The Game Plan: How a Texas Teacher is Motivating Students to Learn Theory

Charlotte Riley • CommentaryMay 2023 • May 11, 2023

When Julie Goodwin, Piano Lab Instructor, informed her 115 students at Austin Academy for Excellence that they would be taking on the world in a music theory contest she was hoping to ignite a little friendly competition amongst her middle-school students. Little did she know that her kids would end up winning not one but two of the top prizes in Breezin’ Thru Theory’s annual Ultimate Playoff competition.

Every January, thousands of students from schools from across North America and around the world put their skills to the test. Hosted by Breezin’ Thru, an online music theory program for Grades 5 to 12, the Ultimate Playoff features four games, each one tied to a key music theory concept.

The “Stickin’ the Staff” game tests students on their knowledge of the treble and bass clef, with a winner in each category. In “Rhythm Rocks” the students try out their understanding of rhythm from basics all the way up to advanced levels, and in “Icing Intervals” they practice rapid response to learning intervals. “Trippin’ Thru Triads” quizzes kids on major and minor keys, both inversions and root position.

Julie’s piano lab has students at varying levels of ability and can contain a mix of kids from grades 6, 7, and 8 as well as band, choir, and orchestra students too. “I teach 18 students in each class period, and my classes are not leveled by grade or ability, so there’s lots of differentiation as far as the pieces they play. Breezin’ Thru Theory’s complete curriculum is great for my students because they can start to work on the chapters, lessons and drills that are best suited to their ability, and after they master that they can move to the next level.”

Every year, her goal is to help the beginners become more proficient, and to keep the more experienced students engaged. At the beginning of the year, Julie tests the students to see where they are and pinpoint any learning gaps. She’s also created “Theory Thursday,” a day when students do theory drills, bolstering learning in a fun, fresh way. More importantly, the drills help kids to see and hear the music theory concept, so it is less abstract.

“When the Ultimate Playoff starts in January, I get them to spend the first 10 minutes of each class working on the competition’s games. To get better, I encourage them to review the parts of Breezin’ Thru’s curriculum that relate to each of the four games, and to work on those particular drills. It’s definitely increased their knowledge and mastery,” said Julie.

“As well, they can see where they are on the leaderboard, and it totally motivates them to keep getting better and better in their reading response times to the theory drills. They really wanted to beat the other schools, so there was lots of talk amongst the students about what they needed to do to win.”

The Ultimate Playoff is just one way Julie uses Breezin’ Thru Theory to motivate students.

After each grading period she also rewards the student who has completed the most Breezin’ Thru Theory drills at 90% or better. “While I may have only assigned 5 drills some students race ahead and do 27,” she said.

To sweeten the deal, Julie offered an added incentive to win the Ultimate Playoff – a pizza party for the class if any of the students placed in the top positions. Even though the school had to close for a few days due to winter storms, the kids were still committed to doing their best in the competition. They still kept practicing.

When the Ultimate Playoff wrapped up in late February, Julie’s students’ dedication paid off. Out of the hundreds of schools participating, the Garland, Texas, school earned the title of world-wide champions for two of the five games. An 8th grader secured the “Stickin’ the Staff” (Bass) award, while a 6th grader conquered the world (including going up against high school students!) to take the “Rhythm Rocks” award.  The Austin Academy for Excellence also placed 3rd in the world for “Stickin’ the Staff” (Treble), due to the hard work of an 8th grader.

The students earned pennants for the school as champions for two of the games, and of course, the kids have bragging rights for the year. The awards ceremony for the students will take place in May, with kids receiving Ultimate Playoff certificates for highest scores as well as completing the most drills. Julie noted, “The students were absolutely thrilled when they would improve their rank and move up the leaderboard. I’m so proud of every single one of them.”

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