Much like teaching “technique”, teaching “theory” has come to mean something very narrow and blinkered in much of the piano teaching community. When music teachers say their students “do theory,” many mean their students complete workbook pages at home.
Theory is much more than that.
A student who has good theory knowledge is one who can not only play well but can also explain to you what they are playing and why. They are able to analyse the music rather than just perform it.
This level of understanding is not always necessary in every area at every stage. But it is necessary for students to be able to learn independently, which really should be our ultimate goal – to work ourselves out of a job.
Preemptive theory is the idea of teaching concepts, symbols or ideas before your student encounters them in their pieces.
A related goal is to teach sound before symbol, or Frances Clark’s order of sound-feel-sign-name. While these are certainly excellent teaching philosophies and simple to understand, I find that in reality beginner teachers struggle to put them into practice.
Start with simply preempting theory concepts and you will be on the right road. Make it your goal that for every new concept your student meets in a method book, they have already encountered it in some other way, shape or form – be that through a game, movement activity, listening assignment or, yes, even occasionally a worksheet.
This will also help you avoid the trap or becoming a “turn-page teacher”. Your lessons won’t consist of you flipping the pages to discover the new concept and then giving your student a brief, on-the-spot explanation. Don’t beat yourself up if that happens occasionally, but it shouldn’t be your go-to teaching tactic.
I doubt it will come as a surprise that games are my favourite way to teach theory, both preemptively and for reinforcement.
Effective games allow students to puzzle out some of the ideas for themselves so that their minds are always actively engaged. Games should provide just the right amount of push to motivate and inspire students.
Two things to bear in mind when it comes to teaching with games:
You want to challenge your student, sure. But you don’t want to take them so far from their competency level that they feel overwhelmed. That will only lead to them feeling frustrated and insecure.
Workbooks and worksheets should not be relied upon to do the teaching for you. However, if they are well-designed, they can be an excellent way to reinforce concepts. Whatever way you look at it, there are a lot of symbols and names in music theory which need to be memorised in order for students to read music well. A combination of direct instruction, games, written work and repertoire is the surest route to fluency for most students.
I have written my own set of theory workbooks called Thinking Theory. Whether you choose to use those or another set of books or to compile worksheets yourself there are three things you should look for in a great workbook.:
Of course, written work is not essential. If you have a student who has a learning difficulty or is not suited to worksheets for some other reason then you should choose another route such as extra games, flashcards, apps or whatever works for your student.