Music Theory

Music theory is a passion of mine. As a composer as well as a music teacher, I realise that teaching music theory provides the building blocks of a more complete musician. Put simply, “knowledge is power.”

So it was with great interest that I have noticed that the ABRSM (The Associated Board of the Royal Schools of Music), who lead the way in music examinations in the world, was having a major overhaul in the way they test music theory, starting from January 2018.

Why the change? What will be different? Are there any resources to help with the change?

Why the change

A need to modernise their exams and react to feedback from teachers and students has brought on these recent changes. Looking at the new specimen papers, you get a feeling that the tests are less ambiguous than in times past.

Differences

The changes will only affect grades 1-5 at the moment. The rhythm-writing in early grades is being replaced. This used to provide a nice little introduction to the basics of composing but I would imagine that the quality of preparation for this question would have varied greatly from teacher to teacher depending on their own skills or imagination. At the grade 4, there used to be the option of the word-setting question. That has now been axed as well as the option of writing a complete melody at grade 5. How will students cope with the transition into grade 6-8 where composing is a large portion of the assessment? I think that step will be harder for candidates from now on. I have long thought that, although the exams for grade 6-8 are excellent, the resources and support material for these higher grades are appalling and desperately need revamping by the ABRSM. But that’s a subject of another blog.

Gone are the SATB open and short score converting question which was extremely time-consuming. I really like the use of multiple choice questions for the meaning of performance directions. Generally, the exam looks a lot more inviting, modern, clean which is very welcome.

Resources

At the start of 2019, the old exams papers for 2018 will be posted as a preparation booklet but that is quite some time away. In the meantime, the ABRSM has published on their website two sets of sample exam papers as a free download.

I really like a free quiz page that you can share with students to give them practice with the new multiple choice question. That will continue to be a very useful resource do-doubt.

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photo: crazyad0boy

No, I’m not talking about my ever expanding waistline, although that has widened out at an alarming rate these past years!

I’m talking about the type of lessons we offer as music teachers. How very easy it is to be stuck in a rut. The longer you’ve been teaching, the harder it can be to change. But society is changing at an alarming rate and so are the interests and needs of our students. Today’s music students are tomorrow’s musicians. What skills do they need? What will be the musical landscape of the future?

I think I was guilty of descending into a rut with my teaching. I’d found a formula and subconsciously, I was sticking with it. A couple of months ago though, I stumbled on the syllabus of another examination board that I hadn’t used before. What they were teaching was different, refreshingly so. Once the can of worms was opened, I started investigating other exam boards. What a pleasant discovery!

I realize that not every student wants to take an exam. I always mentioned exams only as an optional to my students. Using syllabuses or picking and mixing from several different syllabuses can bring much need structure and direction to lessons.

Have you tried to widen out?!? Can you try using another exam syllabus or music book series? Can you use more music technology in your lessons? Are there more genres you can offer? Would more ensemble or performing opportunities help prepare your students for a career in music? Could you offer training in using music software like Sibelius, Finale, NoteFlight, Logic, Garageband, Cubase or Protools? How about making opportunities for your more experienced students to teach younger students? Could some simple and cheap instruments like shakers, tambourines, glockenspiels etc add a little sparkle to the lessons?

Change has excited my students. Many are trying “tasters” and are really enjoying the new challenges they’ve opted for. It’s been really exciting for me too with lots of new materials and ideas that I am currently developing. A simple exercise was for me to type up a list of music courses that I now offer and put it on my studio wall. Students and parents have been able to see all the options available and inquire about what they would like to try.

So try it! Widen out on your music teaching journey. Try another route. Add some sparkle into your daily teaching routine!

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When I was a kid, I loved buying expensive pads of manuscript paper. Trouble was, I didn’t quite know what to do with them!

Now, thirty-something years on, I’m always reaching for some manuscript paper to demonstrate to my students, scribble down an idea or to give to my pupils so that they can transcribe their latest creation. [···]

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