Learning music theory the unschooling way

Sarah, like many 17-year-olds, lives and breathes music. She loves nothing more than popping on her Beats headphones and discovering new favorites or enjoying old ones, singing along, watching music videos… but, until about three months ago, she’d never played music herself outside of a disastrous two-week flirtation with the flute in fourth grade (and we’re SO not counting that), and she had no idea about any music theory concepts.

That all changed when we found a great local music teacher, who’s been instrumental (see what I did there?) in helping Sarah build a foundation of understanding to go along with her listening. She’s gotten better at singing and even started learning to play, picking up the basics of piano and drums and working on some deeper skills on her favorite instrument so far, the guitar.

One of the keys to why this is working out so well? Her teacher uses what I call the unschooling approach to music theory – focused predominantly on playing by ear and playing “real songs” right away.

Music Theory the Unschooling Way with Garage Band Theory - an Unschool Rules review of a system that teaches playing by ear

Except, one problem. I could help her read music. I could encourage her to practice. I could take her to lessons. But, despite more than 15 years of music lessons, I am horrendous at playing by ear.

So you can guess I was pretty stoked when, after about two months of introductory lessons, we heard about something called Garage Band Theory – described as “Tools the Pros Use to Play By Ear!”

I was like, “Sarah! Maybe this can help!” Her response was, essentially, a much politer way of saying “Anything would be better than your awful attempts to help me pick out ‘Lean on Me’ on the piano, Mom.”

Music Theory the Unschooling Way with Garage Band Theory - Unschool Rules

Music theory: The traditional approach

The traditional approach to music theory and music performance in our area is pretty simple: Kids start off learning to play some familiar songs on the recorder in third grade, pick a specialty instrument a year later, and practice playing from written lesson books daily for the rest of their school careers.

Disclosure: In exchange for the honest review of our experience which appears in this post, our family received a copy Garage Band Theory for free. We were compensated for our time completing the review, but all musical fun had was ours! This post also contains some affiliate links, which will make me a little bit of money to keep funding guitar lessons for my kid if you choose to purchase any of the products I’ve mentioned.

If you’re lucky, like me, you might have taken private music lessons before this, giving you a head start. I took piano from the time I was 5 until I finished high school, and while I got to be pretty technically proficient, I knew nothing about improvising until late in high school, and I don’t think I ever played by ear once I got beyond “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star.” It was as if my elementary music teachers got together and said, “OK, that’s cute for basic songs, but now we’re going to show you the real way to play – by reading music.”

There are definitely some great alternative approaches, like the Suzuki method, and I had some AWESOME music teachers who made me really love performing, but all in all, it wasn’t until I started to get beyond the technical motions into the soul of the music – and began playing stuff other than the lesson-book drills that I hated – that I really started having the most fun.

That’s the experience that I wanted to give Sarah when she wanted to study music, and why the “unschooling approach to music” is working so well for us.

Music theory: The garageband approach

In the intro to Garage Band Theory, author Duke Sharp says something that really resonates with me. He mentions that he actually doesn’t like the phrase “playing by ear.” He says it’s misleading – and goes on to say that it “actually discourages people from developing a skill they already use unconsciously and naturally every single day.”

He gives some great examples: You don’t have to wait for the DJ to tell you who’s singing when you hear your favorite song on the radio. When one of your family members walks down the hall, you can probably tell who it is. You can tell if it’s your dog or the neighbor’s barking. Heck, you can probably belt out a passable “Happy Birthday To You” in a crowd even if you’re generally a terible singer.

And that, he says, is exactly what it takes to play by ear – the ability to listen well, comprehend, and, when called for, turn that information into making a sound in response. And all of that is natural.

That was hugely eye-opening for me. Music “theory” and “performance” that stem from a natural exploration of sounds that you enjoy? Whoa, this “garageband” thing sounds like an unschooling approach to learning music!

In both her weekly lessons and our time exploring Garage Band Theory, Sarah has been able to just have fun. Most of her musical learning starts with listening, starting with the music of the Beatles – which is both where her music teacher starts, and what Duke Sharp recommends in Garage Band Theory! She doesn’t have to practice the same song over and over; instead, she’s learned to pick out chords on the guitar and piano and put them together into songs she loves, like “Radioactive” by Imagine Dragons and “Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds” by the Beatles.

