How to Teach a Pop Song with No Music [Repertoire Rap #3]

By Tim Topham | Classically Trained to Creatively Curious

Mar 09
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Hi again, everyone. It’s Tim Topham here with another Facebook live repertoire rap. These are my overviews of some of the stuff that I’m doing with my students in regard to music that they want to learn and some of the best books that are out there that I’m finding. As you come on the call, as you do, just say hi. Let us know where you’re from, and we’ll get started with the main bit of content.

Today is a little bit different to what I’ve been doing with some of the other repertoire raps where we’ve been looking at actual music books. Today, instead, I thought we’d take a different tack, because I literally last week had a student come to me with one of these pop songs that he wanted to learn. I wanted to actually, rather than look at music, I want to give you some skills and some ideas about how you can teach a pop song, any pop song, without any music at all. It’s like a take on the repertoire rap without the repertoire written anyway. It’s a little bit different today. I hope it’s going to be really useful for you.

We’re actually going to be looking at a piece called Mockingbird by Eminem. This Eminem, if you’re unfamiliar with him, was quite a popular rapper in … What would it be? Probably the 90s, I guess, and he’s made a lot of quite interesting music. What you find with rap music … A lot of piano teachers would just go, “There’s nothing I can teach you in rap music.” I take a slightly different tack, because with rap music, there tends to always be some kind of … Well, no, that’s not true. In certain rap artist’s repertoire, there tends to be some type of music which is musical, and then they rap over the top of it. Often there’s chants, like a chorus, that might have some chords in it. That’s the kind of piece that we’re going to look at today.

Good day, Maggie. I can see that you’ve joined. As you come on the call, just say hi, and let me know where you’re from. As the call progresses, if you’ve got anyone that you think would find it really helpful to know a little bit more about how to teach a pop song with no music, then please share this with your friends so that they can find it as well.

As usual, I’ve put a couple of notes at timtopham.com/rap, R-A-P. Given that this is a little bit of a different session, there’s not so many links to music and things like that, but if you have missed or you’re interested in any of the previous ones I’ve done … We talked about … In the very first repertoire rap, we talked about pop music arrangements and books that I recommend that actually sound good and that kids want to play. That was number one. Two weeks ago, we did a session on great music for adults and teenagers, the new age film kind of music. If you’re interested in that and you’ve got students who play that kind of music, then check out repertoire rap number two. All the links are all on my blog, or you can just head to timtopham.com/rap.

Okay. Let me play you a little bit of this song that this student wanted to learn. Hello, Laura from the USA. What I tend to do, if a student comes in and says, “I really want to play this song,” then if we’ve got the time … And I tend to try and always make the time … then the first thing we do is actually jump on YouTube, which I’ve got over here on my computer, and have a listen to the song. That’s what I’m going to do with you right now. This is exactly what I would do in a piano lesson with a student, and this is what I did with my student the other day. I literally typed into Google the name of the song … Sorry. Into YouTube. Let’s have a listen to the first part.

Cool. Can you just give me a thumbs up if you can hear that music okay? I can always turn it up. Just leave a comment there. Hopefully, you were able to hear it. It’s got a little chordal piano riff behind it, so I thought woohoo. Okay. We’re heading in the right direction already. This is something that we could potentially teach the student. I listened to it for probably, I don’t know, a couple of minutes with the student. We worked out that it sounded like it didn’t change at all. It just has maybe four chords in it, which, as you know, the more you explore pop music, isn’t a huge surprise to most people.

All right. Step number one. Listen to the song with your student. Don’t worry about using lesson time to do this as well. It’s great, because you can find out what the music’s like. You can get an idea of whether it’s something that you could teach, and it’s okay to use a lesson like this. Students like to see that you’re engaging with it. They like to see that one, you’re open to learning some other things. Sorry. Helping them learn things. Number two, you’re happy to learn some new things with them as well. This is totally okay. We’re not going to spend the whole lesson doing it, but part of the lesson, totally cool. We’ve had a listen to it.

