I'm asking if their theory knowledge is beyond what they play/are exposed to, does that seem reasonable? Or is it unnecessary? I like teaching theory a lot and I know they pick up on this, and they're generally good with theory too, so I don't want to stop just because they won't be playing secondary dominants in Faber anytime soon.
I assume you are teaching piano playing. Not composition or music theory.

I'd say: don't waste valuable lesson time teaching theory which your students aren't actually using in their playing - especially if they are kids. Far more important that you teach them basic aural skills: simple intervals and simple rhythms, and how to recognize them. I assume you're not teaching jazz piano (if you are, all bets are off and you do what you like), and your students didn't ask for all that theory.

I teach my students just the amount of theory for what they need to play and make sense of what they are playing, no more and no less, which means basically following the ABRSM (UK) syllabus grade by grade. The RCM (Canada) and AMEB (Australia) are very similar, which is another way of saying that there is a very good reason why the vast majority of piano students benefit from this step-by-step learning (where everything they learn theoretically makes sense practically, and they make use of what they learn in a practical way, without jumping the gun on this or that depending on a teacher's whims). So, when they learn their first minor key piece, they also learn about the scale construction of minor keys in general and about how the 'relative' major key is related to it etc. And most definitely, I don't burden them with learning key signatures (nor scales & arpeggios) of keys in which they won't be playing any pieces for a long time.

As for secondary dominants, borrowed chords, common tone diminished, etc, those are a complete waste of time to learn unless your students are more interested in jazz theory than in learning to play the piano. I'd just show them how composers like to modulate to the dominant (etc), and how to recognize when that is happening. And that's about it.

If I was to get a student who has moved to me from another teacher after three years of lessons, I'd be very annoyed with that teacher if the student knows what "borrowed chords" and "common tone diminished" are but doesn't know what allegro con brio means, nor how to tell the difference between (and recognize) simple duple, triple and quadruple time, or major and minor thirds, and how they impact practically when they play.


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I would like to echo what others have said - Don't waste valuable lesson time on theory! The lesson is for practical application not theoretical knowledge. You might give them some homework and ask a few questions at the next lesson to check that they understand but don't spend a vast portion of the lesson (10 out of 30 minutes) explaining theory. If I had a teacher doing that I would be highly annoyed with them.

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I take your guys points and I assure you we are spending ample time learning to play the pieces properly and making progress through the Faber books, which themselves ask questions like "write down which chord is the IV, which is the V, which is the I." Indeed, they even highly recommend using their own theory books as you go along with their lessons... Though they probably just want to sell more books :p And I don't like the idea that they just know what the numerals are in the key of G for instance (rote memorization) rather than understanding where those come from.

But not going past what they'll soon use makes sense.

Last edited by CodySean; 10/01/21 10:13 AM.

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Some general thoughts.

I've coined a term "practical theory". This means as opposed to, and someimes juxtaposed to pencil and paper, and as a first thing. For example, the first time a student plays a minor chord or a major chord in a piece of music pointed out. You can also have the student turn major into minor by lowering the middle note. You can have students learn all the "white" major chord (C, F, G), the bl.wh.bl (Eb, Db, Ab) etc. and turn those into minors. When a piece is in C major, or Am, or D major - you point out those key signatures and things to discover in there. This can be a short mention. The "practical theory" is like an experience base for the later written theory. Like "Remember when we explored.....". Or not even that - when you say "major chord", or "key of C major", you are mentioning something that is familiar to the student that s/he can relate to.

This also goes with pedagogy of the formative years, where concrete precedes abstract.

In the RCM program, I think that the first level theory exam is written at gr. 3 or gr 4. So should the student start to learn theory 3 years in? Should something precede this? Do you gradualy bring in these things so that you're not suddenly cramming "omg, it's year 3, we've gotta get this theory under our belts" (a European teacher told me of exactly that scenario).

The rest is too vast to explore in a thread. Like what is theory, how is it used or taught, how does it mesh with regular instrument studies. I had to look up "common tone diminished" simply for the terminology. I've seen the dim chord presented in a playful, easy way, as a magical chord that can be turned into other chords which then lead somewhere - with quite young children catching on. Like: how is a thing taught?

