Theory student gone rogue!

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    Hi all,

    I’d appreciate any advice that you may have for a student of mine who used to be in my AP music theory class. Long story short, the kid loves music and loves to write and experiment, but was not disciplined enough to be successful in music theory–he dropped out shortly after the class started. As far as his work in theory class was concerned, I just couldn’t accept the work he was routinely turning in–he wanted to do everything but what he needed to do. I want to be clear that when it comes to composition, I don’t view music theory as a set of “rules” for my students. Typically, I strive for my AP students to write pieces in Baroque and Classical styles as would be expected in a traditional theory class, but also let them let loose toward the end of the year and let them write a piece however they choose *as long as they can justify their decisions.* This is win-win because the kids feel less restricted, but at the same time they still have to think about what they’ve learned, why they’ve learned it and what specifically applies or doesn’t apply to their own process. It also produces a wide variety of product–kids who are interested in classical lean toward wanting to do a wild 12-tone composition. Garage band kids use what they know to do songwriting. It works.

    This student however, is more along the lines of “write random notes into Finale until something sounds good.” The efforts he shared with me when he was in theory class last year did not show that he had any awareness of what he was writing or why he was writing it. Many attempts to intervene, offer extra help, explain why learning theory was so important, etc. were unsuccessful. Fast forward a year and he stopped in at the end of the day today to show me a piece he’s been working on. I was pleasantly surprised to see that his compositional sensibilities have improved greatly. While I still believe that he does not have the knowledge that he needs to have, I am starting to believe that his instincts are now leading him in a good direction. Even though he’s no longer in theory, it’s obvious that this kid has a passion for this and I’d like to see him have the tools he needs to take this a step further.

    My general question is, with a student like this who is hell-bent on experimenting and finding their own way, what are some ways that I can slip some knowledge in through the back door? My average theory student is someone who masters all the “rules” so that they can eventually break whatever rules they please with the knowledge of WHY they’re doing so. This kid is the exact opposite and I’m having trouble figuring out how to meet him where he is. He really needs to take the theory class and stick with it, but I want to make sure that if I advise him to take it again that I’m going to be able to lead him to better success this time.

    Thanks in advance…


    You might be able to teach him by helping him to see the theory hidden in his own musical ideas and in other music he likes to listen to. He may enjoy finding the theoretical principles at work in the Beatles or his current favorites. The traditional theory class may not be the right fit for him, but as you say, he is growing.

    To avoid the random Finale-ing, try to have him sing his ideas (first choice) or play them on his instrument before notating them.

    Thanks for caring about your student and good luck!


    Thanks deutschd749! The traditional theory class is a tough fit for him, but one that I think will be necessary for him down the road if he wants to make more serious progress. In the meantime, I hope I can create a few “ah-ha” moments for him to motivate him in the second go around at the class (he has stated that he wants to take it again before he graduates, so I really want to have a good game plan to help him succeed for take two. I feel the responsibility of not figuring out a way to address his needs sooner last time and not too many teachers get a “do-over” in situations like this, so I don’t want to blow it….).

    I love the singing suggestion! I’d be curious to see if he’s actually internalized any of his own writings….that might be the kind of “ah-ha” moment I can capitalize on.

    Thanks for the brainstorm!

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