Issue 88: Class ABRSM Music Theory Lessons

One primary school I work in has been running a music theory club in the lunchtime. The first group of students are all set to take Grade 1 theory this Summer, having started from scratch last October. It was very interesting to see how the club (really a “class”) was organised, and I was very impressed with what she had set in place.

Because it operated as a lunchtime club, the children did not pay to attend, although they did have to pay for a copy of “Music Theory in Practice” and three sets of theory papers in advance. The teacher put a list of all the theory exercises in the book and space for marking the date when they were set for homework inside the front cover of the practice books. Then each lesson, they all worked through a particular exercise and noted down the homework for next time.

By February, they had completed the books and started on practice papers, handed out one booklet at a time, and by now they are doing a complete paper every week, with most children getting merits. The actual exam is in about three week’s time.

This is a complete contrast to how I usually teach theory.

I cover a reasonable amount of theory in passing in my piano lessons, and start including Grade 5 level theory more formally once they are at Grade 4. I always like to spend a term between grades doing “stuff” – learning a number of pieces “for fun” (and to improve sight-reading and technique), tackling some of the scales (I have a strict policy of not starting Grade 2 until I am sure that they can play the scales), developing an “ear” for style and period. Theory fits in nicely as part of the “stuff”.

I also get a lot of students of secondary school age ringing up for theory lessons because they have taken Grade 4 (or worse still, Grade 5) on their instrument, and need Grade 5 theory before they can progress to Grade 6. Occasionally I get AS or A-level students who discover they need Grade 5 theory in order to get on their university course. So my students are older, and more experienced, and I teach them individually or in small groups of 2 or 3. My job is to get them through Grade 5 as quickly and as safely as possible. We aim for merits (to be sure of a distinction you have to know an awful lot of French, German and Italian performance directions). We crash through the syllabus, learning what needs to be learned to pass, making a start on past papers almost from the very first lesson. I admit that I have been caught out a couple of times, when Grade 4 theory questions suddenly started turning up without warning in Grade 5 papers. Writing chromatic scales, and converting simple to compound time, were the most unexpected questions in recent years. Luckily they were only worth four or five marks, and I am now careful to include these topics in the lessons!

I may well be looking after the primary school theory class next term, while the usual teacher is on maternity leave. I am looking forward to seeing how the younger children get on. There will be two groups – the beginners, working towards Grade 1, and a second group, working towards Grade 2. I’ll keep you informed.

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