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Face it, you don't really want to learn theory. And that's Ok.

Discussion in 'General Instruction [BG]' started by Nickweissmusic, Apr 14, 2017.

  1. Nickweissmusic

    Nickweissmusic Knows all intervals from one Fred, to Juan octave Commercial User

    Jan 26, 2014
    San Diego, CA
    I teach lessons and perform live music in and around San Diego CA. Sometimes I even make money doing it!
    Several times a year, I find myself turning down prospective students. The most common reason is, an intermediate/advanced player thinks they want to learn theory, but they don't really want to.

    I make no character judgment about that, it's just a fact. The conversation usually goes something like this:

    "I've been playing for 15 years and want to learn theory."

    "Fantastic, I can definitely help, but I have to ask, are you OK with lessons which will be 50% hands-on playing or less, sometimes not hands-on at all?"


    That prospect doesn't really want to learn theory. Generally, that type of student wants to get better at what they are already good at. Like I said, I have no character judgment about that kind of player, but if the style they are trying to improve is not one that I have mastery of, he/she'll be better off with someone else who does.

    Music theory is an intellectual pursuit. Of course the end goal is to be able to apply it into your own writing and playing, but that takes months, years, decades to apply. I love the quote of 90-year-old cello virtuoso Pablo Casals, when asked why he continued to practice every day, "I'm seeing progress."

    Let me repeat, music theory is an intellectual pursuit. You'll learn fastest when you can relate what you're learning to an instrument you know, but much of the learning has to be done on paper or in your head. To quote mediocre multi instrumentalist/teacher Nick Weiss: "musical problems are solved with your mind, not your hands."

    Make no mistake: music does not need theory to exist. There are many great players who know surprisingly little about theory. There are also many players who know a lot more than their image would suggest. None of that matters, as long as the notes coming out of their instruments sound good.

    But if you're going to bother learning theory, you are going to have to get out of your comfort zone, force yourself to do some things that might be a little boring, with the understanding that music theory can help you to learn, play, and write music better and faster in the long run.

    Do you need to learn textbooks full of classical theory to be able to understand modern rock and pop? No you do not. Do you need to understand the chords and modes used in the style you want to learn? If you're studying with me, you do, and if you don't, that's what we will be working on up front.

    A classic frustrating teaching moment happened to me several years ago, which, as usual, was a great learning experience, for me at least. Similar to the conversation above, a student called wanting to learn theory on guitar. No problem, I can definitely help there. In our first lesson, I explained and wrote the major scale, explained and wrote some broken chords, and started explaining a basic chord progression the player was already familiar with.

    After the lesson, I get a text that the student wants to quit, he didn't learn or play anything (that's actually not true, I absolutely showed him several new patterns to learn, but yes, a good portion of the lesson was spent with me explaining theory basics). I politely let him know, first of all, he is welcome to ask me to change the direction of our lessons at any time, but he specifically asked to learn theory, the information I gave him was extremely valuable, and mastering a scale and arpeggios is plenty of work to leave a student with after one session. I got no response, of course. Because the student did not really want to learn theory. It's not easy, it's not comfortable, and you will not see instant results.

    So now I know how to better vet prospective students, and help them make a better choice to get the teacher that is right for them.

    Is this all to mean that learning theory is scary and too overwhelming to bother with? Hell no. The more you know the better. Any opinion that says that understanding music theory ruins your enjoyment of music, is the opinion of a coward. Plain and simple.

    With a weekly hour lesson, if you are dedicated and really learn what your instructor gives you every week, a decent, working understanding of keys, scales, modes, chords, and common popular chord progressions, can be obtained in 6 months or so. That's a drop in the bucket in a musical career.

    Of course if you want to learn jazz, classical, etc., studying theory is the work of a lifetime. At a lot of music conservatories you have five days of classroom (no hands-on at all) theory and harmony instruction per week for two years, I also had two semesters of jazz theory added to that. I'm glad I had it, and I use what I learned at music school every single day. Rest assured however, that's just not necessary to be able to communicate intelligently and pragmatically with most pro and solid amateur musicians.

    If after reading this you've realized you're not interested in learning theory, you're not alone, hopefully you'll have a better understanding of what kind of instruction you want should you seek it. Good for you for being honest and making an intelligent decision. If you do think you want to learn theory, better for you ;)

    Edit to include: I did not do a good job of explaining this above, but every student definitely leaves my studio with hands-on work to do at home, every session. How much hands-on work we do in the session itself, varies based on what the student is working on.