What do you teach when, why, and how? What types of learning activities do your students do in the studio and at home to reach these things? Can any of these be exploratory and fun? What can they discover in the music that they are working on, along the way?

Just some random thoughts.

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The most Important is those students are interested.


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1. note C
2. CDEFG
3. both hands, call the C position
4. C is the home note
5. on the staff
6. call it a scale
7. show how to lower the 3rd to make it minor
8. teach half steps (along with sharps and flats)
8.5 play a piece in M or m
9. sound out a major scale
10. write symbols for whole step and half step
11. teach tonic and dominant
11.5 transpose
12. leading tone
12.5 I chord, V chord, etc...
13. various minor scales
13.5 key signatures/circle of fifths
14. relative minor
14.5 arpeggios, various chords
etc...etc and round a different way
and I know I missed things...
when does this become theory, as opposed to learning?

I tell parents and students that I teach in levels.
For a young one, the home note is what makes it sound finished. Older, I call it the tonic. Then chords, triads, inversions...it keeps building...

Teach at their level of understanding.

As for the OP's question, I am fine with 5 mins of theory during the lesson. I watch them do it, and sometimes ask them how they know they are doing it correctly. Having them talk it through is educational.

I say,
I want my students to be able to "see it, say it, read it, write it, play it, do it!"

If a motivated student is really interested in something, I tell them, "this will come up later for you, but I am giving you a sneak peek because you can handle it!- here is this concept and how it applies. Have fun with this!"

No two lessons, and no two students are ever alike.

Good luck!


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Originally Posted by zonzi
The most Important is those students are interested.
I was going to mention this too. Some students are very clearly interested in the theory and enjoy the "aha" moments of discovering the inner workings. I explain to all my students that the reason why I'm teaching them how to construct scales and construct chords (which is about as far as I've gotten with most of them) is because it will help them recognize patterns in the future, which will in turn help them learn more music. They won't just see the notes GBD but will know that in the key of G it's the tonic, or in the key of C it's the V, and they will have expectations and preconceptions about the function of that chord. This sort of pattern recognition, to me, is integral to learning music properly and makes it far, far easier to memorize pieces in the future. I do not teach music theory as "rules" that must be applied (like avoiding parallel fifths or any of that sort of stuff), I teach it as a gateway to properly understanding the language of music in order to be fluent, and I emphasize that having a firm, solid foundation of the basics will go a long way with them in the future, akin to learning basic addition and subtraction before finally moving onto multiplication and division, then algebra...etc.

As a practical example, I was teaching a piece out of Faber (yellow bird I think? in book 3. it introduces syncopation), and the tune is in G, but it does that really pretty diminished chord thing where it plays G A# C# (which you can re-spell to look like G Bb Db). I asked my student what chord that is if it's two minor thirds in a row. She responded that it's a diminished chord. I believe this sort of understanding of music goes a long, long way, and while she may not quite get yet why she needs to know it, she will eventually.

Now having said all this, I will agree that 10 minutes in a half hour lesson is too long, and I usually don't intend to go that long but it sometimes happens. Plus, there has been a lot of catching up to do with the ones who are in Faber book 4 and don't even know what a major scale is. In fact, I've explicitly told some of my students that now that we're caught up on theory, I will spend less time each week and just make sure that knowledge is still fresh in their minds, because I absolutely do not want them to lose it.

Last edited by CodySean; 10/01/21 01:39 PM.

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Have you asked the parents for longer lesson times? The worst they can answer is "not now".

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Personally, I like the Faber Theory books along with the Lesson books. Most of the transfer students I get have only been working out of the Lesson books, and I have one student now in Book 4 who plays the repertoire pretty well, but can't identify a I or V7 chord, even though that gets introduced way earlier (I forget which level). So, even though he's more than halfway through Book 4, I asked him to get the Theory book and we're starting at the beginning.

Yes, spending inordinate amounts of time at a lesson talking about theory wouldn't be great. But I think it's a real missed opportunity to let a student get to Level 4 or 5 and not know basic theory. There are so many opportunities to demonstrate it in the repertoire, and it doesn't even take that long to introduce a concept like V7 chords and then point it out every single time it occurs in music. (They'll get it eventually!)

