One of the main struggles I have in lessons is getting my students excited about their theory work. I try to do theory with most students at the end of the lesson if there is time, and then I give them a weekly assignment. Sometimes, the response I get is groaning followed by incomplete work the next week. I have yet to figure out if the assignments are not completed because students don’t read through the lesson notes I write for them when they practice, which can’t be the case since they are checking off the days they practice, or if it is intentionally avoided. I know that playing pieces is way more fun than written work, but is it really that bad?
You might be asking...is theory work that important anyway? Isn’t the point of lessons to learn new pieces and move on to harder ones? The answer to all of these is yes, however, the student will be more successful and gain more skills if they have the theory knowledge to understand their pieces.
I think there are a few things to consider when deciding which route will be best in getting students to follow through and do the written work. I have to assume that my students are doing their theory without the help of a parent, although if a parent is able to help, that is encouraged. The type of theory book they are given really does matter; there are various method books, each with their own theory book. Some method books move rather quickly with concepts, while others are slower, so choosing the right book for the right student is key. Most theory books present the concepts in a fun and engaging way, whether it’s using notes on the staff to finish words to a story, going on a treasure hunt, or answering questions as if the student is on game show. A common theory book we use called Just The Facts is a bit drier, but it is the best prep for our students to take the state theory test each year. So as teachers we really do have to consider some factors when choosing books for each individual student.
What’s the best way to get students excited about “boring” theory work? I’ve had a lot of luck with giving incentives for completed theory assignments!! Music bucks are a great short-term reward- if students do extra theory work, they can earn a buck per page. A long-term incentive is working hard to prepare for the state theory exam, and then receiving a medal for scoring a 90 or above. Sometimes I let students test me on my theory knowledge or aural skills, which makes them feel like they are the teacher and they get to correct me if I’m wrong- a little taste of power can go along way! So, the next time your child wonders why they have to do their theory, you can explain to them that it’s an essential part of playing an instrument and will actually help them learn (and even memorized) their music much quicker!
I’ve been playing sonatinas before I ever knew what a sonatina even was, so everytime I’m asked what a sonatina is, I am kinda caught off guard! As we are preparing for many of our students to participate in the Dallas Sonatina-Sonata Festival on December 10th, we thought we’d share why learning sonatinas are important!
Sonatinas are short sonatas, which means “a piece that sounds on a musical instrument” in Italian. They have been an important form throughout music history and were originally developed in the Classical Era (1770-1820). Hundreds of sonatinas have been written, and composers still continue to write them today. Sonatinas either have two, three, or four movements, and the movements tend to have more than one theme or melody. Each movement depicts a different character, and are usually differentiated from each other by tempo markings, meter, and/or mood. What each sonatina has in common is that they follow a certain form, or structure.
For example, some movements of sonatinas are designed in three part form, or ternary form, labeled as ABA. There is the main theme (A), a second theme is introduced (B), and then the return of the main theme (A). Ternary form can usually be found in the first, second, and fourth movements, although you can see other forms in these movements as well. Third movements are usually in rondo form. In rondo form, the main theme (A) always returns before a new theme is introduced.
So why play a sonatina? Playing a classical piece of music is important in the development of every budding pianist. Learning these classical pieces gives the student a way of learning sonatina form, completing a challenge, and the dedication of working hard on a piece.
The sonatina festival is essentially a recital of sonatinas played by students from across the metroplex. Each student plays one movement from the sonatina from memory while they are critiqued by a judge. These critiques are wonderful to get- as much as what we tell our students help them improve, hearing it from a judge is fantastic!! Be proud of your student for learning a sonatina- they are learning a core piece of music as a pianist, and it’s not an easy task!
A lot of people ask me what age should their child start learning about music, and their guess is usually around age 4 or 5. While this might be a great age to begin studying an instrument in private lessons, there is a lot of learning that needs to happen before then. The real “window of opportunity” for music learning is from birth to age 5. How do you get a child ready for private lessons when they are so young? The answer is through music immersion, or exposure to a rich musical environment.
As a certified Music Together teacher, I firmly believe that attending music class should start before their first birthday. As a parent, you simply have to provide your child with this environment. Although babies are in “receptive mode”, they observe and absorb sensory experiences and respond to music in different ways. Outward responses become more advanced as the child grows older. I love to share this story of a family who attended my Music Together classes for years in Chicago. Abigail was only 6 months old when she started coming to my class, and she eventually completed the 3 year curriculum. Once you finish the curriculum, you start again with the first collection of songs. When we returned to the songs from when she was just an infant, she sang every word of every song in the collection IN TUNE. Her parents were amazed; I think they finally believed me after all of the times I told them that she is learning even though she cannot outwardly “participate”. A relatable comparison is language development; you have to expose your child to elements of speech (talking to your child, reading books, singing, etc.) in order for them to develop it.
So what exactly are the skills that are gained from music class that will help prepare for private lessons? The two main things are a sense of steady beat and tonality. Within the first lesson, I can see if a student has a good “internal metronome”- can they play a piece with a steady beat, or do they slow down and speed up at different parts? Developing the internal metronome is a big focus in early childhood music classes, and it is primarily achieved through movement and instrument play. Tonality in layman’s terms is the structure, order, and spacing of pitches. A child who has been training his/her ear in music classes for a few years will be able to sing “in tune” and display a beginning understanding of pitch spacing.
Besides preparing your child for private lessons, music classes also do wondrous things for general development. According to research studies, children who participated in interactive music classes before age 7 have more sophisticated language skills and extensive wiring in the corpus callosum (the nerve bundle that connects the two hemispheres in the brain). Whether or not you have a strong desire for your child to study an instrument, music classes are beneficial for brain development upon which other learning depends on.
To learn more about music immersion and the importance of early childhood music, click here
To learn more about the stages of music development in children, click here
We all need a little motivation to work towards long-term goals, regardless of our age. For our students, we decided to continue a little incentive that I started quite a few years ago called Piano Bucks.
The idea began around 2003 when I attended one of my first national conventions. I remember seeing music money being sold at one of the vendor booths and thinking that I could design something like that myself! When I got back, I designed a printed my own little “bucks” and rewarded my private students with them every time they did something great! It could have been answering a question, or working extra hard on a piece, or completing their theory work. These bucks became so popular with my private students that they began telling my (at the time) group students about them- which then led me to give them to my group classes.
Once my students started earning bucks, they had to spend them! So, I came up with prizes for the students to buy; of course, they loved that! A prize box is brought to lesson at the end of every month. This really helps students to not get distracted every single lesson wondering what they can buy, and it also forces them to save a little too! Being able to visit the prize box each month gives them even more incentive to earn bucks because they see things that they want to buy! So, the student goes home and plans to practice every single day till their next lesson! The day of music buck prize box, students are always so proud of what they can buy and what they earned.
Upon creating Music SO Simple, I really wanted to keep the piano buck tradition that my students loved so much. So, since we added voice to the mix, we decided to call the “music bucks” instead. Our students love music bucks- they help motivate our students to practice, officially making it a habit. We also use them as a reward for learning festival/recital pieces, memorization, and performances. In addition, we give them as gifts for Christmas, when they are chose for student of the week, and birthdays. Music Bucks are seriously a win-win! It’s not rocket science- it just works!