Off-the-bench interview with Thomas Hoops: Music Learning Theory Specialist


Last summer I signed up to hear Thomas Hoops speak at Rockley's Music in Lakewood, Colorado. He was so fascinating that I took notes (which is unusual for me!) and I immediately introduced myself after his presentation because I wanted to learn more from him. Thomas was happy to set up a Google Hangout so I could easily share with you what he so eagerly likes to share BUT, technology issues got in the way. That didn't stop us as he does not live far from me so we met up in my studio and recorded the video below. 

In the post, you'll find minute marks of where Thomas discusses specific elements of the highly esteemed Music Learning Theory. Like all good conversations, we had an agenda but, we got off on tangents occasionally so I pinpointed highlights.

I recommend that you take the time to watch the interview as his ideas and purpose for off-bench activities are GOLDEN!


0:00 Thomas' opening remarks include some great quotes.

When we are born, we are a fresh hard drive.

We are pliable up to age nine.

Focus on aptitude first rather than achievement.

Music Learning Theory is a sequence, not a method.

2:30 Steps of acquiring a language like music should be similar to learning a language.

  1. Listening
  2. Imitating
  3. Speaking
  4. Reading
  5. Writing

3:53 Music Learning Theory (MLT) of Edwin Gordon is based on sequence and audiation--thinking musically.

4:50 First step in the sequence of MLT: Oral/Aural = We say something and we repeat it to build a familiar vocabulary.

5:21 Talking parents into music learning theory can take time but they eventually get it.

6:00 Begin with using neutral syllables.

6:40 Second step: Verbal association.

Put it in your body and never forget. - Piaget

MLT uses a moveable Do.

7:30 What if I don't use solfege?

[I started using solfege in my teaching in a way that feels natural to me and I look forward to sharing how I'm doing it with you soon!]

8:30 Another step of MLT: Partial Synthesis

9:00 Discrimination learning is crucial! It's knowing what something is and what something isn't.

9:50 Start every lesson from scratch. A must-read is Robert Duke's book entitled Intelligent Music Making.

[Full disclosure: All links to the manipulatives listed below are provided with an affiliate code.]

11:00 Concepts like steady beat and balance are action nouns.

11:50 Next step: Symbolic Association: assigning signs and symbols

12:40 Get kids to sing by using puppets and the magic of play.

Everything I do is purposeful.

We learn through play.

14:30 What is a concept vs skill?

A concept is a steady beat, playing rhythms is a skill.

16:30 Here's an excellent activity to move rhythm onto the keys combined with a singing exercise.

18:00 How can an exercise ball be useful in piano lessons?

19:45 Sing this song while bouncing on the ball: "Fish Alive."

22:40 Many don't want to sing but, once you do, it will force you to listen.

23: 50 Introduce tunes only on white keys which leads to the language of tonality.

25:00 The MLT approach is key to improvisation.

26:00 Can this approach still be used even if we are not MLT specialists?

26:40 Learn clever ways to use bean bags to develop body awareness and balance.

29:00 Sing an ostinato while moving arm with a bean bag.

30:00 Check out this cool ear training idea as it provides a chance to audiate without having to perform.

31:00 Here's another neat trick to get kiddos to repeat activities.

32:00 Bungee cords-these are cool! Ideal for experiencing bound vs flow.

35:00 Scarves - Ideal for experiencing continuous fluid movement and free flow. Good for doing something and engaging the brain at the same time.

39:20 Use a Mystery Bottle to heighten listening skills.

40:45  Learn how play dough can test finger skills.

41:00 Get a Zippety Do Dolly to teach finger skills.

42:00 Wrapping up

Learn more about Edwin Gordon and the Music Learning Theory here.

Learn about how I incorporated MLT with the help of some BEETS here.



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Thomas Hoops has over 25 years’ experience in the piano studio and has refined a method to keep the drive alive and the work fun. Hoops holds a B.A. in Music and M.M. in Music Education. He has won many awards and scholarships and is certified by the Gordon Institute for Music Learning (GIML) in Elementary Music level I. Thomas is a member of Music Teacher’s National Association (MTNA) along with state (CSMTA) and local (AMTA) affiliations. Thomas is in demand as a presenter and speaker on his unique approach to music learning. He also has experience with solo performance, rock/blues band, studio recording and sound engineering, and composition. An accomplished pianist, Thomas plays and teaches in all musical styles.