All piano teachers should teach pop music. Period. And I’m not saying you just hand your students pop sheet music every now and then, or consent to play a piece they happen to bring in. I’m saying you should actively teach, study, analyze, and even introduce your students to pop music.
While it certainly doesn’t have to be your focus, or even take much of your time, pop music can have a huge impact on the energy and vitality of your studio. In my studio I require all of my students to learn some pop music. And while it’s not my focus, it is an important part of my studio and how I teach.
One of the common misconceptions is that teaching pop music somehow lessens the quality of your teaching. But if you’re willing to use stickers, prizes, or a silly game just to add some fun, is using pop music really that bad?
Why not use music they already love (even if it’s not the best quality) and make music the motivation. Our students listen to music often… and a lot of it! Rather than fighting that, why not use pop music to our advantage?
Disclaimer: If you aren’t worried about attracting new students, only have students who want a classical music career, and don’t have any students who struggle to practice or learn theory, this article may not be for you. 🙂
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I’ve found that teaching pop music can be a KEY to motivating students, helping them understand theory, and attracting new students.
And if you teach it “the right way,” it will even simplify the way you teach and prepare to teach.
SIDE NOTE: WHAT DO I MEAN BY “THE RIGHT WAY”
You may have had some bad experiences teaching pop music: Your student brings in an arrangement they found online… impossible rhythms, awkward fingering and notations, even wrong notes.
Or maybe you’ve had a student who isn’t interested in any of the classical repertoire you show them, but every chance they get they start to pound away at Heart and Soul.
Believe me, I’ve been there.
Fortunately, it doesn’t have to be hard. You can be a teacher who teaches pop music, and have your students love you for it, by only spending a small amount of lesson time. You can see huge benefits by only devoting a few minutes in one or two lessons per month.
I won’t spend much time on “how” I teach pop music today, but it is important for you to understand the basics for now.
For teaching pop music, I recommend the following:
- Teach them only the amount they can absorb in 5-10 minutes.
- Listen with them, talk with them, arrange the piece together.
- You don’t need to teach the whole piece.
- Step away from the sheet music! (Sheet music has a time and place, but for flexibility and for simplicity, I don’t usually use sheet music when teaching pop music.)
- Try different methods: teach by rote, by chord, by ear, etc.
I’m not saying this is the only right way, but it is an extremely effective way to teach pop music.
If you were only trained classically, don’t worry, so was I. It doesn’t take a superhuman ear, incredible improvisation skills, or voodoo magic. If you’re interested in learning more about how to teach pop music, check out my free newsletter.
Now onto the “why”…
POP MUSIC IS EXTREMELY MOTIVATING
I’m a huge believer that we should help our students seek out the best music. We should share the best that classical, jazz, and other genres have to offer. But, at the end of the day, most of the music our students will hear will be pop music.
Fortunately, that means they respond extremely well to pop music.
You don’t have to convince a student to learn a pop song. Often I just say the name of the song, and my students can’t wait to get started. Because they already know it!
Especially if you have a student who is struggling to practice or to feel motivated, pop music could very well be the answer.
It’s simply drawing on what they already know, are familiar with, and might have even listened to in the car on the way to their lesson. After all, good teachers connect what students already know to what they don’t know. Pop music can be a way to do just that!
It can even be an incredible experience with students who don’t listen to pop music much, or haven’t heard that song before.
Because I’m constantly looking for new pop music I can teach my students, I heard Adele’s “Hello” the day it came out. I taught many of my students the opening to the song before they had even heard it. Imagine their excitement a few days later when it came on the radio- the exact sounds they had already learned to play on the piano.
Crucial to long-term success and happiness in music is learning to identify oneself as a musician. Winning competitions and participating in programs can help a lot, but what better way than giving them pieces that they can play at a party with their friends. Even classical composers were familiar with the “popular” music of their day, and often used it as inspiration for their music.
A cool experience I had with one of my students was pulling up the music video to One Call Away by Charlie Puth. The beginning of the music video shows Charlie Puth playing the piece my student was working on at the time: Rachmaninoff’s Prelude in C# minor!
Plus, the skills that students will learn with pop music will help them to be a more valuable musician in the future. Most of my transfer students have never heard of a lead sheet, or a chord chart, and have no idea how to use chords. They may know how to play major, minor, diminished, and augmented chords in all their inversions, but they can’t use even the most simple set of those chords to accompany someone in a musical way.
Just like with classical music, I will sometimes look up a few piano covers of the same song with a student, to help them develop a critical ear.
A POWERFUL TEACHING TOOL
Do your students dread learning theory? Pop music can be the perfect way to introduce chords, inversions, melody, harmony, chord progressions, the circle of fifths, rhythm, surface rhythm, harmonic rhythm, scales, and a number of other concepts.
Not only is it more interesting for the student, but it’s actually easier to teach this way. You can use real examples to teach real concepts. That will stay with the students much longer than hours of writing in a workbook.
Not to mention pop music can be a great way to lead a student to develop the skills of arranging, composing, and playing by ear, assuming you teach it the “right” way… 🙂
Hopefully, you are familiar with the benefits of rote teaching and how it can motivate students and increase the efficicacy of your teaching. (If not, check out this article!)
POP MUSIC IS A TEACHER’S BEST FRIEND
Would you ever teach the same classical piece to all your students at the same time? I don’t know any teacher that has, and I don’t think it would go over very well (although that might be an interesting experiment).
The beautiful thing with pop music is this: If you spend a little bit of time digging into one pop song, you can teach that one song to all your students. As you teach you can highlight what each student needs, focusing on theory, the musicianship, a technique, or even a specific scale or key. You can customize the piece to fit every student’s skill level.
You could start more advanced students with the chord progression and see if they can figure out the melody. While younger students you may only want to do part of the melody.
Since you aren’t using sheet music, you don’t need to worry about staff reading and/or rhythmic notation. (They’re important in the long run, but they can kill a student’s motivation. Again, this article.) It simplifies the process and gets the students playing more music, sooner.
Most students are happy just learning part of a piece, like the beginning or the chorus. So it doesn’t have to take too much time away from their other repertoire. If you want to take a piece further, then you can look up sheet music or have your students arrange their own piece.
It also helps you relate to your piano students, and you seem more in touch with the real world. Yes, there has been music written in the last 100 years! 🙂
PLUS IT HELPS YOUR BUSINESS
While teaching pop music isn’t my focus as a teacher, pop music has been a huge way for me to differentiate myself in my area. Many teachers don’t know how to teach pop, or simply don’t teach it, and this helps my name to come up in situations it might otherwise not. It has brought me many, many students.
Also, if you really consider what parents want, most parents are not interested in their children solely playing classical music. They want their child to have fun, and develop a skill that they can share and enjoy the rest of their life. Pop music is a great way to bring in that fun.
Last of all, teaching pop music doesn’t require expensive new materials. In fact, you can do it mostly for free. Since I usually teach my students without sheet music, there’s one less expense. (Click here to see why I purchase all my students’ sheet music.) Plus the training and resources are also free: think YouTube music videos, tutorials, covers, and other arrangements.
Do you teach pop music to your students? Tell us why or why not in the comments below…
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Photos by Jackal1,