Issue 103:Teaching theory; Inspirational Quote

“The art of teaching is the art of assisting discovery”

Mark Van Doren

never heard of him? Neither had I – until today:


Sometimes I feel as though the art of teaching has been boiled down to just a matter of getting the information across – what I’ve often heard called a “brain dump”. Many people – students, parents, musicians – regard theory as boring. Grade 5 theory is just an obstacle to be scrambled over, higgledy-piggledy, before they can “get on” to the real business of Grade 6 in their instrument.

I think I felt the same way about theory as a young teenager; but now, it’s different. I’m entranced by the patterns and symmetries revealed in the complex underpinning architecture of how we write and order our music. I suspect that I like theory a lot better now that I understand and know it, rather like learning a new piece. A lot of my pupils actively dislike their pieces until they can play them, and half my job is helping them to stay motivated and keep persevering until it becomes less of a struggle.

At the time, when I was a student, figuring out simple and complex time, and wrestling with “beaming” (those horizontal lines that join groups of quavers together) all seemed a dreary waste of my time. Now, when I can see and understand the neat piece of trickery and skill by which a composer worked his way back to the tonic key, or marvel at an unexpected enharmonic change (look at the current ABRSM grade 8 piano piece by Soler – 5 sharps to 3 flats and back! How?!)  it gives me as much pleasure I get from examining any piece of fine craftsmanship in any kind of art.

So, I would like to assist my current crop of theory pupils to find pleasure in writing out their music beautifully, solving the rhythmical challenge in setting a few lines of poetry to music, and reading off the intervals and chords with the same fluency that I have acquired over the years. Then they, too, can share their discoveries with the next generation, in whatever field they end up in.





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