    Edit After a day of reading and responding:

    Very interesting to see the range of opinions, I have learned a lot from those that differ from mine, although I don't think we were too far off to begin with. When you write a post, you can't put in every detail, and it's interesting to me what people have responded most strongly to.

    The biggest dissent to what I wrote is based on the "hands on" thing. I find it surprising, I truly didn't think it was a big deal to expect an advanced adult player to sit and listen for a portion of a lesson. I think what I haven't communicated well is that everything I teach is applied and students have specific hands-on homework after every session. I didn't give every detail of a lesson with me, but suffice it to say, students do have instruments in their hands pretty much the whole time, and I do analyze and teach theory based on their requested songs and genres. I accompany on guitar, bass, or piano, or program sequences and backing tracks on the spot when it's time to work on playing. But if they're going to be focusing on theory, they can't expect to be playing every minute and going home with flashy new licks every week, unless they consider modes flashy :)I do consider part of my job to be a motivator, I don't consider it my job to jump through hoops and make every little thing fun. I think there's a difference there. If you think my expectations are cruel and judgmental, so be it, I'm being honest, it's way more interesting and educational.

    I think I can explain my process more clearly now thanks to what I've read here. Thanks all!
    Last edited: Apr 15, 2017
  2. 5544


    Dec 1, 2015
    I stopped reading after "No."

    Here is my take on it:

    The students that you are turning down because you think they don't want to learn theory probably think it is will dry and boring. By you telling them that there will be 50% or less actual playing puts the final nail of any chance that they will learn theory in the proverbial coffin.

    In order to remember and use theory, it must be applied.

    Example: Theory - learn the notes names of the strings. Applied - play an open G for me.

    Yes that example was very basic but if you tell someone they have to learn the note names of the strings and then say "play the 3rd fret on the 2nd string", there is no reason to learn the note names of the strings.
  3. BassChuck

    BassChuck Gold Supporting Member

    Nov 15, 2005
    Speaking from 36 years of public school teaching, 2 music degrees and 45 years of bass playing... I recommend you find a way to teach theory that was 100% hands on. Its the only way to make it matter. Unapplied knowledge is just a bunch of facts that have no meaning and will be forgotten.

    And yes... it can be done.
    natobasso, Funky_Be, Dug2 and 32 others like this.
  4. Nickweissmusic

    Nickweissmusic Knows all intervals from one Fred, to Juan octave Commercial User

    Jan 26, 2014
    San Diego, CA
    I teach lessons and perform live music in and around San Diego CA. Sometimes I even make money doing it!
    If you think you can legitimately learn music theory without learning note names, you don't really want to learn music theory. Simple as that. Ido plenty of lessons with people where I tab things out, etc., and teach basic theory concepts on the way. This article is about players who think they want to *focus* on music theory, and think they can study it seriously without understanding basic intellectual concepts. You can't.
  5. JRA

    JRA my words = opinion Supporting Member

    yes: for folks who come up playing by ear (a great method!) 'book learning' is probably the opposite side of the universe to them. i too have formal training/experience + years of 'on the job' with some jazz masters. but it was the 'on the job' (playing in rehearsals where things could be broken down and explained) that really taught me the most.

    BassChuck has it right, IMO: couple those facts and 'theoreticals' with hands on and your value as a teacher goes way up! :thumbsup:
  6. Razman

    Razman Supporting Member

    Feb 10, 2005
    Orange Park, FL
    I can totally relate to this. Not to say that there aren't some who could learn from a book first and then apply, but as a 'hack' who plays covers and who has also been in a worship band context for 19 years I do much better with the monkey see/monkey do approach than lots of study first. And for me, this applies to most other areas I have learned in the past, like a second language, math, my job, etc.

    Once my kids are out of school and I'm dug out from debt I should have the mental capacity and time to focus more on this. I really need someone to show me things like "This is XYZ mode and here is a song where it's applied - now play it" - this is what I'm going to look for. I know what a G chord is, and also a rest (wish my guitarist knew what that was - he's the eternal noodler), I just need to dive in deeper.

    But not right now. YMMV.

  7. Nickweissmusic

    Nickweissmusic Knows all intervals from one Fred, to Juan octave Commercial User

    Jan 26, 2014
    San Diego, CA
    I teach lessons and perform live music in and around San Diego CA. Sometimes I even make money doing it!
    Guys guys guys, hold on a second here… Every single thing I teach is accompanied with some hands-on instruction and things to work on at home, like scales, arpeggios, etc., I never send students home with "book homework." What I'm saying is, some intellectual concepts need to be taught and understood to seriously study music theory, and some people are resistant to that.

