Supporting Your Piano Playing Journey
Written by ANDREW EALES
It is vital for musicians to understand the music we play: its history, context, structure, style and the conventions of music notation used to write it down.
Like many piano teachers, it is my priority to ensure that such knowledge is embedded as a relevant component of lessons. But like many, I find that written work can be difficult to fit into a practical music lesson. Not only so, but some elements are better suited to the classroom context, or to self-directed learning.
Many of my students want to dig into the subject in more depth, learn aspects of theory and composition that go beyond the obvious remit of a piano playing session, whether to develop a broader understanding or simply to pass a Grade 5 Theory exam as a prerequisite to taking one of the higher ABRSM practical grades.
I have always been ready to recommend additional resources and courses that meet the need for a more focused academic approach to learning music theory. And whether for an exam or otherwise, I find that students who develop a more in-depth knowledge of music quickly see benefits in their ongoing playing.
I have previously recommended Dave Hall’s excellent study book and video series There’s More to Playing the Piano, which my students have found helpful, but for those wanting more in-depth support I have been enthused by the number of excellent online courses I have seen recommended.
Keen to know more about suitable options for my students, I have recently interviewed four leading educators delivering music theory courses online. I wanted to compare what they offer, get a feel for their approach, and give them an opportunity to present their courses in their own words…
Meet the Panel
Victoria Williams is a well-established leader in the field of online music theory classes. She has AmusTCL and LmusTCL diplomas in music theory, and runs the hugely successful website My Music Theory, which offers an impressive range of lessons, PDF downloads and video courses.
Lona Kozik is a composer, pianist and teacher with an MA and PhD in composition, and a passion for teaching music theory that began when she taught undergraduates at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia. She launched her online School of Music Theory in 2019, offering a range of courses that prepare learners for Grade 5 and above, using lesson videos, worksheets and live sessions.
Simon Jordan has taught music since he was 16, while also spending the best part of two decades as a producer for BBC Radio 3 and editor for BBC Radio 4.
In addition to offering personal tuition, Simon’s intensive Zero to Grade 5 Hero course runs during school holidays and is 100% live and interactive, with free ongoing support that includes unlimited practice paper marking.
Kirsty Body is an experienced woodwind teacher, choir director and multi-instrumentalist. Through her Harmonia Music website she offers regular intensive seven hour zoom courses, which prepare students, even with no theory experience, for ABRSM grade 5 theory, including follow-up marking of practice papers.
Our panelists offer a mixture of online approaches, including live group courses (Simon and Kirsty), video courses which learners can access at their own pace (Victoria), and a hybrid approach (Lona).
Contributions to the discussion below should be understood in that context.
The Benefits of Online Learning
Teaching theory online offers an element of reach and flexibility that wouldn’t otherwise be possible. It’s important to teach theory within the context of piano lessons and as a natural part of piano study, but the study of theory aside from instrumental lessons is important.
There is an element of reflection when an instrumentalist takes time away from their instrument to understand how music is put together. They can then take this back to their lessons and to the practice studio, and directly apply it to their music making.
Learning theory online means that students can fit this study easily into their schedules, especially with self-directed study. They also have access to high-quality courses that might have only been previously possible in very particular classroom settings.
Prior to Grade 5, music theory is so often considered an after-thought, a “necessary evil”, or something so dull the teacher has left it to the end of the lesson and given me “homework” (yet more of it!).
Music theory is so much more than that, and when people get together and explore the syllabus in a structured way, using the right tools, it comes alive.
And working straight to Grade 5, it is so much easier to structure, rather than adopting a “soap opera-like” stage-by-stage process of the grade books.
Time restraints within instrumental lessons make it challenging to cover theory as well as practical skills. It often takes some time to absorb and fully understand new concepts, and something which is quickly glossed over in a piano lesson (due to time restraints) will usually need revision and consolidation at home.
Online lessons let students learn at their own pace and can fit into any schedule, and unlike using a traditional textbook.
I think the most important benefit is the audio-visual aspect of online courses, which makes the vital connection between the printed notes, the text explanation and how it sounds. In the past many people have struggled with learning theory from books in silence, and there has sometimes been a perception that theory is a “textbook” subject which is dry, difficult and/or boring.
With online courses music theory can come alive, simply because we can listen, and we can also play back examples as many times as necessary for something to sink in.
I teach everything needed for grade 5 from scratch in one seven-hour course. Pupils are more prepared to do the work, and by doing an intensive course like mine, they can clearly see how each area relates to the next, which you can sometimes lose when doing it over a year in instrumental lessons.
I demonstrate how I do each exercise onscreen so they can see what things are useful to write down. I don’t expect them to do a lot of writing within the teaching hours, but they then follow up with quizlets and practice papers.
I benefit from having pupils all over the country (and world!) who prefer a fast course, with the chance to get their exam done in a short space of time. Fastest so far is a 9-year-old, who took just 12 days from start to finish, gaining a distinction.
I love that I can easily show them pictures and sounds to help with their learning, and have a good supply of funny but relevant pictures to liven up the sessions. Most children comment that my courses are much more enjoyable than they expected theory to be!
I would also say that (especially for the younger generation), learning online is something that is simply expected these days.
Challenges and Solutions
As in any class or small group, there will be those who hide at the back. And online, the back of the class is very easy to skulk in!
It is vital, as a course presenter, to find ways of encouraging every student to take part and not to hide behind the Zoom “snowman”. It’s often a question of being personable enough to bring each student of out of their shells, and to feel empowered to contribute without fear of giving a wrong answer.