We’ve just gotten started with Garage Band Theory, which is a SUPER-deep resource. The book works back and forth between reading, playing exercises and answering some brief questions in a workbook-style format.

The basic idea? When you can really understand something – what it’s called, what it does and how it works – that’s when you can use it as a tool to create.

So while Garage Band Theory starts with the names of the notes and the types of chords, it skips the basic drills of playing Middle C in 50 different ways and moves into practice identifying them as they appear in popular songs and using that to help you build recognition. When you hear the three NBC bells, you’ll say “Hey, that’s just an inversion of a C chord!” Fifteen years of music lessons and that never occurred to me until Garage Band Theory.

Sarah’s focus right now through her music lessons is simply familiarity – picking out songs, getting comfortable with the guitar, starting to play things she recognizes. While she’s probably not ready to devote the time to really working through the Garage Band Theory system, we’re excited to have it as a resource to help her get more familiar with some theory basics as she continues her musical explorations through lessons! (The author, Duke Sharp, notes that taking professional lessons is highly recommended – the system works best as an enhancement to that kind of teaching, not as a replacement.)

Music Theory the Unschooling Way with Garage Band Theory - Unschool Rules

Sarah had never seen tablature shorthand for guitar before – only full pictures of the first few frets. When we worked on how to read it using Garage Band Theory, her mind was blown!

Win a copy of Garage Band Theory

I’m lucky enough to be able to be part of a Garage Band Theory giveaway – 11 readers who are 18 or older will receive a print or ebook copy of this cool book! (Paper copies can only ship to the U.S., sorry!)

Garage Band Theory

You can also grab a copy on Amazon.

I hope you’ll have as much fun as we have exploring music in a different way!

Unschooling: Our March and April 2017 adventures

Our family has been BUSY for the past few months, in many good ways and a few sad ones. This wrapup of March and April will get us caught up on unschooling news through the end of what would be Sarah’s 11th-grade year in public school, but I can’t promise it’s as complete as it might be! (As always, if you want a more frequent peek at what we do, you can always find me on Instagram and Facebook.)

Unschool Rules unschooling wrapup - carnival selfie

All the Conciliottomans at the spring carnival!

If you’re new to seeing our days recapped in this format, check out our archive of previous wrapups here for some more info on why we take this approach and some other highlights of our adventures.


Well, let’s get the biggest news out of the way first: We’re moving! We get into our new house, which is only about five miles from our current house, starting May 10. We don’t sell our current home until May 22, so we have a little time to get things all set up at both places.

Unschool Rules unschooling wrapup - old house

This has been our home since October 2005. It had its ups and downs (I’m looking at you, new roof-heat pump-water heater) but it has been the location of many awesome family memories, and we’ll miss it.

This was a whirlwind. You might ask, “Joan, did you have ANY intention of moving this year?” If you did, I might reply, “Heck to the no!” We had JUST started having some family conversations about the value of a place that needed a little less work and that might have a first-floor master for my mother, who is having some trouble with steps, but we had no firm plans other than to start seeing what was out there and maybe get some quotes on what it would cost to do some renovations at our current place to create a more workable space.

Disclosure: This post has some affiliate links. I only link to things we legitimately use and recommend, so if you see such a link, it’s because we really do believe in the book or item!

Then, while waiting for a meeting to start at work on Wednesday, March 22, I saw a property that had just been listed 15 minutes earlier. It was perfect. I contacted the Realtor and set up an appointment for us all to see it on Friday, March 24; we were all off because it was Sarah’s 17th birthday. We loved it at first sight. After talking things over, we did a VERY quick mortgage approval process and ended up spending Sarah’s birthday dinner at our local sushi restaurant on the phone with the Realtor, making an offer, which was officially accepted on Saturday, March 25, which happens to be my mom’s birthday.

So, if anyone asks what they got for their birthday this year, we can legitimately answer “a house.”

Unschool Rules unschooling wrapup - new house exterior

This is our new house!

Then came the process of getting our home listed to sell, so we did an awful lot of work on cosmetic things and also packed up about half of our stuff and put it in our garage, plus having a big ol’ yard sale with my best friend.

