Theory Wizards: A Summer Music Project


Summer’s here! Let us all heave a collective sigh of relief for another school year come and gone, which we have (hopefully) survived.

end of school

One nice thing about summer teaching, aside from the obvious addition of extra teaching time to free up my afternoons, is the flexibility my lessons have because I’m not constantly preparing for recitals, contests, etc.

I get positively giddy with the endless opportunities of summer lessons. While I do still focus mostly on method books, I also like to throw in some extra “fun” stuff that we don’t always have time for during the school year. It’s the perfect chance to teach a simple five-finger blues position, or spend more time on improvisation or composition. You can delve more into music history, and play games. You can include special projects and/or crafts, or have “listening time” with the help of CDs, mp3 players and YouTube. The possibilities are endless.

Today I am going to share a specific project I like to do each summer with my students. It focuses primarily on music theory, which is kind of a big deal to me. I believe a solid understanding of theory is vital to proper music training. Without it, you can only get so far.

On the other hand, I realize that I’m a weirdo and most people don’t share my enjoyment for the theory side of music. Thus, no matter how much curiosity and excitement I exude for the subject in a lesson, those feelings cannot be transferred to my students via osmosis.

This is why a few years ago, I was trying to come up with a theory project for the summer that I hoped would not only increase my students’ interest, but would simultaneously deepen their understanding. After all, theoretical knowledge doesn’t do a whole lot of good if you don’t know how to apply it to the real world. So while theory workbooks are a good start, and I by no means would discourage the use of them, I also think it’s important for students to go beyond the written work and to learn how it applies to actual music. Then all that “pointless” information is suddenly related to everything they play, and if they’re paying attention they’ll learn to recognize it. But they first have to be taught the information, then they have to be taught to be observant.

detective magnifying glass

I am happy to say that my project was a success. Everyone loved it and enjoyed participating, so that the end result was this: They were taught how to analyze music in a fun way. I’m sneaky like that.

Hopefully I’ve peaked your interest a little by now, so let’s get to it! The name of my project, as the title of this post suggests, is Theory Wizards.

Having done this several summers in a row now, I can attest to its popularity among my students at least. Many will even go above and beyond the requirements, willingly doing extra work to earn more credit. What’s more, it’s easy for me to prepare and doesn’t take up much lesson time.

Another great thing about this project is its flexibility. It can fit each student’s current level and has room to grow with them. There’s no cutoff limit. Plus, I can tailor the project to focus more on each student’s individual struggles.

The goal is simple: an increased level of theory knowledge, and the improved ability to apply said knowledge through analysis.

Here’s the basic concept:

As the teacher, I am a Master Theory Wizard. The student is my apprentice. The student’s goal is to graduate to a higher wizard level by the end of the summer, which they accomplish through the accumulation of completed (and correct) tasks.

To keep track of their progress, I give each student a paper that looks like this on the front:

theory-wizard-hat

As you can see, it’s a wizard hat. This is where their progress is tracked. I allow them to color and decorate it if they so desire, and they can keep it at the end of summer to display their achievement. The only rule is they can’t put stickers on the hat. Stickers are how we keep track of their progress, so we don’t want any confusion/cheating. I like to use these shiny foil star stickers, which I reserve only for their hats and nothing else, so they’re special:

P1050526

The more stickers they collect, the higher they move up. The number of stickers required for each wizard level can be adjusted depending on different factors, like how many lessons you teach in the summer, how many opportunities to earn stickers you give, etc. My current rate looks like this:

0-9 stars: Theory Wizard Apprentice.

10-14 stars: Junior Theory Wizard.

15-19-stars: Theory Wizard.

20+ stars: Master Theory Wizard.

So far, this rate has worked well for me. I made the Master Theory Wizard level virtually impossible to gain without doing extra credit work, because I feel if you really want to be a true Master, you have to be willing to put in the effort.

Because I added an extra means of earning stars this year, the levels may have to be adjusted higher so it’s not too easy for everyone to become Masters. I figure I’ll see how it goes this summer and adjust as needed. But it’s a good starting point.

So, how does one earn stars for one’s wizard hat? Well, as I tell my students, a good wizard has to know two things:

1) He has to know his Magic Words, and

2) He has to know how to use those magic words to cast a spell.

With those two criteria in mind, here is how I have structured the project.

MAGIC WORDS

On the back of their Theory Wizards page, there is a picture of a crystal ball:

theory-wizards-crystal-ball

At their first summer lesson, I will write a list of vocabulary words which they should know inside the crystal ball. These are the student’s “Magic Words.”

Based on where they are in their books, I know what they should know by now. And as they learn knew words and concepts, I’ll add those to the crystal ball, thus increasing the difficulty level. At the start of each lesson, I then begin with a review of their Magic Words. Since the list quickly becomes quite long, I don’t review every word each week. Instead, I’ll pick maybe 4-5. I usually write down the words I asked them on their assignment sheet for reference, so the next time I can be sure to pick different words.

Sometimes I will simply say a word and ask for the definition. Other times I’ll mix it up and give a definition and ask the student to provide the word I’m defining instead. For example, if I say “forte,” a student has to be able to tell me it means “play loudly.” If I ask “what word means to play loudly?”, they have to be able to answer “forte.” And for more advanced students I include more complex concepts, such as the whole/half-step pattern for five-finger scales, the order of sharps/flats, scale fingering, key signatures, the circle of fifths, you name it.