    Look at the first comment on this thread. A guy who didn't read the whole article, is suggesting you can learn music theory, by string and fret number. Sure, You can learn to *PLAY BASS* by string and Fret number. You can NOT seriously study *theory* by string and fret number.
  8. JRA

    JRA my words = opinion Supporting Member

    i get it! and you are correct, some people are resistant to that. isn't that a pedagogical issue? do you have a piano/keyboard in your studio?
  9. Nickweissmusic

    Nickweissmusic Knows all intervals from one Fred, to Juan octave Commercial User

    Jan 26, 2014
    San Diego, CA
    I teach lessons and perform live music in and around San Diego CA. Sometimes I even make money doing it!
    Yes I do have a keyboard in my studio. Obviously keyboards are an outstanding tool for helping teach Theory concepts. But this again illustrates the point… Do you think a student who is resistant to learning scales and notes on their own instrument, is going to want to sit and watch me teach them concepts on a piano?
    HolmeBass likes this.
  10. JRA

    JRA my words = opinion Supporting Member

    i don't teach anymore: but if i did: i'd use your experience to help my students = i'd sit and watch them! and listen, of course. i can also agree that we sometimes have to be shown what to do, but for theory: i could tell/instruct a student without playing anything myself --- they play, i instruct --- especially in the beginning! and i am talking about music theory here.

    i'm sorry i have to jump off for now...it will be interesting to see/read other feedback re: your post! :thumbsup:
    Michael Schreiber likes this.
  11. Razman

    Razman Supporting Member

    Feb 10, 2005
    Orange Park, FL
    Prolly not but I might, learning piano is on my bucket list. :D

    FWIW, I did read your post and you made valid points that I don't disagree with. I'll find out how much I really want to learn when I go sit down and do it.

    An anecdote about my dad (and hopefully lighten the mood a bit) - he has played accordion (bless his heart) for well over 40 years, Before he passed last February, he would talk to me on occasion about the theory he was (still) learning. Even designed his own chord calculator (it's on the wall behind him). I hope to keep learning like he did for a long time. Here he is:

  12. Nickweissmusic

    Nickweissmusic Knows all intervals from one Fred, to Juan octave Commercial User

    Jan 26, 2014
    San Diego, CA
    I teach lessons and perform live music in and around San Diego CA. Sometimes I even make money doing it!
    You absolutely 100% get what I was trying to put across here. Some people who think they want to learn theory, really just want more advanced monkey see monkey do lessons. There is absolutely nothing wrong with that. In some cases I can do that, if my specialties happened to align with the students desired specialty. If you want to learn authentic Motown/soul style bass, I'm your guy. If you want to learn Stu Hamm slapping and tapping, I'm not. Teaching theory is a different animal, as is learning it. Certainly I try to apply concepts as quickly as possible, but there is going to be some lecturing along the way, there will be confusion, there will be growing pains, that are not simply worked out by "play this note this way."
  13. Mushroo

    Mushroo Supporting Member

    Apr 2, 2007
    Massachusetts, USA
    Maybe you can demonstrate the new concept on piano, while the student plays along on their bass? That would be fun, for me. :)
  14. Sunset Shalom

    Sunset Shalom

    May 9, 2016
    How do you think musical theory first came to be? People played and pondered music until they discovered patterns I would bet.

    Notes and scales existed before people gave them names, I don't see why you would need to know the names to understand the theory. Names certainly help us communicate music as a language but likewise you can go by ear if you are familiar enough with it.

    I love imrpov but still want to learn at least some theory. I am not interested in the names at all though just the patterns.
  15. mambo4


    Jun 9, 2006
    I keep writing and deleting my response to this. I'm torn.

    On the one hand:
    Theory is not easily grasped at first, and you have to build it on layers of understanding.
    Some will learn to finger a new mode, and then want to dive into the deep end before they understand the 12 intervals or the structure of a major scale or a basic triads.
    So yeah, if a student has no interest in commanding the fundamentals, then they will not have good luck with theory

    On the other hand:
    If a student quit after one lesson , and claimed to not learn anything, I would try to take some ownership of that failure as a teacher.
    Maybe they "didn't really want to learn theory", or maybe I tried to teach them theory in a way they couldn't learn or apply to their situation.