Also, I like the Theory books because they're not just about worksheets and exercises. There are pieces in the books too to reinforce concepts. So it's not like you're handing them a big book of exercises to do separate from pieces.

I think you're doing fine. I love it when kids ask interesting questions and I get a chance to introduce something new to them.

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Originally Posted by quodlibet
Personally, I like the Faber Theory books along with the Lesson books. Most of the transfer students I get have only been working out of the Lesson books, and I have one student now in Book 4 who plays the repertoire pretty well, but can't identify a I or V7 chord, even though that gets introduced way earlier (I forget which level). So, even though he's more than halfway through Book 4, I asked him to get the Theory book and we're starting at the beginning.

Yes, spending inordinate amounts of time at a lesson talking about theory wouldn't be great. But I think it's a real missed opportunity to let a student get to Level 4 or 5 and not know basic theory. There are so many opportunities to demonstrate it in the repertoire, and it doesn't even take that long to introduce a concept like V7 chords and then point it out every single time it occurs in music. (They'll get it eventually!)

Also, I like the Theory books because they're not just about worksheets and exercises. There are pieces in the books too to reinforce concepts. So it's not like you're handing them a big book of exercises to do separate from pieces.

I think you're doing fine. I love it when kids ask interesting questions and I get a chance to introduce something new to them.
Thank you. I was a bit flabbergasted at all the responses in here chastising me for teaching any theory at all. It seems once I more thoroughly made my case, the naysayers vanished...

I also do this exact thing you're talking about. Now when I'm teaching a piece out of faber with a student, I point to the chord and say "What chord is that?" they usually respond correctly, and then I ask them what the roman numeral is. heck, even in the faber lesson books (at least level 3, maybe earlier) they want you to put roman numerals on the I, IV and V. And I stress to my students that it's super important to know where the I, IV and V come from, rather than just memorizing what they are in that piece. I.e. if it's in G the chords are G, C and D. That rote memorization is not good for understanding music. But pattern recognition most certainly is.

And I agree with you that a student getting to book 4 or 5 and not knowing how to construct major scales and chords seems a bit funny...I'm surprised my piano instructor neglected such ideas, actually.


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Cody
Have you resolved the issue of 30 min lessons? I’m not a teacher, but I don’t see how you can teach a level 4 student what they should know in 30 min.

I realize that I was an outlier. But when I was a child taking lessons from my neighborhood teacher, at some point fairly early we switched from 45 minute lesson per week to two 45 minute lessons per week.

One lesson was repertoire; one lesson was theory, ear training and piano duets (as a treat). I didn’t realize the duets were actually learning 😊

I’m sure my own experience colors my feelings about 30 min lessons, but I hope you will think about it.

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Originally Posted by dogperson
Cody
Have you resolved the issue of 30 min lessons? I’m not a teacher, but I don’t see how you can teach a level 4 student what they should know in 30 min.

I realize that I was an outlier. But when I was a child taking lessons from my neighborhood teacher, at some point fairly early we switched from 45 minute lesson per week to two 45 minute lessons per week.

One lesson was repertoire; one lesson was theory, ear training and piano duets (as a treat). I didn’t realize the duets were actually learning 😊

I’m sure my own experience colors my feelings about 30 min lessons, but I hope you will think about it.
One student asked his mom but she decided it was too expensive. I'm considering it more now. The school I teach at doesn't offer 45 minutes, but I will float the idea to my few students whom I think could greatly benefit from an hour. For instance, I haven't been able to get around to any ear training nor any listening due to time constraints. I have a young adult student with some experience who wants to learn these skills and more. Though now that most are caught up on theory I plan to fix that.

Indeed, with two or three of the students a half hour never seems enough. My instructor used to have them do warm-ups and scales but those always take about five minutes, so most days I skip them.

And just so it's clear, I was referring to Faber level 4 which is about RCM grade 1 or 2

Last edited by CodySean; 10/05/21 12:50 AM.

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I'm a lurker, not a teacher, but I'd recommend handling this on a student-by-student basis. If someone shows interest, I see no reason to assume your job is just to teach them to play. When I was a student (a very long time ago), I was very interested in learning theory (ended up majoring in it), but teaching theory to young students simply wasn't done.

