Theory and Technique: Competitors or Completers?

The words theory and technique are often lumped together in the world of piano pedagogy, especially when in the context of elementary and intermediate students. There are often books that are labeled for developing theory and technique together, which could be fine. For many situations, though, it may be well to address these two aspects of music individually.

Theory is, essentially, the nuts and bolts of music, and deals primarily with the mind and intellect. The sharps, flats, and naturals; the order of sharps and flats in key signatures; note values, and how they relate to each other; intervals; chords and chord progressions; time signatures; major vs. minor, et cetera.

Technique, on the other hand, is the nuts and bolts of the physical interaction between the body and the instrument. How to sit or stand; how to touch the instrument or hold it; how to attack the strings, valves, or keys with the fingers, et cetera.

Without any doubt, students need to learn about and understand theory. They also need to know the how-to’s of their particular instrument. As teachers, we need to learn to balance educating our students’ minds as well as their muscles. This can be quite the challenge, especially for new teachers or musicians whose teachers may have taught both well, but didn’t explain the difference between the two.

It is important, whether teaching theory or technique, to be equipped with the necessary tools to make the most positive impact possible, in the most time effective manner possible. What are these tools, then? In a word, they are books. The books you choose to use with your students will shape them for better or for worse. Some of the issues I have faced in this area include using books that focus almost exclusively on developing the mind to the demise of the muscles.

As a side note, literature is where we gain much technique, but exercises and etudes are almost indispensable as well (these form the foundation of technique that will then be applied in the literature). Learn to see the theory and technique that is being presented in the literature and teach as you go. This is often quite effective in reinforcing what you have talked about in exercises, and provides “real life” application for what the student is learning.

What I have found and am still finding to work well is to divide the two into individual materials. Rather than using books that are designed to teach both at the same time, use theory books and technique books. Our favorite theory books are the Just the Facts series by Ann Lawry. For technique building, Jane Magrath’s Masterwork Classics series is wonderful, both for its incredible leveling of classical repertoire, as well as the supplementary Technical Skills series that provides exercises to enhance the study of literature. (See links below.)

We obviously need both theory and technique, and even though they fall on two different sides of the musical equation, they ought to complete each other, rather than compete with each other, in the lives of a musician. Keeping them separate can help each side get the attention it needs.

Work from the beginning of your student’s journey to develop these two sides of study. It can be a challenge, but the effort will be worth it!

Cover tiny file look inside Just the Facts – Book 4 Just the Facts. A unique workbook series, useful as preparation for the Texas State theory test. Instructional book. Published by Music Bag Press (M3.JTF-4).
Cover tiny file look inside Just the Facts – Book 5 Just the Facts. A unique workbook series, useful as preparation for the Texas State theory test. Instructional book. Published by Music Bag Press (M3.JTF-5).
Cover tiny file look inside Just the Facts – Book 6 Just the Facts. A unique workbook series, useful as preparation for the Texas State theory test. Instructional book. Published by Music Bag Press (M3.JTF-6).
Cover tiny file look inside Masterwork Classics (Level 3) Level 3. By perf. Valery Lloyd-Watts. Edited by Jane Magrath. Graded Standard Repertoire; Masterworks; Piano Collection. Masterwork Classics. Baroque, Classical Period and 20th Century. Collection and examples CD. With standard notation, fingerings and introductory text (does not include words to the songs). 48 pages. Alfred Music #00-166. Published by Alfred Music (AP.166).
Cover tiny file look inside Masterwork Technical Skills Level 3. Edited by Jane Magrath. Graded Standard Repertoire; Masterworks; Piano Collection; Technique Musicianship. Technical Skills. Masterwork. Book. 32 pages. Alfred Music #00-6584. Published by Alfred Music (AP.6584).
Cover tiny file look inside Masterwork Classics, Level 4 Level 4. By perf. Valery Lloyd-Watts. Edited by Jane Magrath. Graded Standard Repertoire; Masterworks; Piano Collection. Alfred Masterwork Edition. Instructional. Collection and examples CD. With standard notation, fingerings and introductory text (does not include words to the songs). 48 pages. Alfred Music #00-168. Published by Alfred Music (AP.168).
Cover tiny file look inside Masterwork Technical Skills Level 4. Edited by Jane Magrath. Graded Standard Repertoire; Masterworks; Piano Collection; Technique Musicianship. Technical Skills. Masterwork. Book. 32 pages. Alfred Music #00-6585. Published by Alfred Music (AP.6585).

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