“I Hate Theory”

By Sarah Haughtonmusic

The majority of my students enjoy learning theory. They enjoy the process of learning about the sounds they hear. Occasionally, however, I encounter a student that couldn’t care less about the “why” behind the music they are hearing, they just want to make the sounds. The traditional theory workbook does little to excite this student. More often, this student becomes frustrated and shows up to their lesson either having ignored the assignment, or invested so little effort in it that it must be repeated. Now, I’m not suggesting that any teacher skip administering theory altogether, but rather reshape the assignments so that they become meaningful to the student. The trick is to engage the student while requiring accuracy and maintaining a structured learning plan. This is where composition can be an invaluable tool and I’ve listed a few reasons below as to why.

Composition can engage the student by…

  • Investing the student in notation process. Students that compose want their music to sound right, and when it doesn’t, there is incentive to correct.
  • Building on what the student already knows. Theory workbooks essentially deconstruct, while composition allows the student to construct. For the positive-minded, glass half full, visionary students out there, this is essential.
  • Demanding accuracy in notation and penmanship skills. If a student can’t read their own music, they (or anyone else) won’t be able to play it later on.
  • Requiring the student to listen. Composition requires the student to transcribe the sound they hear in their head. It can be a great segue for ear training.
  • Making the student the authority. The student is often the critiqued. Composition, however, flips the scenario, turning the student into teacher. When done properly, the student is made to understand the importance of playing a piece as the composer intended.
  • Providing an opportunity to talk about more advanced musical concepts. Students ears are usually more developed than their writing and reasoning skills. I’ve taught several students that when asked to write an original composition, have chosen asymmetrical meters, compound meters, or key signatures well beyond their playing ability. This provides an opportunity for the teacher to show them how to write this down or write it in such a way that they can recreate the sound.

If I had to choose one reason to include composition in my teaching curriculum, it would be that composition engages the student. It is when the student is most engaged that they make the most progress. And hopefully it will keep our more creative types from “hating” theory in the long run.

Catoctin School of Music
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