How much theory do you teach in lessons?

Connie Sunday said: Sep 30, 2009
Connie SundayViolin, Piano, Viola
667 posts

On the YahooGroup string_teacher_support one of the teachers was saying that they have a lot of students with intonation problems. My response is below. I’m curious to know how much theory teachers teach in their private lessons?

If you have a lot of students with intonation problems, you can change that. You have to constantly correct them. I don’t let one single out-of-tune note go by without correcting it. And I tell them, I know I’m being picky, and I hope you know that I like and respect you, and that the only way to play in tune is have it brought to your attention, etc. It’s very hard work but as a result, they all play in tune.

Some of the ways I teach this are as follows:

  1. Have them always match the third finger with the lower string, so that the octave rings true.
  2. Have them always match the fourth finger with the string above it, so that the fourth finger placement is so accurate it causes the string above it to ring (assuming the instrument is in tune.)
  3. Everyone has to buy a chromatic tuner and tune early on, often just the A, and then the other strings, eventually, by ear, but then checking them with the tuner.
  4. Scales: each note of the scale has a specific name and role to play. Half steps between scale steps 3-4 and 7-8 are demonstrated on the piano, in writing, sung, etc. I talk about the division of 200 cents in every whole step, which explains why intonation is so tricky on stringed instruments.
  5. The concept of “frame” between the 1st and 3rd finger, with a high or a low 2, along with the notion of half steps, is carefully explained, over and over again. This concept expands as the student develops to the “frame” of the octave between an open string and a third finger or a first finger and 4th finger octave.
  6. I talk about tendency tones: 7 (leading tone) goes to 8 (tonic), 4 goes to 3, 6 goes to 5.
  7. Arpeggios and thirds. I have all students make 10 copies of the large print manuscript paper for their notebooks so I can demonstrate intervals (and how they sound on violin and the keyboard).

My sense is that I teach more theory than most teachers. Some teachers have even told me that I shouldn’t do this and just teach the violin and leave theory to some other teacher.


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Barb said: Sep 30, 2009
Barb Ennis
Suzuki Association Member
678 posts

My first cello teacher included or tried to include some basic theory as you describe, for which I am thankful now. I wish my other teachers had continued. At the time I didn’t CARE about triads, though, I only wanted to play the cello!

I do think it is important to include basic theory in instrumental lessons. I only teach beginners at this point, and don’t know where the line should be regarding what is included in instrumental lessons and what would be best reserved for theory classes. I know a teacher who requires his cello students of all levels to compose as part of their regular lessons. I’m sure it is an effective way to help with their reading and understanding of music!

I try to teach what the student is ready for. Older students get more theory at the beginning than the younger ones, and most of the teaching of theory is incidental at this point—I probably haven’t even used the word “theory” with them, it’s just a part of the music.

One of my pet peeves is string players who rely solely on electronic tuners to tune every string (very prominent in our local string orchestra), so teaching to tune to the instrument is high on my priority list! I am also picky about intonation including high 3rds and 7ths. I don’t know that I do a good job explaining why, and I wonder if the students who also play piano have a harder time with this? (The best explanation/demonstration I have found for intonation on strings is at But sometimes I have to pick my battles and will let intonation go if they are getting lazy with bow hold or squeezing thumbs etc.

One of my weaknesses in the beginning was knowing my fingerboard, so I try a few things to get students to learn their f/b geography including saying or singing note names at least on scales. When I talk about a certain note I will with the younger ones who don’t know note names yet restate things like, “Start on the D on the A string, 4th finger on the A string,” hoping they will become bi-lingual knowing fingering as well as note names. I also encourage online drills/games for note reading when they are old enough.

One of my parents asked me to teach more theory, because I didn’t focus on note reading her son’s first year. I wanted his technique to be our main goal. (At 6, he already had the basics of reading from prior piano lessons, but was starting to forget.) So I bought some Rabbit Man theory books from Young Musicians. :) I will start assigning pages soon, but it’s all things that would eventually be covered in our lessons.

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Sara said: Sep 30, 2009
191 posts

Thanks, Connie! Theory was never my favorite, but I had one teacher (piano) that had me do theory assignments every week. I did them and I am really glad she had me do as much as she did because when I moved and got new teachers, none of them had me do any theory! I try to do theory with my students, but seeing what I do I can see where I could do much more!

“What is man’s ultimate direction in life? It is to look for love, truth, virtue, and beauty.” Dr. Shinichi Suzuki

Connie Sunday said: Sep 30, 2009
Connie SundayViolin, Piano, Viola
667 posts

I don’t have them do workbooks; I just teach it in bits and pieces as it comes up in the lesson, and end up drawing blocks of text and explanatory diagrams all over their music and in their notebooks.

I have used some workbooks for exceptionally able piano students, but not for violin. Sometimes I have the little piano students get the Theory Time Workbooks. There is also a set of two books by Dorothy Croft for violin. I bought them to look at, and they look pretty useful, but I have not assigned them to anyone yet. If I move to a more classical-music-friendly environment, I may.

I have a list of such materials here:

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said: Oct 11, 2009
 4 posts

In reply to the person who says you teach the fingerboard so the students know the fingering and names of the notes I really like the Notes & Strings flashcards to accomplish that. They also have theory questions and answers on the bottom of each card. I have my students play with them while they wait for their lessons. And I use them in group lessons- they make up lots of games.

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