Teaching theory to teenagers

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I have several teenage students. Some I have taught for several years and others are tranfer students. They all seem very uninterested in theory. We discuss it during lessons, but they are not consistent in doing any theory work I assign. They are too busy or they forget or lose the homework. Are there other ways I can teach them theory? I am concerned that if any of them pursue music beyond my teaching or into college, they will not be prepared.

-- Becky (EHetrick@aol.com), April 05, 2001


You could try to just teach theory through the music they are working on. Maybe they don't like doing pages of theory because it's too much like a lot of the seemingly pointless pages of arithmetic they do at school. If you point out how the chords, phrases, etc., work in their music, they might be more interested. Also, don't just stop at "What chord is this?" Try to get them to figure out WHY the composer put a certain chord in a certain place. For instance, this could be as simple as "Why do you think this composer put a C chord at the end of this piece? Why didn't he put a D chord?" The answer, "because the C chord makes the piece sound like it has ended. We call that the tonic. It happens in most every piece. Until you get to the 20th century, when you start getting composers who write without ending where they started (play example), or who write in 2 different keys at once (play example), or who don't write in any key at all, so that no note is more important than any other (insert foray into 12 tone technique. 12 tone music, tho not too thrilling to play, is great for kids who like games, finding the row, retrograde, inversion, etc.)" THis is a longwinded version, but it might get them to see WHY they are practicing scales and arpeggios, and that writing out key signatures and intervals is not theory. Theory is understanding how composers put music together. , maybe in a passage a composer will use a certain chord, and when the passage returns again, he may have changed that chord. You could show them that really good composers don't just keep repeating the same things the same ways. They vary things. Not only in chords, but also in ornamentation, melody, etc.

-- Julie2 (knerr@uiuc.edu), April 05, 2001.

Oops. I pressed the wrong button. Where there is a comma and no capitalization is where I meant to start a new paragraph for a new, off the top of my head, perhaps not making sense all the way, example.

I guess I'm going off for so long about this because before I came to grad school, I thought theory was being able to label chords. So when my theory professor asked, "Why do you think Bach put that chord there?" my answer was, "Who cares, it's a ii6/5 chord." But the more we got into the analysis, of really looking at how the composer put a piece together, the more interesting it got. This can be as simple as discussing ABA form. Let's see if I can brainstorm a list of possible theory topics. Hopefully at least one would be able to penetrate that 13 year old glazed over look! Hey this is great! I haven't thought about this before! I'm glad you brought up this question, because I had glazed over teenagers too!!! Hmmm.

Analyze a piece for motives Analyze a piece for structure Composer a piece with similar structure, or from one motive Improvise cheezy pretty Yani music on a I vi IV V I progression Change it to minor Play folk tunes by ear. Harmonize them Have one person play the melody and one person play the harmony. Transpose one person's part to a different key. Presto! Bitonality. Listen to and look at bitonal pieces. Find a really simple 12 tone piece and analyze it Write your own 12 tone piece Read books about composers Read articles about interesting stuff Learn 12 bar blues chords and different bass boogie patterns Learn blues scale to improv over boogie patterns Put articulation marks in a Bach minuet. Have them make sense. Download Coagula program and play around with computer music (I don't remember the web page, but will try to find it) Learn to solfege with hand symbols Learn the ii7-V7-I progression and find it in jazz tunes in a fakebook. Learn that progression in every key Learn the tritone substitution (I think Lee Evans talks about this in his books) Learn to tap 2 against 3 and 3 against 4 rhythms. Clap or chant or sing rhythmic rounds or rhythmic fugues (I've seen these somewhere) Try playing a simple jazz leadsheet. Experiment with making it cheezy by adding chromatic passing tones and wild arpeggiation. Change a 4/4 piece to a 3/4 or 6/8 and vice versa. Listen to music Compare and critique 5 different recordings of the same piece Ok. my brain is running low. Anyone care to add any ideas?

-- Julie2 (knerr@uiuc.edu), April 05, 2001.