We also had to juggle showings of the house with Mom, who has the aforementioned trouble with her knees and thus can’t always just pack up and wander around aimlessly on short notice, and, even more importantly, our aging dog, Coby, who is 14 and not in very good health, and who has very limited mobility. Thankfully we only had to have four showings over three days, and then we had an offer finalized a week after we went on the market!

Unschool Rules unschooling wrapup - goldendoodle in park

This poor old dog is 14 and not in great health, and having to leave the house we were selling for showings was REALLY hard on him. But we took him to the park and Dan laid down with him and tried to keep him comfortable.

After that, we completed the rest of the mortgage paperwork, and now we’re just finishing the packing. Thankfully (again), we are able to hire movers to actually cart the stuff from Point A to Point B. We just have to get it ready for them.

So we are all incredibly excited and, you know, incredibly tired. Thankfully (again – you’re going to hear me say this a LOT about this moving process, which has gone much more smoothly than we deserve so far), Dan’s mom will be coming out for two weeks after we move to help with the transition, in addition to what our family of five can do.

Unschool Rules unschooling wrapup - new house interior

Here’s a sneak peek from just inside the front door of our new house. The door to the right goes into what was a dining room, but which we plan to use as an art and project space. I’m so excited!

I just can’t wait until we’re in and unpacked. I’m the kind of person who will be totally unpacked in two weeks; that’s just how I roll. But it’ll be a long two weeks!

On the unschooling front, a lot of the conversations around mortgages, escrow, commissions and more went into Sarah’s economics credit on this year’s transcript. It was a HUGE piece of learning for all of us.

Unschool Rules unschooling wrapup - walking dead cupcakes

So, I’m not the cake-decorating type. But Sarah requested Walking Dead-themed cupcakes for her birthday, so I made some amateur crossbows and angel wings out of fondant dough and sugar sheets. I didn’t think they came out too badly!


I know I’m missing things here, but a few highlights:

  • Batman Eternal: Volume 1 – Sarah has wanted this for a long time, and our library finally had it available to read!
  • The History of the World in Bite-Sized Chunks – Our current occasional family read-aloud. We jump around, so we’ve read about World War I, Alexander the Great, Elizabethan England and a bunch more.
  • The Walking Dead: Volumes 1, 2, 3 and 4 – Also a library find. After being obsessed with the TV series, Sarah has finally decided to dig into the comics.
  • Serial Killers and Psycopaths – OK, not the most cheerful, I admit. We were browsing through this at the bookstore and Sarah was really interested, so we bought it. She’s been into true crime since becoming interested in forensics a few years ago, and recognized many of the stories involved.
  • DK’s The Vietnam War: The Definitive Illustrated History – This one is special. I have worked with DK in the past and received an email that they were looking for photos of Vietnam veterans to share. Dan’s dad, Paul, served in Vietnam and we worked through Dan’s mom to get a photo and submit it – and it was included in the inside cover of the book, which we received a copy of but then sent on to Paul as a birthday gift. I am looking forward to getting a copy to keep… as soon as we won’t have to move it.

Rock Band

Unschool Rules unschooling wrapup - rock band guitar class

Sarah is having a great time learning to play guitar at Rock band glasses.

A big way Sarah has been spending her time lately is in music classes with an amazing instructor, Rod Goelz of Music at Metropolis. Rod’s an unschooling-minded guy who really clicks with Sarah. They work on the fundamentals of rhythm, harmony, vocal and instrumental performance and playing by ear together as part of a series of classes called “Rock Band.”

The playing by ear part is the most amazing to me, because though I am a pretty decent pianist and saxophonist (15 years of lessons on the piano; I should be), I have never been able to play by ear. Sarah’s work with Rod is helping me a ton, and excitingly, we’ve been asked to review a program called Garage Band Theory that focuses on the same thing. More to come on that soon!

Unschool Rules unschooling wrapup - cousins at breakfast

How did we spend Easter morning? Driving to first pick up a van, then meet my cousin and her three daughters (also homeschoolers) at the Philadelphia Airport, where they flew from Alaska. They are hoping to come to Pennsylvania and stay for quite a while soon, and we are SUPER excited!

