Talking theory with Faye Lopez

NOTE: The theory prep course discussed in this interview is no longer available.

In my opinion, theory is the gateway to real world music. Don’t get me wrong: you can play music without knowing hardly any theory if all you want to do is replicate classical music, and inexplicably, that is what often happens. However, if you want to be functional in the real world of music in situations like church, theory is ultra important.

To illustrate my point, would it make much sense to only teach young chefs to cook from recipes? Chefs cannot rely on recipes. They have to understand how ingredients work together so they can create their own recipes. Exactly the same is true of music. Theory is the science of how music elements fit together.

It is a shame that theory is so often neglected in the early years of music education and many students pay a high price for that later on. I have heard from hundreds of parents bemoaning the fact that they have children who are skilled at replicating Beethoven but fall apart in church in front of a simple hymn. In fact, I have heard from hundreds of adult musicians who now are looking for the theory from me that they should have gotten decades earlier.

As I have announced, in 2017, we are starting an online Theory Prep course geared at students wanting to go to college for music. It will be taught by Faye Lopez. I asked her some questions about her theory background and teaching and what she wants to do with the class.

Tell me about what you teach now at a college level.

I currently teach classical piano lessons (to majors, minors, and non-majors), hymn improvisation lessons, and Rudiments of Music—a required theory class for approximately 35-40% of our incoming Theory I students, based on testing. In the past, I have also taught Graduate Theory Review, and Sightsinging (I taught over 50 sections of that class!)

(Trivia: I’ve been called the “theory mom” at times, because of the relationships that have been built through this kind of training.)

How have the students you have worked with changed over the years? What are strengths and weaknesses of them compared to the students of the past.

One thing that I love to do is to take theory concepts and to try to make them understandable to students. This has happened in numerous ways through work with students in lessons and theory classes, and also in one-on-one extra help. I try to show the connection between the music they want to make and the needed understanding of the basics of music theory.

So many students have learned to comprehend the basics over the time I have taught, and show gratitude for the time we’ve had together. One thing that is important is to sit at a keyboard and actually experience what we teach about.  Even in an online class, I think this keyboard time is valuable.

I have taught piano for several decades, and have taught these courses on the college level for 15 years. One trend I see is less emphasis on music theory in school music than there used to be. (Also for a variety of reasons, some homeschoolers don’t have good opportunities to prepare in this field.) It seems that many music lesson teachers avoid music theory training because they feel insecure in teaching it.

What are the biggest weaknesses that you see in incoming students that want to be music majors? How can parents adjust to counteract that?

Based on national studies and journal articles, the weaknesses I see with incoming students are found nationwide, even at some very renowned music schools. Many schools have classes such as I teach, to bring incoming freshmen up to our level of expectation.

It would be wonderful if parents could nurture opportunities for this kind of training before a student gets to college. Students need to thoroughly know their note names (quickly), key signatures, rhythms, scales, and have a good introduction to intervals and chords, as well as ear training.

Another interesting observation is that students who are challenged in math and in reasoning skills often need extra nurture in music theory.

What are your goals with the Theory Prep course you will be teaching next semester?

I would like to take the areas I just named and go through a methodical training process with the students, and make it very enjoyable. (Students regularly tell me that this kind of study in the class I teach at school is their favorite class, even though it is an extra class that some of their peers are not required to take! I consider that a high compliment.)

We will be using a fine textbook that is thorough, yet engaging.

I want to offer some extra time online at the end of each class, for students to interact with specific questions. I will also try to assess where particular strengths and weaknesses of students lie.

It is a wonderful journey in music, to open up understanding of music theory—not as a dry, dusty list of facts—but as a vehicle to help students become better musicians.

This may also help some students find out early if they are prepared to major in music in college. We will be candid in this kind of assessment, and outline steps to help with success in the future. The smaller class size will enable us to do this.