The second question. I want you to almost write this down somewhere. If you’re teaching a pop song, the most important question to ask a student is which part would you like to learn? Which part would you like to learn? This is crucial, because I’ve had so many times when a student will want to learn a pop song, but the bit that they want to learn is actually just the riff of the chorus or a bit near the end or something. It’s not necessarily going to be the beginning. Classic example where it is the beginning, of course, was the song that everyone wanted to learn. That Coldplay riff, right? Now, that’s a classic one, the start of the song. Lots of kids know how to play that. It’s fun to play. I know how to play it. I could pull it out at any stage, and that’s what I like being able to have my students do, too, but it might not be at the beginning of the song, so just ask the student. Which part would you like to learn, and make sure you go to that next, okay? That’s step two.

Step three, you’ve really, then, got some options. How are you actually going to help the student learn this song? You’ve got three choices here. We can learn it by ear, we could learn it by the sheet music, or we could learn it by the chord progression, using a chord chart of some sort. For today, we’re actually going to do it by ear, because this is a completely repetitive pattern. It’s actually got a piano part over the top of it, but the chord progression, we should be able to work out by ear, all right? Let’s go into that now. Let me show you what I actually do with the student.

Let’s just hear it again, and I want you to start listening for the bass line. This is what is the magic behind how you can use pop music and connect that to aural work. If you’re thinking about a holistic way of teaching, aural work should be part of everything that you do in a lesson. Try to avoid at the end of the lesson going, “Okay, what interval is that, or what interval is that?” Things like that, it’s just so disconnected for students that it becomes meaningless, and it just becomes that little add on that you tack on at the end, when it shouldn’t be, because for students, aural and listening and singing should be part of everything they do. This is where pop can be really, really helpful. Give us a thumbs up if this is making sense. All right. Here we go.

I’m going to play it again, and I want you to listen out for the bass line. Everyone gave me a heart or a thumbs up before, so I’m gathering you can hear it okay. I’ll turn it up a touch. Listen to the bass line, and can you hum the bass line? I will do this with my student. Here we go. Has anyone got the first note yet? Find that note on the piano. Here it is. All right. If you are listening, as much as it for us as trained professionals to be able to do this, right, it’s something that students have to develop a skill in doing. Finding the bass line of the song tends to be one of the hardest things to do, because they’re going to hear … He’s singing, right? They’re going to hear whatever’s up at the top part of the piano, the melodic ideas. They’re going to hear … I don’t know. What is it? That’s what they’re going to want to hum back to you, but of course, that’s not going to help us find the chords. We need to find that bass line down low. We’ve got to help turn on their ears to doing this. There’s a whole lot of ways we can do this, and there are skills that we can give them to get better at hearing bass lines, but this is where we need to start.

I say to the student, “Can you hum the home note? Hum that first note. What is it?” Can you play it? Let’s match it on the piano. Okay. We got that first note, so let’s have another listen. Where does it go then? Does it go down, or does it go up? Here’s the main note. Here. Which way does it go? It goes down, so we can try and get them to hum. Where does it go? It goes down to here. What note’s that? It’s a C. We’re going here, C. Then where does it go? It goes back to the top, so it goes … Just getting the student to vocalize that … It doesn’t really matter what symbol they use or what vocal sound they use, but just getting them to sing out loud and then try and match them on the piano is such a golden way of getting this connection between practical piano playing and listening. That’s what we want, isn’t it? Yeah.

This is the step that I took with my student. We found … is the rhythm and the bass line. We play it down a little bit lower so it’s got that slightly syncopated movement. Beautiful. All right. What do we add next? Well, it’s a pop song, right? It’s based on chords, so we need to add some chords. I’ll tell my student, “All right. Well, let’s find the first chord.” We know the root note is an E, so what’s your guess? What’s an E chord, right? Does this song sound happy or sad? It’s a pretty sad song, right? Why don’t we try an E minor chord. All right. Let’s try that. Yeah, okay. We’re starting to get somewhere.

With all pop music style playing on the piano, I tend to stick the chord just around or below middle C. It sounds more rich in that part of the piano, so here rather than up here. Left hand’s just a single bass note if the student is small, or you could use octaves if the student is a little bit older. Laura, any tips for shy students who will be reluctant to sing? I’ve actually had a lot of these, Laura. It’s a really great question. Yeah. The strategy is just to do it all the time. Just make it a normalized part of the teaching that you’re doing. I’ve actually only changed doing more singing with my students in the last … Probably in the last year or two due to the sessions I’ve been having and the things I’ve been learning online and in my community.