Movies and TV

A special note for our newer readers: I’d love for you to check out our post on learning from movies and TV shows. It really explains a lot about why we are such fans!

I also want to give a special discussion in this wrapup to Thirteen Reasons Why, a topic of HUGE debate in the parenting community, for reasons that range from it potentially glorifying suicide to being inaccurate about mental health resources to being too graphic in its depictions of rape and suicide.

Sarah and I have watched it together and really are glad we did. Do I think you should park your 10-year-old in front of it by themselves? Absolutely not. But if you don’t think that show depicts real life, unfortunately, I think you’re mistaken. Our immediate family and friends have dealt with a lot of mental health issues in the past few years, and so much of it was all too real.

Here’s a look at some more of what we watched in the past couple of months:

  • Shawshank Redemption – Part of Sarah’s interest in Stephen King’s work.
  • 30 Rock – Sarah and Mom finished this series and, surprisingly, haven’t started a new one yet!
  • Trolls – I hate to admit it, but it was pretty adorable. And the music is catchy.
  • Logan – I cried like a baby at a superhero movie.
  • The Walking Dead – Now we’re on a season break, so instead of watching, Sarah is preparing for how to fund a trip to Walker-Stalker Con in New Jersey in December to meet Norman Reedus.
  • Legion – Chris and Sarah’s new series.
  • Ride with Norman Reedus – So she really likes Norman Reedus. She bought the full season of this herself and binge-watched it in one relaxing day. I loved it because it was a real travelogue of cool places we might want to go or already have been, so that was cool!
  • Blank Check – Sarah loves the idea of having a million dollars to spend, but we talked about how this doesn’t hold up to inflation.
  • Flubber – Just plain fun.
  • The Money Pit – I could have passed on screening this during a house move, but Sarah thinks it’s funny.

We also watched a terrifying video of a tarantula molting, which I refuse to link to but which you can Google if you and your kids are so inclined. Sarah loved it. (Sarah loves tarantulas.) I do not love tarantulas.

Unschool Rules unschooling wrapup - escape room game

We escaped the “prison break” edition of our Escape Room: The Game set! (The cats were actually no help at all.)

Video, board and card games

As always, we like to spend at least one night a week gaming, though with the move that’s gotten a little less frequent than we would like.

Some of the highlights of the past couple of months have included the Simon’s Cat card game; Gloom, a new favorite; Munchkin, always a hit; and Family Feud, which never fails to make me ask “Who are the people they’re asking these questions to and are they for real?”

We also, since we like doing in-person escape rooms so much, bought Escape Room: The Game and did the “Prison Break” episode. That was a ton of fun for the five of us!

Unschool Rules unschooling wrapup - carnival ride

Amid the chaos of packing, we had time to visit the spring carnival in town. Here, Sarah, Marzipan the elephant and I are riding the Himalaya, to varying degrees of excitement. You should know that I. Do. Not. Ride. Rides. They don’t make me sick, and I’m not scared of them. I just totally dislike them. But Sarah decided I should ride this with her, Dan should ride the Sizzler and Chris should go through the haunted house, which I cannot do because I scream like a 5-year-old.

Universal Yums

One of the coolest new things of the year has been a family subscription to Universal Yums, a subscription box that sends snacks from a different country each month. So far we’ve gone to Germany, the Ukraine and Italy, and more recently, our snacks came from Israel and Austria.

Unschool Rules unschooling wrapup - universal yums austria

The pizza-flavored treats from Austria that were part of our April Universal Yums box blew Dan’s mind.

Israel wasn’t so hot for me, because it contained a lot of sesame, to which I am very strongly allergic. But Austria included a lot of chocolate, and since it’s the home country of one of Sarah’s favorite people, Arnold Schwarzenegger, she was excited! They had pizza-flavored corn snacks, labeled “American style,” which were my favorite.

What’s really cool is that we try to make an evening out of our taste-testing. All five of us try a little bit of each snack, we rate them, we look up facts about the country and we have a good time.

I’m not an affiliate of Universal Yums, but I can definitely HIGHLY recommend it. You can definitely look forward to hearing more about this in our roundups as long as our subscription continues!

