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Incorporating music theory in your piano lessons

Hey there! Today I come back with a topic that has been crossing my mind for some time and I find it useful for piano teachers or other intruments as well: How to incorporate music theory in your piano lessons. Keep reading if you want to know 5 tips to include in your lessons!

As a piano teacher, I always love reading or listening to what other teachers do in their lessons. It is always great to observe different methods and still see good results (or not so good in some cases). Anyway, it is always possible to learn from both situations. Therefore, I find it very fun to be part of some Facebook groups or forums where thousands of piano and music teachers share their experiences, questions and struggles.

One of the questions that I have observed repeatedly is: “How to teach music theory to students IN the piano lesson?”. I find this a very interesting topic, as every new year I ask myself how to do this more efficiently.

What I think is most important is to understand the type of student you're dealing with. Some students are naturally motivated to learn theory because they see it as a way to improve their musical abilities. But there's also a growing number of students who just want to play their favourite songs without a strong foundation in theory or reading sheet music. In my experience, some students have come from teachers who taught them songs by ear, or they used apps like Simply Piano on their own, depending on the app to follow the beat or know which key they need to play. For these students, it's a challenge to make them see the value of music theory to reach a certain level of piano proficiency.

Therefore, I wanted to share with you some practical tips that have worked well for me and my students to make learning music theory more engaging:

Explain the WHY

This is one of the first mistakes that so many teachers make! Of course, as a teacher you don’t always need to give an explanation about why you do "this" or "that". However, in the case of music theory I find it very important to let the students know all the benefits that making this “effort” of learning theory will have on their learning process.

For example, you can let them know that if they know how to read notes properly and how to measure the rhythms, they will be able to have more autonomy to learn any song they like. It is really important that they don’t see learning music theory as the goal, but as the means to achieve the goal (playing their favourite song, reading notes faster, composing their own music, etc.).

Make a learning plan which fits with the piano pieces they are learning

This is so important! When I started learning the piano myself, I went to a school where I had different subjects: I had my piano lesson, a group lesson for music theory, singing lesson, etc. It basically felt like I was going to a second school. Nowadays, it is very common that students only go to the piano lesson, where they expect to learn all about music and piano, so it is very important for the teacher to be versatile and to have a clear action plan.

To do this, you can find some help in music theory books, or even some piano methods that have a little overview of theory. This will be very helpful to choose an order for the content you want to teach. Broadly speaking, you could start with basic elements of music (rhythm, melody, harmony, texture, form, etc.). Of course, you should start with basic examples which get more complex little by little. As the student becomes more advanced, you can teach them scales and modes, chords, identifying patterns (motives) to understand formal structures, style and genre.

However, every time you teach something new from music theory, it is very important that you link this new knowledge to a piece they are performing, or that you make it practical by playing examples on the piano.

It is really important that your students don’t perceive theory and piano as separate entities, as it can discourage them and hinder their understanding of theory's practical applications.

Teach theory through the students’ pieces

In this case, we have the opposite method from the tip before. This time, instead of teaching the theory and then studying a piano piece that contains this new theory, we will start with giving them a piece. This new piece will have new concepts to learn, combined with other concepts that are already known (try to find a good balance here!). This way, the student really feels that this theory is totally useful and applicable to piano playing.

In my experience, combining this tip and the previous one are the key to success. However, it is helpful to emphasise on this one when a student is especially impatient or needs more practical activities.

When it comes to applying learning theory to piano, it's important to highlight the various notations related to character, articulation, and dynamics. There are many different teaching methods that gradually introduce these concepts. Also, well-known classical composers have created interesting collections of pieces that can be quite useful. For instance, right now, I'm using Kabalevsky's "24 Pieces for Children Op. 39." These pieces start off easy and get progressively more challenging, each one focusing on different aspects of musical expression like articulation, dynamics, and tempo. They also use motives in a clear way, making it a good way to work on musical structures.

And remember, this is just one example – there are plenty more resources out there!

Embrace Apps

Yes, we live in the 21st century! There are hundreds of Apps dedicated to learning piano, music theory, ear training, etc., so it would be a mistake to not rely on at least one of them. If we don’t do it, our students will do it without letting us know! They are in constant contact with smartphones, tablets and laptops, so if they have a motivation to learn piano, they will probably try to use some of these tools.

Here I recommend an app that I find especially useful and that I use very frequently with my students: Note Rush. It is a very fun App where students can improve their note reading skills by playing a game. It is designed like a game with levels that gets more and more difficult every time, as new notes are introduced progressively and there is also a countdown for the students to get faster. As a teacher, you can introduce this resource as a little warming up before the lesson or their practice routine, as this App gives the possibility for teachers to create a personalised level to send to their students.

Consider organising group lessons

This sounds quite basic, but most of the time it can be a challenge. A lot of piano and music teachers (I include myself) give both short and long lessons, and find it tricky to be able to teach music theory in a 30 minute piano lesson. In these cases, I recommend making it as practical as possible so that your students can apply theory as fast as possible to their pieces.

However, there are times when it's still challenging to cover music theory as thoroughly as we'd like. In those situations, why not consider organising intensive group lessons? In my case, I give private piano lessons, and sometimes this can turn into a very individualistic activity for students. Therefore, it can be a good idea to gather students with similar skill levels for group music theory sessions. This way, you can make the most of your teaching time, and students can motivate each other!


Did you find this post interesting? Do you have more questions or ideas? You can always contact me or write in the comments!

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Feb 24

Hello Ana, amazing blog!! Very useful for piano teachers. I completely agree with you that piano teachers have to be more versatile, because of the education in music young children receive. I also grow up having to go also to a musical school where I had lessons about theory or rhythm for example, apart for my piano lesson. In that sense teachers have to be able to make a good plan to try to combine all these in a piano lesson. From my experience in teaching, introducing new musical concepts every time I give a new piece to my students works very well, in that way the student can learn music theory progressively and in a fun way.

I have…

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