Rethinking How We Teach Theory Teaching and learning theory in real-time

While in college I started teaching piano lessons regularly. I could play piano, compose and improvise on a standard college level – but teaching was a whole different animal. Thankfully, I had great teachers growing up and could call upon my experiences with them to help the lessons become productive as quickly as possible. The methods were helpful to a new teacher because they had written out instructions for teachers and students. They also isolated concepts into lesson books, theory books and performance books.


Fast forward to today – it’s impossible to imagine introducing and teaching theory the way I used to. I took up so much valuable lesson time teaching theory and checking their theory homework. I eventually came to the realization that learning theory as a separate activity does very little to help students perform better and understand what they are playing – even though we assume that’s what it’s for.

I’ve had so many advanced transfer students over the years who could ace any theory test I threw at them and impressively play their Scriabin and Prokofiev. But when I asked them to improvise a short four- or eight-measure phrase using the same devices that Scriabin and Prokofiev used in the piece that they had obviously spent a lot of time on, one of two things would happen:

  1. They would look at me like I was crazy. As if they could never touch anything like that on their own – even though they clearly demonstrated that they knew the theory concepts when I quizzed their theory knowledge.
  2. They would try to play something but wouldn’t be able to get more than a few notes in before giving up realizing that they didn’t know how to do it. And the notes they did play sounded more like New Age piano music or Mozart – not Scriabin or Prokofiev.

In this situation (which is a really common application of theory in the real world) all of their theory chops only served them in one place – their theory tests or theory assignments. And a little bit when creating something New Age sounding or classical era influenced.

Digging into theory has always been one of my favorite parts of playing, teaching and learning music. Several of my students have won international composition competitions and received scholarships to colleges because of their compositions and arrangements. Many are now making a living arranging and composing music. We hit theory really hard in the lessons. I just no longer treat it as being separate from performance and practice. And I no longer have separate books or classes to teach theory – or even set aside separate time in the lessons for theory. We are always working on theory and we’re always working on performing… The two are no longer separate in my mind, my classes or lessons. I can’t imagine teaching a theory class to a group of students without having them performing the theory concepts for or with each other.

Here are some basic examples of how we can link learning repertoire and theory in lessons:

  • Transpose: Learn passages or whole pieces in all twelve keys. Have them start thinking in Roman Numerals and scale degrees rather than fixed notes. Even if they only get the first four measures of an easy Bach, Mozart, Haydn, etc. in all twelve keys; they will be on their way. I talk in those terms rather than measure numbers. For example, “Can you play the section that goes from the IV to the iv to the I in the keys of C, F and A before you play the whole piece?” “Now can you try and make the tonic minor and alter the melody to fit that?”
  • Improvise Melodies: Students learn volumes about resolutions and voice leading when they improvise their own melodies. One of my favorite things to have students do is to have them play the rhythms that Mozart (or anyone) wrote in the melody hand, but make up their own set of notes that sound good with the written accompaniment pattern in the other hand. This opens the door to discussions and demonstrations of voice leading and resolutions in melodies.
  • Compose: Have them write short pieces (or phrases) and perform them for you each lesson. I’ll always be asking the students to compose a four-bar piece that uses the same chords or concepts as their current piece. Then learn to play it in four keys for the next lesson. They don’t have to write it out. It can be in their minds. If they do write it out, I typically make a copy and have other students learn to play it as their reading practice. Then I have a group of students writing pieces for each other and learning them in all the keys… Like musical pen pals.
  • Combine Concepts: Take everything listed above and mix them up. Transpose improvised melodies, improvise over their compositions, transpose their improvisations, transpose their compositions, etc.

There are too many benefits to list here when it comes to teaching this way. However, one of the best things about this approach is that it allows us as teachers to be musically creative in the lessons. This carries over to the students and they begin to think of things very creatively – while mastering the concepts and structures.

The thing I always tell my students (and myself) is, theory means nothing unless you can do it in real-time. In other words, if we want our students to know the interval of a minor 6th really well; they should be able to improvise a melody using only minor 6ths over the tonic, subdominant, dominant and all the other sounds they will ever experience – in tempo, in any key.

Music and theory happens within intervals of time. Our theory needs to be able to serve us in the allotted interval of time between notes, measure, beats and phrases or it’s not very helpful to how we play music.

Real-time theory helps us all be more in the moment when we perform, teach and practice music.