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!