Music theory, according to Paul Deakin, the Blair School’s purveyor of music theory to students in the precollege and adult program, is the flip side of practice. “It’s the nuts and bolts of music, really,” he says. And Deakin is a true champion of the discipline.
“Basically, I’ll teach it to anyone who will stand still and listen.”
Teach it he does, though the means and methods he employs may surprise his students at first.
Deakin, who has been at the Blair School since 2004, has taken a class that was once taught as a weekly classroom lecture and turned it into an interactive learning experience where students,whomay come into the program at various levels of knowledge, are able to work at their own pace. In this learning environment, selfpaced study is combined with one-on-one attention and occasional front-of-the-class lectures during any one of four 50-minute sessions held during the week, a format that makes scheduling easier for the students.
“It’s proven to be very effective,” says Deakin, “because each learner has his or her individual needs and challenges, and this method of instruction allows me to work one-on-one with themand address their issues specifically in terms and concepts they can understand—rather than addressing the students en masse fromthe front of the classroom, which is a more traditional approach.”
The precollege music theory program uses the same textbook that Blair’s college students use. Starting off with pitch, scales, intervals and chords, the students are prepared for four-part writing in the style of J.S. Bach by the end of the first semester. Depending on how long they elect to stay in the program, students continue on through more advanced harmony, moving into the Romantic Period and then on to contemporary musical practices such as graphic scores, electronic and 12-tone music.
Deakin, whose background includes curriculum design, has taken the textbook and divided it into eight divisions. Study materials for each division include taped audio lectures and study guides that lead the students through the main concepts in the book and highlight certain features of the text. There are also extra tips, advice and insights that elaborate on some of the more challenging aspects of music theory.
“It’s interactive,” says Deakin about his approach to teaching the subject. “For the most part students work at their own pace, completing self-tests at the end of each chapter, checking their answers, and self-correcting if necessary. I’m always on hand to give extra assistance where it’s needed, to check over their work, or to spot-test them on key terms and concepts.When students finish a chapter I’ll give them a practice test and then a more formal test under exam conditions. This allows me to see whether they’ve reallymastered the material. It also gives me an opportunity to address any issues before they move on. I will occasionally do small teaching segments and cover something in more traditional style if enough students are working on a particular topic. I’ve also experimented with rolling in composition projects at the end of each section so students have an opportunity to bring what they have learned out of the realm of the purely theoretical and into a concrete project.
“I’m delighted when a student comes to me and says, ‘I was with my piano teacher and I played this half-diminished seventh-chord and I recognized it!’ Suddenly theory and practice, two worlds that have been artificially separated, have come together—that’s what it’s all about for me.”
Deakin is emphatic in his belief that music theory is as important as performance and that both are indispensable to becoming a well-rounded musician.
“Virtuoso performance without an understanding of what’s going on under the hood, so to speak, is one that is, arguably, lacking in some important aspects, and the reverse is also true,” says Deakin. “That’s what the program is about—raising theory to an appropriate level of importance, and making sure that when our precollege and adult students leave the program they do so as well-balanced musicians and can demonstrate proficiency and excellence in both theory and practice.”
The Blair School’s precollege music theory program teaches students from age 12 to adulthood. Students are tested upon entry to determine their level of knowledge and may enter the class at any time. Currently, 40 to 50 students are studying in this self-paced program, which can take up to eight semesters to complete. For more information on registering, contact Trisha Johns, registrar, precollege and adult students, at (615) 343-3825.
© 2015 Vanderbilt University | Photo credit: John Russell