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Originally Posted by tend to rush
I'm a lurker, not a teacher, but I'd recommend handling this on a student-by-student basis. If someone shows interest, I see no reason to assume your job is just to teach them to play. When I was a student (a very long time ago), I was very interested in learning theory (ended up majoring in it), but teaching theory to young students simply wasn't done.


Why do you think you are the only curmudgeon who learned theory as a kid? You weren’t.


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Don't all piano students need to know some basic theory?

Otherwise they don't know how rhythm relates to the time signature, or how keys relate to the key signature, and so on. That can be taught in the normal course of lessons, just like scales and arpeggios and basic ear training.

But anything much more than that, like harmonic progressions 1c-V7-1 and so on (and diminished/augmented chords) is better left for a few years. It is more important that the student develops his ears first so that he can actually hear how harmonic changes sound, and what they mean. There is no point in over-burdening a student in the early years with names of various chords depending on context.

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Originally Posted by liliboulanger
Don't all piano students need to know some basic theory?

Otherwise they don't know how rhythm relates to the time signature, or how keys relate to the key signature, and so on. That can be taught in the normal course of lessons, just like scales and arpeggios and basic ear training.

But anything much more than that, like harmonic progressions 1c-V7-1 and so on (and diminished/augmented chords) is better left for a few years. It is more important that the student develops his ears first so that he can actually hear how harmonic changes sound, and what they mean. There is no point in over-burdening a student in the early years with names of various chords depending on context.
I teach students diminished chords because they occur naturally in a major scale and are also embedded in a V7 chord.

I also teach how to construct scales so that they understand where key signatures come from. To me, it's not good enough to know the key of D has two sharps, but why it has two sharps. I eventually transition this to the circle of fifths. They catch on to Constructing scales and those sorts of implications pretty quick.

Last edited by CodySean; 10/06/21 01:56 PM.

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Originally Posted by CodySean
I teach students diminished chords because they occur naturally in a major scale and are also embedded in a V7 chord.

I also teach how to construct scales so that they understand where key signatures come from. To me, it's not good enough to know the key of D has two sharps, but why it has two sharps. I eventually transition this to the circle of fifths. They catch on to Constructing scales and those sorts of implications pretty quick.
Are your students adults?

If they are, did you ask them whether they really wanted to spend lesson time (even if "only" 5 minutes of a half-hour lesson) on stuff they could easily learn from a book, if they are inclined to......or whether they'd rather spend the time on getting their technical and musical skills on a higher level, and polishing what they have already learnt?

If they are kids, are you sure they really understand what you're talking about - especially as they aren't playing anything in, say, D# minor anytime soon?

Can they actually hear the difference between a diminished chord and a minor chord when in the context of a piece? Are they playing any piece that contains a diminished chord?

I know from experience that people don't change their colors (or rather, leopards don't change their spots), and find ways to justify what they want to do, but........


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Originally Posted by bennevis
If they are kids, are you sure they really understand what you're talking about - especially as they aren't playing anything in, say, D# minor anytime soon?
You may have misread this:
Quote
to know the key of D has two sharps, but why it has two sharps.
The key of D ....
has two sharps.

Not D# minor. Even eventually going to it - since only major keys were mentioned.

Everything the OP listed is what the teacher I study with teaches, including to young children. If you know how to teach it, that's always the thing. i.e. how the teacher teaches it.

Quote
Are they playing any piece that contains a diminished chord?
Does any piece contain G7, or A7, or C7?
Quote
If they are, did you ask them whether they really wanted to spend lesson time (even if "only" 5 minutes of a half-hour lesson) on stuff they could easily learn from a book, if they are inclined to..

You have a point. I wish my first teacher had asked. Then we could have started on theory 4 years before we did. When I did ask, he said "I didn't know you were interested." and I thought, "If we use theory in music, why do I first have to express interest?" Does it need to be taught in lessons? No, and yes. I learned on my own, but we reviewed and explored. Things were pointed out that I would have missed; occurrences in actual music and exceptions to the rules I was learning.

I do think theory can also be learned at home, including for children. But input and checking by a teachers seems a huge plus and maybe even necessary.
(why all the negativity?)

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