    Musicians I play with sometimes express interest in theory, and I am happy to try to explain what I know.
    I will explain a concept in different ways, notated, using roman numerals or a piano keyboard etc but
    I often find I can't force the light of understanding to dawn in someone else.
    Maybe that is in the art of teaching.
  16. Nickweissmusic

    Nickweissmusic Knows all intervals from one Fred, to Juan octave Commercial User

    Jan 26, 2014
    San Diego, CA
    I teach lessons and perform live music in and around San Diego CA. Sometimes I even make money doing it!
    I understand what you're saying, and maybe my post was not clear enough that I do absolutely send students home with hands-on work every single week.

    I do not agree with your statement that theory can be taught "100% hands on." Learning to play an instrument and learning theory are parallel, but not identical pursuits. I take a holistic approach and try to apply concepts as quickly as possible, but the fact is, there will be some lecturing. There will be diagrams. There will be listening to music. Some people really do not want that, they are looking for what Razman called monkey see monkey do, I call it "licks and tricks" learning, which is all well and good, but you can't learn theory with that alone. You learn modes etc. hands-on, but learning *when and why* to use them, is an intellectual concept. Your statement about unapplied facts being useless is true, but it is also true that physically knowing a particular string of notes but not knowing how and when to apply them, is nearly as useless.

    For example: You can learn the pattern that makes D Lydian and A Ionian hands-on, you don't even have to know all the note names, just the pattern and where the root notes are. You can tell a student they have the exact same notes, that D Lydian comes from A Major, etc., that's usually not too mind blowing, depends on the student. But to explain and prove *why* D Lydian works better than A Ionian over the IV chord in the key of A, when they have the exact same notes, takes a little more 'splaining :) That's what I consider music theory. And some students stop before they even learn the scales, because they're not a lot of fun, interesting, or easy to use on their own. That's the point I'm trying to make here, it's not a course study of instant gratification and licks and tricks.
    Michael Schreiber likes this.
  17. Nickweissmusic

    Nickweissmusic Knows all intervals from one Fred, to Juan octave Commercial User

    Jan 26, 2014
    San Diego, CA
    I teach lessons and perform live music in and around San Diego CA. Sometimes I even make money doing it!
    I flat out say in my post: music does not need theory to exist.

    Don't get too hung up on the note names example. Knowing note names isn't music theory by the way. But face it, how can knowing your fretboard hurt? if a student is completely resistant to learning note names, it certainly makes things go a lot slower. I'm not even much of a note guy myself! I'm way more of a pattern learner, but understand that to hang with a certain level of musician, and to understand more complex chord progressions, at least being able to figure out the notes quickly is a good idea.

    Anyway, wanting to learn improvisation by patterns is definitely a valid way to go. You understand what you want to learn and have no problem completing communicating that to a teacher; you should have no problem achieving what you want. Is that complete music theory? No, but if it's all you need, so be it.
    Last edited: Apr 14, 2017
  18. Nickweissmusic

    Nickweissmusic Knows all intervals from one Fred, to Juan octave Commercial User

    Jan 26, 2014
    San Diego, CA
    I teach lessons and perform live music in and around San Diego CA. Sometimes I even make money doing it!
    Honestly, this whole post is about me taking responsibility for my failings as a teacher :) . I now know the right questions to ask before taking on students in this situation. In a lot of cases, the student doesn't really know what they are asking to learn, so now I know how to make sure I can help them. Once I have a student that's ready to go down the rabbit hole, I do make every effort to find what clicks with each brain, most musical questions have more than one answer, and it's definitely not a one size fits all pursuit. That kind of problem solving keeps me interested in teaching more than anything else.

    I personally don't even have a set method, I start with what the student listens to and wants to learn and build on their existing skills, the student in the example above didn't even know a major scale so I figured when studying theory, that might be a decent place to start :)
  19. nutdog

    nutdog when I'm a good dog they sometimes throw me a bone Supporting Member

    Feb 19, 2009
    in the dog house
  20. Wiremessiah

    Wiremessiah Inactive

    Mar 4, 2017
    Music theory is taught all wrong. Its a relic of times past when they didnt have even tape recorders.

    What they should teach now is not learning every single spelling and every key and all that, but just a single key, as much as you can learn, then transpose.

    And they should teach other theory forms such as indian classical. Teaching only western theory based on memorization is a good way to turn anyone off, and its like only teaching one philosophy or one religion.

    Stick with what matters, whats fun, and what directly applies to what the student wants to do. And keep it hands on 100%
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