No Time for Music Theory in a Lesson? Try Telescope Teaching!

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Telescope Music Teaching

© Yuriy Mazur –

When I was a student, I used to think a one-hour lesson was long. When I started teaching, though, I realized that there was much more work to be done than would fit in sixty minutes.  Often I spent lesson time helping the student practice when I wanted to help them learn larger musical concepts.  There is so much more to teach  besides just  notes. That’s why I use something I call “Telescope Teaching.”

An optical telescope, the kind that lets you look at the stars, is a simple design that allows light from a distant source to be gathered and focused by a lens or mirror. The resulting image is then magnified and viewed through an eyepiece. “Telescope Teaching” uses the teacher as the lens to gather all the materials of music – from repertoire to music theory – and to focus them into the lessons and the daily practice assignments. The resulting “view” for the student is a more complete musical education, and more interesting and productive practice.

In my “Telescope Teaching,” I design a student’s assignments to incorporate work in three important areas of musical development. We blend this work into their regular practice time at the instrument. There are only three areas of focus (beyond repertoire and technique), but there is a much longer list of benefits.

These are the three areas we target:
1. Aural skills. The specific skills we work on are pitch hearing and matching, note reading, sightsinging, rhythm skills and score reading.
2. Expressive tools. This area includes different articulations like legato and staccato, phrasing, tone and dynamics.
3. Music theory. We learn and reinforce key signatures and scales, intervals, triads and seventh chords.

The key to this plan is to incorporate as many of the target areas as possible into each lesson, and at home using the repetition that is part of their regular practice. For instance, if a difficult section of one of their repertoire pieces requires extra work, instead of telling a young student, “Play this ten extra times,” the practice assignment may look like this:
Play the right hand, saying the names of the notes as you play. – two times
Play the left hand, saying the names of the notes as you play. – two times
Play the right hand, saying the names of the notes of the left hand as you play. – two times
Play the left hand, saying the names of the notes of the right hand as you play. – two times
Hands together – three times.

In eleven repetitions, we have set out a focused plan that will keep her moving quickly from one task to the next, but also develops note reading and score reading skills.

This is a system that can be used to practice any technique with any piece and, with applicable changes, on any instrument. If we are working on expressive possibilities for a piece, the assignment will include practicing forte, piano, different crescendo and decrescendo plans, using ritardando or not. Students usually like having artistic choices to make, and their expressive range and control is greatly increased.

Music theory can be more of a challenge to incorporate this way, but it is very effective. A one or two measure segment can be repeated in different keys. Naming the notes of the triads in a chord passage is very useful. In a tricky sequence of left hand intervals, the student can identify the intervals and repeat that pattern in different keys. A little creativity can produce interesting and helpful drills that make music theory relevant and practical.

And the benefits are fantastic. Here are just a few:

1. The need for written book work is greatly reduced or even eliminated.
2. Repetition in practice is more meaningful, focused and interesting.
3. Music fundamentals are demonstrated and used as part of daily playing.
4. Students learn “goal-oriented” practicing habits.
5. Students learn valuable and creative practice techniques.

Try “Telescope Teaching” today!

Other helpful resources:
The Secrets to G-R-E-A-T Practice, another article on ARS Musica
Practice  planning charts, on Essential Music Practice

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  • Jeff McFadden

    Have you noticed that your harpists in your blog posts strongly tend to be “her?” I understand that the male pronoun has been a bully for hundreds if not thousands of years in the English language, and that persons of the female persuasion have a legitimate beef about it, but this usage strengthens a stereotype that it is not “masculine” to choose the harp. The harp is a wonderful instrument for people of either gender and any preferred style of music. The Celtic bards tended strongly to be male – it is certainly not a “sissy” instrument. Ask Alan Stivell!


    • Anne Post author

      What you say is true. My pronoun choice when it comes to harpists is meant to, albeit lossely, represent percentages. You will find that my pronouns for non-harpists are more evenly assigned.

      BTW, I was fortunate many years ago to be able to spend some time with Alan Stivell when he borrowed my harp, and became an instant fan. What a lovely man and a fine harpist!


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