Obviously, there are the technical considerations of losing internet connection etc., but these don’t tend to be frequent problems.
Occasionally I come across people who have self-taught beyond their real skill level and who have a lot of misconceptions to unpick.
For primary-age children, I don’t usually advocate online theory lessons, and find it more useful for them to learn a little theory in their instrumental lessons, related to their music-making, with some homework exercises between lessons. I also think it’s important they learn to how write music with a pencil, not just tapping a screen (sorry ABRSM!)
I can’t see what they are writing and have to rely on asking them questions individually to check everyone in a theory group understands what we are doing. I don’t see how messy their writing/drawing is until they start sending me completed papers!
Some children don’t suit my very fast course, but it still gives them a huge boost to their theory journey and then they are better prepared to tackle theory with their instrumental teacher, even if it takes them a bit more time.
I think it can be tricky to learn theory in a meaningful way when you study on your own. I think back to my own music education and the importance of learning in a group setting, seeing other student work, hearing other student questions, discussing issues, that kind of repetition and reinforcement can be difficult to achieve in an online self-study setting. The synergistic elements are, I find, important to making this study meaningful beyond the exam.
And so my courses always include a “live” element. In the end, I think the flexibility of having lessons students can access at their convenience paired with regular live feedback works extremely well.
Interaction and Monitoring Progress
For Music Theory Bootcamp, there is a Facebook group and a monthly Q&A call. People can ask questions along the way and hop on a live session to get clarification for anything that came up in their study.
For my Grade 5 Theory course, students get 10 weekly Q&A sessions where they can bring their work, ask questions or even ask me to go over concepts covered in video lessons. I also find that “work with me” sessions are useful for students, whether they are live or pre-recorded.
My Grades 6, 7 and 8 courses are “live” in the sense that students enrol and go through those courses with me in “real” time. Content is drip-fed, and students submit their compositions for Q&A sessions every week. The feedback they get from me, and the feedback they hear for others, is even more important to the learning process at this level.
I have “quizlets” which pupils go to both during the 3 days when we do the seven hours tuition, and they remain available for up to a year afterwards.
My pupils send me 4 “old style” papers in which they are allowed and encouraged to use my theory book to help them learn good methods, then 4 “new style” papers which they sit under exam conditions. Most pupils who complete the papers go on to pass the exam first time, and many with distinctions.
I involve the parents in the homework stage, making sure they take some responsibility for supporting their child.
For every student, my course is just the beginning of the journey.
They are provided with a stack of test papers that they can send to me for marking, and I will give them detailed feedback on each paper and address any learning needs that they have.
They can continue to take the course as often as they like, but most feel that once is all they need!
My courses are essentially designed for self-study, but I also offer marking via email for the higher grades. Most adults are easily able to self-teach themselves up to grade 5, as are children from the age of around 9-10 upwards, with some adult supervision. Beyond grade 5 some help from a teacher is generally necessary.
For the higher grades or diplomas I often end up marking work via email after a student has embarked on a self-study course. I always suggest that for the higher grades the student has their work looked at by a teacher, whether that’s me or someone else. People using my courses often email me their results (or their problems) even if I have not been teaching them personally, so I have a good idea about how my courses are working out for people generally.
The Value and Joy of Theory
I love seeing the students grow over the course of a school holiday week. Some begin as reluctant attenders, persuaded by parents; others have struggled with music theory for months and years and cannot piece this immense musical jigsaw puzzle together; and still more cannot see why they have to pass this infernal exam to do their Grade 6 violin. It is a joy to see so many of those “light-bulb moments” as the frustration melts away and a life of music really opens up before them.
I love that I can teach them so much in such a short time, and they really do understand what they are doing rather than just working through dull books.
I enjoy making theory less boring than most pupils think it’s going to be! I often get emails after the course from parents saying that their child was surprised to enjoy the course, even though they’re often doing them during their school holidays. It’s great to meet young (and old) musicians from across the UK and beyond.
There’s also some real “Ooohhhh!” moments when course participants suddenly understand a bit more about how music works and can relate it to their own pieces.
Little did I know that learning theory would be the key to opening so many doors, make so many of my piano dreams come true.
The first thing I noticed, and to my utter disbelief, was that music theory improved my sight-reading and quick study skills. This was significant for me, because I was a TERRIBLE sight-reader previous to this.
Music theory also made memorising music easier and more reliable. It heightened my expression at the piano. It gave me confidence as a new, young piano teacher, and it eventually led me to composing music.
It was the catalyst for a transformation of my musical life, and this is why I have a passion for teaching it. I love to witness the same kinds of transformations happen for my students.
It’s fair to say I’m more than a little obsessed with music theory and I have a genuine worry that most people are missing out if they’ve never delved much into the subject!
Understanding how music works can unlock new, unexpected levels of enjoyment in people, whether they are playing or listening. And nothing beats someone telling me how learning theory has increased their enjoyment when they play, or given them a wonderful sense of achievement.
As an example, a lovely lady I recently helped through to grade 8 wrote to me “Beyond the exams I am now equipped with greater awareness about how music works allowing me to get closer to the things I love about music in the first place. Thank you for empowering me in this aspect of my human experience!”
What can be better than that?!
Music is an abstract art form. It’s such an emotional language, an almost intuitive one. Music theory gives musicians super powers, because they suddenly have a language with which to discuss music in precise terms. That is always deeply rewarding, and I think it holds the key to the magical kingdom of music.
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