I don’t require my students to memorize an exact definition and repeat it back to me word-for-word to get it right. The point here isn’t to produce parrots, but for students to grasp the meaning of each concept and to be able to explain what it means in their own words.

If a student correctly defines all of the Magic Words for that day, they get one star on their hat. That’s it. Pretty simple, right?

CASTING A SPELL

The second part of Theory Wizards requires students to take the concepts of their Magic Words and identify them in their songs. In other words, they analyze each new piece they learn. I call this “casting a spell” on your song to reveal its theory secrets. Even though this part is written work, it’s relatively fast to do and most students actually want to do it. It’s like a mystery they have to solve, or a challenge to prove they know what they’re doing.

I like to use these sticky notes I found, continuing with the star theme:

P1050528

You can find them at most stores with an office supply section, among other shapes.

Whenever a student starts a new piece in their method book, I’ll stick one of these stars on the page and list 3-4 things they have to correctly identify in that piece. If they get everything on the list correct by the following week, they get one star. If they forget to do it, only do part of it, or get something wrong, they don’t get the star, but they will get a new list for the next week. So the opportunity is always there. The student just has to make use of it on their own time.

For beginning students, I usually focus on music reading–i.e. rhythm, note names, staff components, etc.–since that is the most challenging part of musical training at the start. Thus, for their “spell,” I have them do a lot of labeling. I’ll tell them to label a bar line, a measure, a treble/bass clef, a dynamic, a half note, a time signature, etc. And I try to switch it up each week so they’re not always finding the same things.

Another favorite of mine is to have students circle all the skips in their song. Physically identifying note movement during the week helps draw the student’s attention so they’re more likely to play it correctly right away, and it also trains their eyes to recognize visual patterns. And if a student is learning a new note (or just has difficulty remembering one), I might include in their “spell” the direction to locate every instance that note appears–preferably by circling it, or drawing a triangle/rectangle or some other shape around it. That way, they’ve been given the extra identification practice, but they’re not relying solely on written-in “cheats” when they play, like if they had written in the letter.

As the student advances, I can add in more complex theory concepts such as pattern recognition; interval, chord and key identification; even roman numeral analysis and musical form.

Those are the two primary means of collecting stars for their wizard hats: Magic Words (a.k.a. vocabulary) and Spells (a.k.a. analysis). I also decided this year to include stars for their regular theory workbook homework. It occurred to me that that’s theory too, so why don’t they get credit for that? Haha.

As I mentioned earlier though, I also give my more motivated students the opportunity for “extra credit.” This usually comes in the form of additional theory worksheets.

music worksheets

There’s plenty of sites on the internet where you can download and print off free music worksheets (I like this site: http://funandlearnmusic.com). I like to keep a few handy in my teaching bag, and remind my students regularly that I have them. I put a limit up front on the amount of extra credit allowed (up to 2 a week), because I have some students who will ask for 10 worksheets in one week, which kind of defeats the purpose of working towards a long-term goal. If they don’t want to do it, fine. They just won’t advance as high in the wizard levels.

I also give prizes for each level, so students get some sort of award to show for their work. This is optional, of course, and I don’t blow the bank to do it.

If a student remains an apprentice (i.e. less than 10 stars), they might get a piece of candy or a pencil or something small, so they get some recognition for the minimal work they did over the summer. But I like to leave the big incentives for the higher levels. 😉

If a student graduates to Junior Theory Wizard, I make them a certificate (you can download free templates on the internet) that has their name on it and says they are a Junior Theory Wizard. I even buy those self-adhesive laminating sheets that you can find in the office supply section of most stores and laminate the certificates to make them more “official” looking. Here is the template I use, for a visual:

Junior Theory Wizard Certificate

If a student graduates to Theory Wizard, I buy them a music medal that has “Theory Wizard” and the date engraved on the back.

If a student graduates to Master Theory Wizard, they get a small music trophy with their name, “Master Theory Wizard” and the date engraved on it. I get plastic trophies, because I’m just a private teacher and have to keep my budget to a reasonable level. But the kids love it nonetheless, and it gives them a tangible goal to work towards and a sense of accomplishment after all the hard work they put in over the summer.

Here’s a good website I like to use for ordering trophies and medals: http://www.trophydepot.com. I usually find reasonably priced items that still look nice. Most trophies even come with free engraving on up to 40 letters. They’ve always shipped quickly too, so my experience thus far has been pleasant. Overall, I normally spend less than $30 on all Theory Wizard awards. That works for me!

In summary, the purpose of Theory Wizards is to train students to analyze their music in a fun way. There’s always room for altering it to suit your needs, too. You could include an ear training task, or a research task for them to collect information on certain composers, instruments, or musical periods (thus adding a music history element). You could even teach them how to recognize audible characteristics in classical music, then play “mystery songs” for them to analyze.

I might even try some of these ideas myself!


theory wizards awards

I hope you enjoyed this presentation of my Theory Wizards project, and that I’ve inspired you to try something new with your students this summer, to keep them motivated and interested in learning. Whatever you teach, remember learning can be fun, with just a little time and creativity!

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