1. Let’s start with the lower grade, most practical teachers for piano or violin do not put in theory teaching in their lessons, how do you see this practice affecting the students’ performance in the exam? Or in the long run?
The outcome from that will definitely be not good. I personally believe in teaching music in a holistic manner, or in other words I can’t separate or neglect any component. I have seen many cases in my practices, students with no solid foundation in music theory sitting for practical Grade 2 or 3 exams. I don’t deny that they might be able to pass. However, with such weak understanding in theory at the initial level, it will hamper their progression and performance in the higher grade like grade 4 & 5. A lot of teachers have ignored the fact that time spent in imparting theory knowledge at the lower grade, will help students to advance to higher grade faster, without too much struggles to regurgitate the learning of repertoire blindly.
2. Can you state an example where the ignorance of a theory matter affects the performance of a particular repertoire?
A few years ago I took over a student a month before her practical Grade 3 exam. In my first lesson with her I realized that her foundation in music theory was not good, or I should say really poor. She had not even covered Grade 1 music theory but she was sitting for Grade 3 practical. She couldn’t read notes at all as all the times, she was taught to just copy and imitate what her previous teacher showed her. The most obvious issue she had was definitely her struggles with sight-reading test. In fact, all the other exam components were affected too. Furthermore she couldn’t really understand me whenever I was teaching her using musical terms, or in other words, understanding a music language.
3. Why is it important for students to make sure their practical grade to be on par with the theory grade?
Every exam syllabus has been designed in such a way that music theory knowledge plays an equivalent role with the practical grade, especially if we talk about the lower Grade 1-5. For example, if a student whose theory has only reached grade 1, but intends to sit for Grade 3 practical, he or she will definitely find it difficult to manage the overall exam components of grade 3 syllabus. It may take longer time to prepare these kinds of students to sit for the practical exam. I’ll give you just a very simple example, Grade 1 theory doesn’t cover any minor scales but in Grade 3 practical exam, students are required to play minor scales as well as sight read in minor keys, not to mention other areas such as compound time, musical terms etc…..that are not covered in grade 1 theory syllabus. Students might lose interest too if he or she finds the practical exam tough to follow with their lower level of understanding in music theory.
4. Most students stop at theory grade 5, do you see this practice hampering their progression to practical grade 6 – 8?
Well, this practice is definitely a barrier for a deeper understanding of their repertoire and the enhancement of their general musicianship skills. Most of the exam repertoire for Grade 6 – 8 are serious works, with complex textures, harmonic structure and forms, which require solid knowledge and experience. As an educator, I prefer to see our students being more independent, and be able to analyze and examine their repertoire on their own, instead of me spoon-feeding them at all times. Blindly practicing repertoire without understanding the construction of it will not form a long lasting passion and interest in music. Some students end up hating the practical exam because they feel it is meaningless to play something that they do not quite understand at all.
5. Can you state an example of the negligence in learning music theory deterring a student in achieving excellent result in their practical exam for grade 6 – 8?
I’ve taught and examined many high grade students, some of them are really good players, I should say excellent. Unfortunately, the lack of strong music theory knowledge pulls down students’ abilities to score well, especially when it comes to sight-reading and aural. Let’s talk about sight-reading for Grade 8, is it enough to only play the right notes and rhythm? Can you have a quick grasp of the texture, form and style in 30 sec.? What about the description of a piece played by the examiner for the aural segment, are you confident talking about texture, use of harmony/chords, and speak with musical terms? All that is essential in order for students to achieve excellent result in the high grades 6 -8. Just practicing the 3 exam pieces and scales may not be enough to ace the exam.
6. For serious students who intend to pursue music in universities and music colleges, what are the disadvantages if they do not learn music theory well?
In the very first place, they’ll have a lot to catch up, even if they get into a performance department, not to mention if they choose to go for theory, composing or conducting. I have graduated from a performance department myself. I had separate weekly lectures for harmony, solfege, counterpoint/polyphony, music history, music analysis and many more. Having Grade 8 music theory may not be even enough to blend in well in a cohort of students coming from music specialists schools, but it is a good starting point I think. Even in the music elective programs in some of the local secondary schools and junior colleges, students are required to pass the Grade 8 theory as their MEP curriculum includes a higher mastery level in composition, harmony and music analysis.