What is it about the doorframe of the music theory classroom that causes all the knowledge and skills students acquire within to leak out of their brains once they step into the hall? “Anna” cannot count her alto part in choir, yet she made an “A” on her meter exam last semester; “Dave” struggles to sing his aria on pitch until his accompanist reminds him to try it with solfège; “Jimmy” consistently misses the key changes in his band music, but he can tell you that the trios of marches typically modulate to the subdominant. These actual recent situations in my department reveal a disconnect between what students learn in the theory classroom and how they approach their ensembles and applied literature. Many seem content to leave music theory on the classroom side of the doorframe, renting what knowledge they need to earn their marks for the semester just as they rent their textbooks.
Those textbooks are jettisoned in a curricular model that my teaching colleague and I have developed for first-semester theory this fall. So are tests, workbooks, and any assignments that our students could construe as purely “academic.” The model does not necessarily “flip” the classroom so much as it reverts the student-teacher relationship back to that of apprentice and learned mentor through in-depth, hands-on, guided exploration of the repertoire. We want even our least experienced students to embrace their roles as artisans-in-training, to take more ownership over the skills and conceptual understanding demanded of working professionals, and to regard the music theory classroom as a workshop for acquiring the language and craft of the profession.
I propose a talk session in which I first briefly detail the proposed curriculum, including examples of assignments and methods of assessment, followed by discussion of the advantages and potential perils of our approach. I will share but also seek strategies for making music theory relevant for first-semester students by engaging them more immediately in its real-world applications. At the same time, I hope to gain through fruitful discussion a clearer understanding of the course philosophy and the means by which we can meet its objectives.