Every piano teacher has had a student who has said this. Sadly, too many piano teachers don't know how to respond to that request.
Some immediately respond with a short sermon on the importance of classical literature and why this is so important to learn and that we should not get distracted by anything that will take our attention away from our goal.
That answer is very unsatisfactory to me and I think most students. Wanting to learn to play the music they love and listen to is not necessarily saying they don’t want to learn classical literature. I also think it is a short-sighted idea that music can only be learned from something that is old and written centuries ago. Perhaps “our goal” should be exactly that, and with that request, playing music of today is part of that shared goal to grow and develop as a musicians.
To be honest, I think most teachers respond with a bad answer because they simply don’t know how to teach a student the songs they listen to. Usually, the only options a teacher has is to do what they do with classical music and seek printed music. As a teacher, we might seek out a collection of popular music arranged for the student’s level and believe this is going to meet the need.
Sadly, this usually goes poorly as well. Songs hit the radio, Spotify, or iTunes and have instant popularity with our students. In contrast, it takes 6 or 10 months or even more for it to get noticed by a print music publisher, and then and even more time for it to get to an arranger. By the time it goes through arranging, editing and on a company’s publishing schedule two years may have passed. How many 6th graders do you know that want to play the music they liked as a 4th grader. That is a lifetime ago to them! They want to play the music they listen to right now. Even if a publisher could speed up that timetable the printed arrangements always come up short in other ways. The rhythms aren’t quite right, or the key is changed.
As a piano teacher, we can see either an opportunity or an impossibility. In a short series of a articles, I’d like to discuss the opportunity we have as teachers when a student approaches us with this request. Today, I’ll give an overview and we’ll dig into these ideas in subsequent postings.
First, we must recognize that this is an opportunity to train the young musician’s ear. Ear training or aural musicianship is a very important part of a music education. Unfortunately, it is also one that is neglected.
We don’t have music to read? Let’s learn the song by ear! I’ll bet that is even the way the performers learned it. Why shouldn’t we? Think of the opportunities we have to teach intervals, as well as recognize chords, note patterns, and rhythms.
Speaking of chords, this is a great time to put a practical use to those chord progressions we drill through our students to practice with their scales. The truth is that those same classical chord progressions are used in pop music. They are not always used in the same way, but chords are chords and this foundation the student already has is a great place to build.
As they learn to understand and play chords, we can help them understand pop chord notation. What a great time to teach a student how to read a guitar chart with lyrics and chords only. A student who is beginning to excel in that or one that has done well with Roman numeral chords will be fascinated by the Nashville system for chords and the practicality of it for a studio musician. Yet another great opportunity to teach and challenge your student!
Speaking of practicality, learning to play by ear and growing in one’s understanding of chords and the way music is written can help a student become a great sight reader and can open doors to accompanying, playing in a school jazz band or on a church worship team. As teachers, we should be raising up students who can fill these roles and have these skills.
So that is the overview. In my next article, will focus on chord reading and playing. In the meantime, see if you can think of other benefits to broaden--not replace--a student’s musical education by helping them learn to play what they love to listen to.