Motif of the Month: The Idea of Monthly Learning ‘Themes’

I often worry about not sufficiently covering important areas in my lessons because they are so short. How am I going to make sure that I am providing my students with a holistic musical education in sometimes as little as 30 minutes per week? Periodical group lessons do shoulder some of this worry; however – they are occasional, and because of this, the material or subjects covered in them may not feel particularly central to the students learning. More problematically, not every student chooses to attend group sessions.

I am toying with the idea of having a theme of the month, so that I can be sure that I sufficiently cover areas that I think are important to the development of a rounded and self sufficient musician, during the academic year. This is not to say that these areas are the only areas of importance, or that they stand alone, or that there will be a sole focus each month. Instead, the areas of specific focus will hopefully merge and develop into each other; running alongside each other in such a way that later on the year, earlier themes will feel very present and central in lessons making lesson time more holistic and well rounded.

In no particular order*:

Technique 

In my yoga classes, we are always told that we need to build solid foundations before we move on. Whilst you could argue that any of these themes are foundational to the learning of music, it seems as if by putting technique anything but first on the list is to say that it’s kind of optional. ‘But’, some might say, ‘surely the most important thing is the sound!’ True. I have taught students from other teachers who have come to me with no clear knowledge of technique and it has negatively affected their touch, tone, articulation, dynamics and therefore, their overall sound.

Aural

Listening skills are absolutely fundamental, but it is sometimes quite surprising (to me, at least) how little a student is listening to themselves. This month will be all about aural analysis and singing and so should hopefully be quite enjoyable. Younger and beginning students can be introduced to aural work by simple games of higher and lower, spotting the odd one out in a pattern, loud and soft etc. There are a couple of iOS apps out there as well, like ‘The Blob Chorus’ and ‘Music for Little Mozarts’. Older students and those preparing for exams can use ‘ABRSM Aural Trainer Lite’ and ‘Auralbook’ – which also has an android version.

Theory 

Some love it, some loathe it. Those who love it, I think, like the sense of accomplishment and completion they get from finishing a task. The ticks. The stickers. Those who loathe it see it as dry, abstract, and irrelevant to what they are really here for. That’s why, similar to technical work (see technical, below), it is important to make theory work relevant to the student’s practical learning at the time, rather than running theory work separate to whatever the student is doing practically.

‘Fun and Learn Music’ is an online resource with colourful (and free) work sheets that can be downloaded individually. This is a great way to structure a theory curriculum alongside any particular practical method you may be using.

Composition

Unfortunately this is one thing that I feel always takes a back seat, apart from those few students who show a real interest in composing. This year I am going to use Andrea and Trevor Dow’s ‘The Curious Case of Muttzart and Ratmaninoff – Adventures in Composing’. It’s a work book made up of 12 lessons which guides teacher and student through a compositional structure. Work is hand written inside, but those with notation software could notate their student’s work and give it to them as a present at the end of the year. Otherwise, students could use notation software with their teacher as a theoretical exercise.

Technical 

My students are all working on technical at various paces. I would quite like to make this area more student led for this month – perhaps transposing well known tunes into different keys (and then notating them out), getting more advanced students to grips with natural and melodic minor scales, and finally getting round to creating a circle of fifths puzzle (watch this space…)

Improvisation

The improvisation that happens in lessons at present is usually off the cuff, but it would be good to approach this area in a more structured way. I really like Pamela Rose’s youtube videos on how to improvise using the circle of fifths for more advanced students.

Repertoire

Depending on the student’s ability, spend this month completing an 4 piece challenge, learning a whole sonata, or learning a piece or pieces that are outside a student’s comfort zone. Perhaps learn a piece of music from another part of the world. ‘Piano Music of Africa and the African Diaspora Volume 1’  published by Oxford University Press, ‘offers a wonderful introduction to Ragtime and Jazz as well as syncopation and different articulations’. Check out these sample pieces.

Music History

Repertoire work is a good precursor to then learning about the historical context of those pieces. For an easy and accessible introductory work, Ohio based piano teacher Joy Morin has created these ‘Composer Lapbooks and Biography Sets’. I have also posted about introducing music history to students here.

* Although I haven’t yet decided the best order of the monthly themes, there are a few reasons why they are in the order they are in.

It may sound arbitrary to place technique at the beginning, but some forms of technique can be learned before anything else – correct posture being the most obvious. The main reason this has been placed at the beginning is because of experiences I have had with transfer students who have not been taught any technique. This is always pretty difficult to correct, and from a student’s point of view seems really picky. Placing this at the beginning sets a clear foundation for what is to come.

Theory and composition are meant to go together in this case because Andrea and Trevor Dow’s book requires the student to have a decent grip of notation and keys if they are to complete the tasks self sufficiently.

Technical work can sometimes seem quite abstract to a student, mainly due to the examinations system. It is very important to contextualise it and make it relevant to a student’s overall musicianship. I have placed improvisation after technical because knowledge of keys, intervals, chords and chord progressions can both structure improvisation and give technical work this important relevance.

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