I probably should go on record saying I don't think theory books are a waste of time. Some people, based on my previous rants , might think otherwise, but I actually think that most of theory books that are packaged with various methods are quite good. Life is full of hard choices, however, and choosing not to assign regular written theory work is one of the tough pedagogical decisions I make about how to use our time. But this summer, I decided to have some of my elementary students do some written work when they have less schoolwork in their lives. I purchased theory workbooks and started handing them out. On the first day, no fewer than 100% of the students squealed with delight as they grabbed the books from my hands, some even asking me, "Can I do extra pages if I want?" "Goody goody gumdrops!" one child exclaimed, a phrase one doesn't hear enough these days, much less in piano lessons.
Now, one might take this response as an argument for using theory workbooks all the time, but instead I think it only strengthens my choice to limit their use in my studio. Because clearly, by doing so -- and through no real forethought or calculation on my part -- I have increased their value and appeal to my students. I can coast on their good attitude about this assignment, and get some dedicated written work out of them this summer. Hopefully, they won't do it long enough to begin dreading it, but surely even a few months will help to further secure some of basic concepts that the books will reinforce.
Life is all about making tough choices about how to spend our time. In and out of music lessons, these decisions have to be made, because if we don't make them, we end up doing too many things rather poorly, instead of a few things well. Theory books aren't the only thing in my studio I choose to do in the summer months that I wouldn't do during other times of the year. I've got a number of drop-in students this summer: extra adults, college students home for a few months, even former students interested in revisiting their piano skills for a few months. I don't have time for these students during the year, hanging on as I am by a thread most of the time, but in the summer, when my normal load is less predictable, I can take on extra lessons. I find myself teaching them differently: I'm more relaxed with these students, letting them call the shots about what they want to work on, not prescribing my usual doses of etudes and technique work. This has got me thinking, wondering if this attitude of: well, what do you want to do on the piano this summer? isn't a healthy change from my always dictating the learning schedule. I'm not suggesting this would be a good idea taken to an extreme, because I have lots of experience knowing the best way to get from Piano-Playing Point A to Piano-Playing Point B, and that's what I am being paid to do. But shifting my focus a bit away from my assumed "best" way to learn the piano, to a more open-minded: what would serve the student best here in the next few months and give them joy? isn't a bad way to think either.
Honestly, I could use a dose of that philosophy infused into my life at the moment; dragged down as I am these days with the heat and unfamiliar humidity. The New Mexico version of air-conditioning, the swamp cooler, which work fine in a dry heat, can't hold up when the air is retaining moisture. I swear some students are going to melt during one of their sweaty lessons, and leave a puddle on my piano bench. Asking the question "What would serve us all best here and even make us happy?" would be a helpful survival technique during these scorching days.
There are moments when the clearest answer to that question is "ice cream." However, if theory workbooks can make a child utter the words, "Goody goody gumdrops," then there's hope for all of us.