Julie2 - Thanks for the advice. I have thought that anaylzing a piece before, during, and after we play it would be a good way to teach theory. Thanks for the example. Sounds like I'll need to do some preparation as well. My work with teens shows me that they want to know how what you're telling them affects them NOW. So directly, applying theory to their specific piece or pieces may get their attention. I have always thought one of my goals as a teacher should be to train a student to teach themselves. Before I play a piece, there are certain things I look for. To me, it seems common sense. But, my students may need some coaching. Thanks for letting me think outloud and for giving me some direction.

-- Becky (EHetrick@aol.com), April 05, 2001.

I have also learned that getting older students to do written theory work is difficult. Today I find students are being assigned MUCH more homework that ever before. When this is the case (esp. after 3rd-4th grade), I try to make the written work as meaningful to them as possible. A lot of theory work can be assigned using a manuscript book. Give students short, structured assignments in composing, using whatever concepts they are currently studying. I find most students care ALOT more about stem-direction, harmonic analysis, note- values, scales, etc.....when we're working on their own pieces. You can always encourage them to write variations to one of their favorite pieces; this will give them a harmonic and rhythmic foundation to work with, and will help the students who have trouble composing initially. (stress "change one note, add one sharp"...ANYTHING to get the ball rolling!) Theory concepts make more sense and stick when they come AFTER the music. Relating to theory as a COMPOSER is much more satisfying and meaningful than relating to it as a THEORIST! If your students are anything like some of the ones I've encountered over the years.....they are definitely NOT "losing" their homework! (those sly little devils!)

-- John Bisceglia (Bisceglia2000@yahoo.com), April 06, 2001.


first off all students get scared when they hear the word "theory" Then they often block and don't want to learn anything about it. If you present it in a different way, they might enjoy it and become proud of their knowledge. For example if they play a piece and it goes to the dominant you make them stop right at that point in the piece and ask, "would you end the piece like that"? The anwer is "no". Then you aks them WHY, you cannot stop a piece there. You explain them that you are not "home" at this point. You make them continue playing the piece when they reach the end, you aks them the same thing and explain that now they are "home". In the next lessons you only aks them at certain points "home or not", after a while they develop some interest what makes us feel that the piece ends, then you explain about 1-5-1 progressions. Keep it simple and onlyy play simple examples.You can now add subdominants etc step by step. They are going to like that kind of theory after a while. But besides that I have a lot of students you have theory books from the beginning and then it is normal to them to bring it to every lesson and to study theory. I hope that helped a little.

-- "My name is B., Andy B." (anmb7078@griffon.mwsc.edu), April 07, 2001.

Regarding in-lesson analysis, you might be interested in some ideas I've posted: analysis article.

-- Jon Ensminger (jlens@cybrzn.com), June 10, 2001.

I think the idea of having them analyze a song they are doing is a great idea as previously suggested. This is what I like to do for teens who are adverse to theory. Give them a blues progression and a blues scale Bass Clef, Left hand: C -7 9 to a F 13th chord notes E Bb D no root Eb A D Right hand Blues Scale: C, Eb, F, F#, G, Bb, C Then explain the intervals or distance from C to Eb is a minor third C to F is a perfect 4th, C to G is a perfect 5th and so on. Then have them invent their own melody line on top using tripulets and other rhythmic approaches. ie C Bb G, C Bb G, or run up the blues scale like C, Eb, F, F#, G, Bb, C using fingering pattern 1 2 3 4 1 2 3 If you feel the above chords might be too difficult or that they might not understand how they work, just use the c minor or c minor 7th chord in root position to F 7th in 2nd inversion C Eb G Bb C Eb F A Have them alternate back and forth and them move up to F minor 7th to Bb 7th and back again Then transpose into D minor moving up a major second with the blues scale looking like D F G G# A C D and so on This has worked well for me over the years, of course this is just a smattering of what I work with, but my students do learn to love their theory and do extremely well on their RCM Theory Exams here in Canada, Hope this helps Bryon Music Web Site PianoTeacher.org, Music Teaching Resource Site

-- Bryon Tosoff (webmaster@pianoinstructors.com), July 24, 2001.

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