Piano Teaching Q&A: Pop Music

A couple of weeks ago there was a great post on Music Matters Blog about students wanting to learn pop music. One thing that was discussed there was about rhythms – when your students want to learn pop music, are you a stickler on playing the rhythm exactly as written? Or do you let them bend the rhythm a bit so it sounds just like the original recording sounds?

I think this is a very intriguing and actually an important topic. To the question already mentioned, I would also like to add this: What do you actually think about letting your students play pop music? This is something I am sure we all face. Students want to play pieces that are “fun!” Unfortunately, “fun” for many students translates as “not classical.” Hopefully we can change that in our studios – but how do we handle the pop music issue?

Here is my own personal response, and I really want to hear what you think of this as well!

I think it doesn’t hurt to let students play some pop music. As a classically-trained pianist, obviously I put a lot of emphasis on the classical music in my teaching. But I do think that students need a little motivation at times. And to be quite honest, I think that playing some pop music really helps piano students to become well-rounded musicians. What the student gets out of playing some pop music actually depends a lot on the difficulty level –

Simplified, elementary-level pop music: Sometimes a simplified version of “Star Wars” can work wonders for a seven-year-old boy who is becoming bored with lessons. We all must admit that those simplified Disney songs can really be quite fun for students. I don’t mind my students playing some pop music every once in awhile. On a side note, I do think it is important to not call their pop piece their “fun” piece (that breaks their music into two categories – “classical” and “fun” – not a good message to send our students!).

As far as rhythm-bending goes, the simplified popular songs often have simplified rhythms, therefore they do not actually sound as they are supposed to, and kids notice this. I usually let them play the rhythms more syncopated or swung to match the real sound of the song, as long as the student realizes how it is written, and that they are, in fact, playing it differently than it is written.

Non-simplified pop music: Ok, so this stuff can be really fun (I enjoy sitting down and playing these sometimes!), and it can actually be very challenging. I think it is a great thing for a student to be able to play a fun pop song with a very tricky rhythm. I tell my students that they can learn these types of pieces every once in awhile for lessons, but they must play the rhythm correctly. I am a real stickler on this. Otherwise they are just being lazy and are not being good musicians. Because seriously – those rhythms can be really tricky. You don’t find those types of rhythms much at all in classical music, and I think it is a really good skill to have to be able to really feel the beat and play the rhythm well.

A couple of things – when students do want to play pop music, I think it is good to encourage them to play songs that were actually written for and recorded with a PIANO. Not only are these songs a lot of fun (because they sound much more authentic), the piano part is usually written better than when it is a transcription of a song for a rock group. So some examples of pop songs with a predominant piano part – Walking in Memphis, A Thousand Miles (Vanessa Carlton), songs by Jon McLaughlin – many of you could name a ton more. My eighteen-year-old brother is an amazing pianist (he just performed Rhapsody in Blue with his school orchestra and did a wonderful job), and not only is he great at classical music but he loves to sit down and play pop songs and sing. (He’s also possibly reading this – love ya, Dude!) I honestly think that he has become a better musician in part because of the fact that he plays this kind of stuff all the time.

So I would say to be open for these types of songs at least every once in awhile. Try to find good teaching moments in popular songs. Make sure the student is becoming a better musician because of it.

Walking in Memphis (Piano Vocal, Sheet music.)A Thousand Miles (Piano Vocal, Sheet music.)

What do you think?

Jennifer Boster

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