Unschool Rules unschooling wrapup - carnival swings

Sarah had the best time riding the swings. She was so relaxed and loose, like she could have gone around for hours.


Theater is something that has always kind of been a part of Sarah’s life, but in an… adjacent kind of way? What I mean is, most of her local friends are active in various theater groups, and we go see their shows, and we’ve gone to see a bunch of other shows both in the area and nationally, and we listen to musicals like they’re pop music… but she’d never really been part of any major production.

That all changed in late March, when, as we were, you know, talking about buying a new house, she decided to audition for Peter Pan and Mary, a locally-written play being premiered in May at DreamWrights, our local family theater.

Her preference was not acting – DreamWrights chooses its crew from auditionees, and she got something she wanted very much, a chance to be part of the props team. There were some weird glitches, though – so on callbacks night, she didn’t get a call, and it wasn’t until I got an email a week later that said “Hey, props team!” that we found out she’d be a part of the production. Then, on the first night, somehow Sarah didn’t connect with the props mistress and helped the set construction crew all evening. She was hooked!

She has ended up putting in four or five hours a night, sometimes five nights a week, for the past month or more, and is splitting her time helping the two crews. Her cast’s show debuts Saturday, and we’re all going to see it Sunday. I cannot wait. She’s doing an amazing job, and one of the adult leaders even pulled me aside to tell me what a huge asset she is. I’m thrilled.

Sarah isn’t auditioning for the next play, but I think the one after that, she’ll be back. The break is largely because she’s also taking part in a two-week Shakespeare immersion camp in late June at OrangeMite, our local Shakespearean company. They’ll put on a production of The Tempest, which I think is super-cool, and of which you can be assured pictures will follow in future wrapups!

Sarah, her dad and her granddad at dinner following her grandma’s memorial service. Since “Pappy John” lives in Florida, we don’t get to see him very often and this was a welcome visit, despite the sad circumstances.

Unschooling places, projects and odds and ends

Other family news: In a sad update, Chris’s mom (Sarah’s Grandma Mary) passed away unexpectedly March 2. We have spent much of the last two months managing the things that came after that, including Chris needing to work with his sister to sell his mother’s home. “I have so many houses right now,” he says. I felt truly terrible when I broached the subject of moving, but… we’re making it work.

Unschool Rules unschooling wrapup - cemetery sheep

One of the neat things about the graveside service for Sarah’s grandmother was a chance to see these sheep, who serve as groundskeepers for the older portion of the church cemetery.

Capitol Days: For the second year, Sarah participated in this 4-H immersion experience to state legislature, including a full mock bill session and brunch with her lawmakers. She loves it.

From ginger to gingerbread: Based on, I think, a display of fresh ginger in the grocery store, we got into an evening-long conversation on how ginger becomes gingerbread.

Art news: I sold my first commissioned piece of art, as well as several other paintings, and I got brave and tried something new – a cold wax painting class. This is where you mix cold wax in with oil paints to change the texture, and you can create some really great stuff with it! I’m looking forward to trying more.

Unschool Rules unschooling wrapup - cold wax oil painting class

One of my accomplishments in the last couple of months was attending my first class in a new art style – cold wax oil painting. The two women standing on either side of me (I’m in the Hogwarts shirt toward the right) and the one in the front in the purple shirt are good friends of mine and part of an art group we call the Dream Team. We liked it so much we signed up to do it again in June!

Exercise: Sarah wanted to start using my old Fitbit when I upgraded mine, so now she’s got a step goal and is walking around our neighborhood most days trying to hit it. She’s doing some biking, too, though that’s on hiatus for a little because she had a minor bike crash that left one of her hands pretty thrashed.

The official end of 11th grade: Sarah’s portfolio went to our evaluator and was approved; the documentation was sent to our soon-to-be-former school district; and our records were transferred to our new school district. Sarah is officially done 11th grade! One last year of compulsory reporting to go, though you know in our world, that won’t change much of how we live our lives together. We also included this year’s credits in something that took a LOT of time in the past month, our Ultimate Guide to Creating an Unschooling High School Transcript. Sarah was a huge help in pulling that together!

So what’s new with your family this month? Drop me a comment! I love hearing from all my “blog friends!”