What happens is it becomes a little bit more normalized the more you do it. Just do a lot of singing, and the kids will groan and mumble. I’ve got a lot of teenage boys that I teach. It’s just become normal. The more you do it, the more it will just become something that happens in your music lesson. Remember that if you can get kids singing … Particularly if they can vocalize a rhythm, even without singing it … vocalizing rhythms like that can really help these kind of things sink into their heads and into their ears and brains before they even try and play it. It really, really does help. Good to see Orlando as well on the call. Hello.

All right. We’ve got the first chord and the bass line. We can start playing along to the track. Let’s push play again, and we’re going to play the first chord, and then the bass line. Here we go. Okay. You get the idea. We’ve started to do a little bit of a framework around this song. Admittedly, this isn’t the most interesting of pop songs, but if your student wants to learn it, well, fantastic. Let’s go with it, right? It could just be that hook that keeps them wanting to learn forever, potentially. Go with this. All right. We have picked out the first chord, and we’ve got the bass line. We need to work out the other chords, right?

My next note is C, so what chord should we put with it? Well, let’s put a C major chord with it. It sounds okay. What about the next chord? We’ve got the note D. We could either use a D minor or major. Here’s minor. I’m not sure that sounds right. I think that sounds better. Then I think it just goes back to the E minor. You know what? I actually think this is a three-chord song. There you go. Not even a pop four-chord pop song. This one is a three-chord pop song. I’m going to press play, and I’m going to play along with those three chords. Here we go. Here we go. E minor. Great.

We’ve pretty much got the outline of this song. I don’t think it actually does anything else other than these three chords. E minor, C major, and D major. Beautiful, right? Okay. Now, we’ve got that framework, but it’s not going to be very interesting for very long for the student, so we probably want to listen for … There is a bit of piano, melodic piano, in the right hand. I’ll go back to the beginning. See if you can pick it out. Did you hear that? Let’s have one more listen, and then we’re going to try and play it. We’re going to sing it first, of course, aren’t we?

If your students are going to be reluctant to sing, sing along with them. Try and get them to vocalize whatever it is that they want to play. It’s not too hard. Now, of course, this is where you can start connecting theory and technique with what you’re doing as well, because this piece is in E minor, right? As piano teachers, we know that there should be an F sharp in this piece somewhere, right? For a student that’s trying to play what they just sang, the chances are they will firstly go straight for white notes. All right?

If they’re listening, they’ll of course go, “Hang on a sec. Something doesn’t sound right here.” This is where we can talk about scales and key signatures, because really, to enable us to be able to easily play a pop song that we hear on YouTube, we need to know the scale of the key the piece is using, right? That’s going to make things easier. We’re going to be able to remember and work out where the sharps are. This is when I’d stop and say to the student, “Okay, well, what key is this in?” “Well, it starts and seems to finish and sounds really set at home on E minor. I think this is E minor.” Depending on where your student’s at with level, if they know how to play the E minor scale, they should probably play it a few times now and get used to it.

You can also, of course, check out the circle of fifths. I always have this on my piano. The circle of fifths is a great way of showing you to a relationship between all the chords in a particular key. If I pop over here to E minor, I can see that the most closely related chord is the relative major, that’s G major, which we’re not using in this case. Then over to its left, we’ve got C major and A minor. We are using C major. Then again, to the right, we’ve got D major and B minor. The three chords that Eminem is using in this, E minor is the tonic. We’ve got D major, and we’ve got C major. The two chords hit the side on the circle of fifths. This is why a little bit of theory with this can be really, really helpful.

We can start making those connections between the scale of E minor and the fact that we did put an F sharp in. I’m just noticing the note. My piano instructor from college would be keeling over if she heard this. Fantastic. I love that. Okay. With the F sharp in, we’re sounding like we’re in the right thing now. This is good. If I played this, we’ve got a couple of things we could play. We could play the chords. I’m using inversions, but if I use just repetition, it would sound like this. Then maybe we could play the bass line and do the right hand melody.  Then it goes, I think … or something. There’s a second part to that little right hand melody.

You can keep exploring this with your student. What does the melody do next? Can we work it out by ear? Again, this cross relationship between listening, singing, the theory of the scale, of the keys and the chords, this is why I’m so passionate about pop music. It opens up so many doors, of pathways of connecting both with students and with the theory and the aural and all that kind of stuff that so often just gets left when you’re looking at just pure repertoire. So often this gets left as something else that you do later on. Really, this is the nuts and bolts of why I love doing this kind of thing with students.

