The new CEO of the ABRSM, Michael Elliott, recently said “Separating theory from practice can’t be a good thing” – I totally agree with him. In fact I would make a stronger statement and today I want to explain why.
In this blog I will present my reasoning and indicate how we can establish and maintain the connection between theory and practice in our teaching.
Naturally, as in all aspects of music pedagogy, there is an impassioned discourse about the relationship between theory and practice. This is probably no more so than in the relationship between learning notation and playing.
On the one hand we have dedicated teachers who are convinced that learning notation should be entirely separated from learning to play and that the teaching of notation and basic theory for beginners should not be connected to instrumental learning until some time after formal lessons begin. This conviction is bolstered by a number of related arguments amongst which are that it is too difficult and limiting in the development of a young musician. A senior and prominent teacher said recently:
“Without getting caught up in notation reading, playing scales allows us to focus on the sensation of the body and the ensuing sound”.……..“It’s good to remind ourselves at this point that the physical and theoretical aspects do not need to be developed concurrently, in fact it is a lot easier if the playing of scales is introduced well in advance of the theoretical understanding.” (Sally Cathcart – Curious Piano Teachers, February 2016)
In my view this is not only incorrect but mistaken especially when we are teaching students who are already reading the written word at school. The purpose of my teaching is to connect a pupil’s understanding of theory with what they play, sing, hear or compose and from the earliest stages of learning, commensurate with the level of cognitive development of the pupil.
When students understand the music they play or sing they are more likely to carry on learning and more likely to become independent musicians who can enjoy music to its fullest for their whole lives. It cannot be coincidence that in 2014 over 50% of the 67,000 students in the UK who started learning a musical instrument and took an ABRSM Grade 1 exam, dropped out in the preliminary grades.
Ideally, musical understanding (theory) is integrated aurally and practically from the first lessons. My students have no need (or time) for intermediate stages or methods of learning, such as solfa, but easily go straight to the piano where the notes can be sung as well as played, seen and heard. Although methods such as solfa are arguably of great value in classroom teaching and as an enhancement to musicianship, in my view they become an impediment when they dominate early formal lessons, taking the pupil away from their instrument and particularly when that instrument is the piano.
Although some may say the piano has drawbacks in its lack of manoeuvrability [it is a bit hard to carry around!] – it makes up for its “largesse” in many ways. The clear layout of the black and white notes showing the distances between notes in tones and semitones make it the perfect learning and teaching tool for understanding the structure of music. Of course, if we are teaching the piano our students are sitting at the piano from the first lesson and that is exactly where we want them to be.
For example, in learning the construction of the scales the best way to understand tones and semitones is at the piano where the picture is perfectly laid out in the black and white notes. At the piano, we can see them, hear them, sing them and feel the distances of a tone and semitone – it is part of the ‘ready to hand’.
It’s not difficult for a child of 5 or 6 years to understand the format of the tones and semitones in a major scale, or to construct major scales whilst singing and playing them. This is shown in my video with Cindy and it is just one example of teaching in an integrated way from the start. In this video Cindy is using basic musical skills and my aim is to connect her understanding aurally and practically.
With the piano, students can see how close the notes are together as well as feel and hear how close they are. Through this combined sensuality, the tones and semitones of a major scale and its construction are understood most fully. The inclusion of vision and touch is a real boost to a student’s musical understanding.
Writing a major scale on manuscript further integrates a student’s learning and when my students are learning to read these notes, writing and playing and singing what they have written embeds the learning thoroughly.
Explaining tones and semitones of a major scale at the piano progresses most naturally to learning about sharps and flats. If we explain sharps and flats in terms of raising or lowering notes by a semitone on the piano, the E# and B# and the Fb and Cb being white notes is clear and often a revelation for students! As said before, it’s important to use our voices and sing tones and semitones but this singing is best done when fully supported by the knowledge of where these notes are on the piano and what they look like when written.
In my view, any separation of musical elements from the beginning can be damaging to the development of musicianship. Why would we give our students only one ingredient of the cake at a time, when we can provide them with the whole recipe from the beginning? Or one part of a seed when they need the whole seed planted in order to grow into a fully fledged tree.
When we read and play music our senses are engaged together in the moment. It is a whole body experience. We don’t see, hear and touch separately and certainly not separated by days,weeks, months or years. Students see, hear, touch and feel simultaneously. Using all these senses together in our teaching is called “multi modal”. Another example of this early teaching can be seen athttps://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jJSIAKddLT8
Multi modal teaching can be continued in every lesson and provides for students to fully comprehend what they are playing and hearing in the most musical way.
If we start this integrated/multi modal teaching in our students’ first lessons, then the theory of music is not some isolated and unpleasant necessity whose only benefit is that it gives access to higher grades. It is a means by which students become wholly independent musicians who are more likely to carry on learning and enjoying music to its fullest.