Truly Drill-ceptional: The Two Women Who Are Making Music Theory a Breeze

Mike Lawson • Technology • July 14, 2017

Share This:

No matter how many times stores and programs frame learning music as a “fun” thing, learning music theory has never been inherently exciting (and for many, not even remotely enjoyable).

The subject, while very important to mastering an instrument and the art of composition, often comes with a flawed attitude and approach to teaching.

Enter Nancy Helstab and Jean McKen, makers of Breezin’ Thru Theory, a program that teaches children and teens grades four through 12 music theory in two-minute drills, all completely online. Since introducing the program in 2007, the two women have changed the music theory game altogether.

With their totally-digital method, students in the U.S. and Canada have completed over one million drills (yes, you read that right!). The statistics are partially fueled by a healthy dose of educational competition – the ladies rank schools by region in North America by numbers of drills completed every year. The numbers for the 2016-2017 year just rolled in, and the two schools at the top of the heap – Plano West Senior High in Texas and Walnut High School California – were also both included in Newsweek’s 2016 “America’s Top High Schools 2016” (we’re not entirely sure it’s a coincidence).

When it came to bringing Breezin’ Thru Theory to fruition, both Helstab and McKen made the perfect pair. McKen, a longtime musician, teacher, and designer, was able to address the education aspects of the program as author, while Helstab, a former consumer needs specialist, worked on the overall fun aesthetic.

“It’s just dry. No one’s really come up with a resource to make it interesting,” McKen starts to explain as Helstab playfully interjects, “until now.”

An essential part of Breezin’ Thru Theory’s educational success is that both McKen and Helstab knew what the key issues in teaching music theory were. Helstab broke down the old, rather ineffective pattern of teaching music theory:

“The way it used to be is kids would get these workbooks, all white with a bunch of notes that they’ve got to write under. Kids are sent away [and told] ‘do your theory workbook, and then come back and hand them in.’ Then the teacher will mark them at some point – the teacher dreads it because it’s going to take them weekends to mark it. The kids would be complaining, and some of them grasp it and some of them won’t because they’re kind of doing it on their own, don’t know what they don’t know, and don’t know how to help themselves.”

Likewise, McKen commented on the history of teaching music theory, and how part of the issue with teaching the subject has been its legacy of just that – poor teaching. “Music theory has a legacy of not being taught well because the teachers dread teaching it, even they themselves were not taught well,” she says. “It’s been a process that repeats itself as teachers who had poor teachers attempt to pass their incomplete knowledge to their students. It’s a flawed and futile process – never mind that the subject matter is difficult to grapple with to begin with.”

“I recognized some challenges while I was teaching, and one of them was trying to engage kids in a subject that is basically very dry,” McKen added. “A lot of them were at different levels of knowledge within in the class, which is pretty unique to music, more so than other subjects.”

The knowledge gap amongst incoming students has remained another huge issue – after all, how can you teach a class when every student is on a totally different level? Helstab likened the situation to having a class full of sixth graders, some of which know calculus, and others who know no math whatsoever – and everyone in between is learning geometry.

“You’re either too far ahead for some, too remedial for others – when you’re teaching this in a classroom, it’s really, really difficult,” Helstab said.

With all of these things in mind, the two worked on Breezin’ Thru Theory to combat boredom, isolated and ineffective teaching, the hassle of paperwork, and different levels of learning.

“I believed in this product because I understood what the downfalls are. As Jean said, this has been traditionally taught really badly,” Helstab added. “Instead of perpetuating that cycle, we turned and said ‘hey, we can change this; we can make it engaging, we could save teachers’ time, we could have kid motivated to do it, and it also doesn’t have to take up all the teachers’ time.”

While many people in the music industry are having trouble shifting into the new, inevitable technological age of learning, the digital era is where Helstab and McKen started back in 2007. Teachers can request printable pages to use, but the program has always been 100% digital, starting with e-binders and shifting to an app-like program that can be used on phones, tablets, and computers. As Helstab puts it, the goal was to create something that “isn’t actually a nightmare to use.”

“We made sure there were no technological barriers that help the kids or teachers back,” she adds.

“Even in the 80s I was trying to make things work interactively,” McKen says. “I always had a vision of something that was inter active and kids could learn at their own pace and teachers could engage kids with in in a variety of ways.”

From the start, the basis of the program has been to keep everything as quick and simple as possible; even the product’s name, Breezin’ Thu Theory, demonstrates the need for quick but effective teaching in the title’s abbreviations.

“Jean’s premise was all about the notion of two-minute drills. Right from the start, it was a little bit game-like,” Helstab explains.

When students do well in the program, for example, they receive musical prizes, like virtual “golden eggs” or “Play that Tune,” a song that they can play along with using what they learned without being tested on it.

“We can make it fun without being too kiddie, you have to hit that sweet spot where it’s not too juvenile, yet it’s not looking too intimidating,” Helstab notes. Teachers also have access to their own dashboard with graphs and chart to better assess their students’ progress.

“We spent a lot of time on design,” Helstab says. “We spent a lot of money on our graphic designers and artists. We’ll find other products out there and they do not invest in that. It’s truly innovative and truly unique because we’re not following any other model. We spent a lot of time thinking about the end-to-end experience.”

When creating the newest version of the program, the Next Gen Edition, the women worked seven days a week, 14 to 15 hours a day for six months to get the new version ready for the school year. The work that the pair does ends up saving far more time for teachers. Plano West Senior High, for instance, has completed a whopping 34,000 drills in the past year, which ordinarily would equate to 87 days of grading.

“Teachers would never devote 87 days of the school year marking, which means the kids would never be doing all this work, and they’d never be learning this stuff,” Helstab explains.

The concept rings true in practice, too; teacher Katie Harlow premiered Breezin’ Thru Theory and its sister program, Breezin’ Thru Composing, in her 6th grade general music class last fall after the chorus teacher at the school, Debbie Briggs, Breezin’ Thru Theory replaced her paper-and-pencil based theory, saving her an immense amount of time grading.

“I was nervous at first because I was reluctant to rely so heavily on technology, but modern students are ready,” she said. “I will tell you that the first weekend when I didn’t face grading a huge stack of theory papers (I have 174 students) was absolutely euphoric. The electronic grading sheets provided from Breezin’ make it very clear which students are struggling, so it is easy to pinpoint extra attention to them. I am really looking forward to the new school year with Breezin’ and plan to use even more lessons and projects from it.”

Harlow also praises the program’s lesson plan format, and yes, she said winning avatars and digital golden was a huge hit with her sixth-graders.

“The lessons are introduced logically and the drills are focused, with not too many concepts at once,” she notes. “I love the fact that there is a tight, effective feedback loop for the students between making mistakes, reviewing the concepts, and re-doing the drills to achieve higher scores (I require them to drill for mastery and reach scores 95%-100%). Previously, by the time I graded all the theory papers and handed them back, students would only have a vague idea of how to correct their work because too much time had passed between working on them and correcting them. Then I had to grade the corrections, so it was a ponderous process!”

But Harlow’s ultimate endorsement can be summed up in  one sentence: “By the end of the school year, my students were able to build a much bigger foundational knowledge base than they ever did in previous years.” We suppose that’s the least a couple thousand drills can do for you.

“Our mission from day one is to make things fun, make things easy for teachers, and make it accessible for as many kids as possible. Everything we do will always fulfill that mission,” Helstab says. “We believe everyone has music in them – our mission is to bring it out. That’s our starting point, and that’s what we believe in.”


The Latest News and Gear in Your Inbox - Sign Up Today!