Now, I’m going to say it again, because I know there were quite a few comments after my first one when I did the first repertoire rap talking about pop music arrangements, right? I don’t advocate a diet of pure pop for any student, all right? This is just a segment of a lesson, a part of a lesson, a way to capture their enthusiasm. A way to keep them hooked. This is what it’s all about, okay? I can see there’s a couple of comments here about playing it by ear. Yeah. Every ear player I know wants to learn to read, and every classical player wants to play by ear. Well, look. Let’s give our students the ability to do both. We should be creating well-rounded individuals, right? If we can maybe stick with the classical repertoire and all that stuff that we’re already doing and the technique as part of our lesson, and then add a whole lot of aural ear listening, singing, chord playing as a second part of the lesson, we’re going to be creating far better musicians, and they’re going to love it. Trust me. They’re going to love this, right? Okay.

We’ve listened to it. I’ll just go through the steps that we’re talking about here. First thing to do. Listen to the song on YouTube with your student in the lesson. Just the first part or whichever bit they want to learn, because that’s the second question. Which bit do you want to learn? Ask them that very question, and go to that segment of the song, and then listen to that. Step three is how are you going to learn this? Are you going to … There’s three parts to this as well. I’m getting confused here. We’re up to step three, and there’s three parts to step three. The three parts are are we going to learn it by ear, are we going to learn it by chords, or are we going to learn it with the sheet music?

Today we’ve taken the path of learning by ear. Now, there’s no problem with you jumping on Google and typing in the name of the song. In this case, Eminem, Mockingbird, piano sheet. That’s what I’d type into Google. What’s the first thing that will come up tends to be Musicnotes. You’ll be able to preview the first page. That will give you the chord symbols above the melody. In fact, in the case of this … And I’ve put a link at timtopham.com/rap … I’ve put a link to the actual Musicnotes sheet here, all right? That can be a great reference.

It’s Kristen. Yeah, Kristen. Hello. Good to see you on the call. You’re absolutely right. There’s nothing stopping us using all three methods, and quite often, just to confirm what I’m hearing is right, I’ll find the sheet music on Musicnotes, that first page, and just check I’ve got the chord symbols right. Or if I need some help, use that first page. It’s a free preview. You don’t have to pay for anything, and it might just be the bit that the student wants to learn and gets you started.

We’ve got learning by ear. We’ve got learning with the sheet music, and we’ve got learning with the chord symbols. If you were to type Eminem Mockingbird chords, there’s probably two sites that will come up. One is Guitar … What’s it called? Ultimate Guitar. The other is E-Chords, E dash Chords. Both of these will give you the lyrics of the song with the chord symbols above. That’s called a chord chart. That’s another way to get the chords. Look, I love it. If you can spare 10, 15 minutes, doing it aurally is of a huge benefit to your student and will really improve their skills in so many areas of their playing.

Is this all making sense so far? Can you give me a little heart if this is helpful and if it’s making sense? If you’ve got any questions, please pop a question in the box. I’ll do my best to answer it. Okay. We’ve got up to step four, and step four is to actually try and play what we hear. That’s what we’ve just done then. We’ve played the chords, and we did the melody here, or whatever. I can’t remember how it goes. That’s step four is to try and look at what’s actually being played.

Now, we could at that stage … Thanks, Bif. We could at that stage finish. Maybe that’s all we’ve got time for. That’s totally cool, because the student can then go home and play along to YouTube. If you’ve got more time, and it’s perhaps a teenager or an adult, and you’ve got a longer lesson, then what I would say to do is then do a little arrangement of it. Get them to think outside the, “I’ve got to just play along to YouTube,” and think, “Can I make this, actually, my own piece of music?” There are a few simple ways to do this if you’ve never done it before. The most simple would be to move the chords and the ideas around the piano.

I think for my student, who we actually did this song with just last week, what I did is I suggested he could start maybe at the top of the piano. He could do something like … That was just chords at the top. Maybe he could do a little bit of … What am I doing here? Well, I’m using the E minor scale to do a little improv over the chords in my left hand, the chords from the song. Then maybe he goes down. Do you get the idea?

