I was performing in a concert just last night and talked with two other musicians who are very talented rock musicians, but both said they play only by ear and can't read music at all. They had both taken classical piano lessons, but found the traditional lessons irrelevant to what they really wanted to do, so they quit. A statement like that always strikes me a little sad. These musicians are top-notch and don't need to read music, but my question is always, why not? It is unfortunate, their teachers didn't find a way to connect their desires with the important foundation they were learning in the traditional lessons.
I think as piano teachers, we often lose a student's interest when we focus on note reading as the key to reading music rather than chords. We fail to help the student achieve what they really want to do and keep a student in a curriculum limited to classical music. Note reading is important, and one simply cannot play traditional "classical" literature without reading notes, but often a student becomes great a reading music, but has no understanding of what they are reading. They become robotic, computer playbacks without truly knowing the music they are playing. I've witnessed talented college music majors who are unable to play "Happy Birthday" for their friend unless they had sheet music!
A knowledge of chords and chord reading can be the key to help a piano student unlock a whole new world of understanding music and even open doors to new interests such as pop music and jazz.
Most piano teachers teach scales and along with the scales is usually chord patterns. The chord pattern is usually taught is I-IV-I-V (or V7)-I. Along with that, most teachers probably help their students understand basic theory such as the names of the chords and scale degrees such as tonic, sub-dominant, and dominant. Of course, this flows naturally into understanding the dominant 7 chord.
Too often, we leave it at that point as teachers. If our students have this simple progression learned, let's take it a step further. The subdominant leading through dominant and back home to tonic is foundational in all kinds of music, but we also see the backwards cadence used often in contemporary music: V-IV-I. Allowing a student to explore this backwards cadence can be great fun and a wonderful way to explore some new styles. Encourage to use multiple keys. Make sure they understand the classical scale degrees, but also help them to see chord patterns calling the chord names what they are: G -F- C for example.
Take this a step further and change the progression to I-I-I-I-IV-IV-I-I-V-IV-I-I with each chord taking four beats. You've now taught them the 12-bar blues pattern using chords and voicings they are already know. Show them the many places the 12-bar blues pattern is used through blues, rock, gospel, and country music. Encourage them to explore, play the pattern in multiple keys and discover melodies of songs they know. With this simple step, you've introduced them to blues and are allowing them to improvise in a natural way. You might introduce the blues scale at this time, or perhaps move on to something completely different like a song they would like to learn and play.
I would encourage introducing the Nashville system of chord reading at this point. There is such a easy flow from the classical system to the Nashville and it encourages the student to think about the music theory. The student will have a great grasp of the music theory behind the chords they are playing by learning this system.
Be sure to have them also read the progression from the chord note names as well: such as C-F-G-C. Encourage them to experiment with 7th chords. In classical music, the dominant 7th always leads back to tonic. That doesn't always happen in pop, blues, and jazz. The blues progression cries out to be played with all dominant 7th chords. But, encourage them to try it with major 7ths and minor 7ths as well. As long as you're now talking bout 7ths, you might as well explain diminished and augmented 7ths as well.
A final step in this little set of exercises based off the common student chord progressions is to introduce 6 chords. The 6th chord is a great place to start with introducing the wide variety of interesting chords we have in our musical palette. 6ths are easy to find and make a pleasing sound. Once they are confortable with that idea, set them free. Challenge them to find 9ths, 11ths, 13ths... The sky is the limit when we alter one of those notes.
By now, the student is freed from the confines of the simple chord progression we started with and is hopefully starting to understand and feel free to try things and do something new. The key is listening to oneself when playing.
These steps could be developed over a couple weeks or several months as there are no limits to what a student might do. Eventually, one will want to explore some new chord progressions. My favorite to introduce at this time is the first chord progression I introduce to a beginning jazz piano student: ii-V7-I. Next time, we'll talk about the great fun a student can have with this foundational progression in jazz music.