If a student with a few ideas and skills in their head when it comes to a little bit of knowledge of scales and the key they’re working in and the ability to play something while the left hand is being consistent with the chord progression, they can create a whole arrangement of this song. This is musical, right? This is some of the most musical stuff that you could do with a student. That’s step five. I don’t want to spend too much longer on this, because I think 30 minutes is a really good chunk of information, and I’ve got far more information about this in the course that I’ve created on pop music, which I’ll tell you about in just a second.

Let’s just recap one more time. First thing, listen to the song. Ask which bit they want to learn. Work out how you’re going to learn it, chords, music, aural, or a combination of all of them. Play the main components of the song, and then do a little arrangement. It doesn’t have to be long or complex, and get the student moving around the piano. If they can move between chords, and playing kind of melodic ideas, fantastic.

I also … Just as an aside … love teaching my students to … Sorry. Love encouraging my students to sing along. If it’s a pop song and your student … You reckon you could encourage them to do it, get them to sing along. We all know how hard rhythm in pop music can be. If it’s meant to be sung, and we try and play it, it’s incredibly difficult. The easiest thing is to not try and play it, but actually get the student to sing along. Now, that can be a big leap for some students, but I’ve also been incredibly surprised by when I put a little bit of pressure on, how when a student opens up with a bit of confidence, how beautiful their voice is.

I’ll be sharing more of those ideas later this year. In fact, in May, I’m going to be focusing the whole month on my blog and my podcast on pop music. I’m going to be also talking in April, so next month, about the pop recital showcase I did. Thanks to Kristen Earnest, actually, and the podcast that we did. I did a pop showcase recital, and I got a number of my boys to sing songs. It was absolutely brilliant. Really, really good. If I hadn’t suggested it, none of them probably would have done it, so get your kids singing as much as you can. I think it’s a really great thing to do. Good day, Tom, Donald. Nice to have you on the call from the UK as well. People from all over the world. Totally love it. All right.

Let me just wrap up by saying I’ve actually created an eight-part course on pop music. It pretty much goes from if you’ve never taught a chordal approach … Chord progression, circle of fifths, pop songs. If you’ve never taught any of that stuff before, then I start with a crash course in chords, a crash course in pop, and it goes through how to create arrangements with your students, how to simplify pop music that’s too hard, how to use lead sheets and chord charts, the whole lot. It’s an eight-part video series. It’s all as a part of my membership. If you’re interested in that, you can head to timtopham.com/community, and you can get full access to that whole course and all my other courses. The blues course. I’ve got a new beginners, teaching beginners course coming out this month. Lots of lots of stuff there.

I’m just going to check out. We’ve got a question from Jack here. Do you ever veto song choices just because they’d sound awful however well you try to arrange it? A lot of rap music my kids like just doesn’t seem to work at all. Yeah, Jack, I do sometimes. That’s why the first step is always let’s have a listen to it on YouTube. What I find is that … I can only think of maybe one student who literally only ever listens to rap, and I couldn’t really work with any of it. Nine times out of ten, a student that might like a rap song, if you ask them, will also like some other piece of music that has more potential.

In answer to your question, yes, I do veto songs. I try not to, but if they really aren’t going to get anything out of it, and it doesn’t have the musical and the pedagogical benefit, then there’s not a lot of point of pursuing with it. I just say, just enjoy listening to it. It’s totally cool, but what else do you like listening to? Get them to come back with a list of a few songs or email you during the week or something with a few ideas.

All right. I’m about to wrap up, so if you’ve got any final questions, pop a question in the box there. Of course, if you’re watching the replay of this, feel free to ask questions either here on Facebook or on my blog, where you can find more details about all of these repertoire sessions that I’m doing at timtopham.com/rap, R-A-P. R-A-P.

Now, if this has been helpful for you, please click the share button. I love as many teachers as possible to know about this. As you know and as you can tell, I’m really passionate about the potential for adding a little bit of pop music to your studio, particularly if a student comes to you wanting to play something. That’s the main reason I do it. I don’t often go to a lesson with a student and go, “Hey. Let’s learn this pop song,” because of course it’s a very personal choice. Be open, and let students know that yeah, they can bring something in and you’d be happy to help them with it. I think you’ll get a lot out of it like I’ve shown you today.

I hope those five points have been really, really helpful. Laura, last question here. What about using YouTube tutorials with the student? YouTube tutorials are fantastic. I don’t have any problems with students using them. I don’t use them with my students, though. I would never do that together in a lesson. However, if they’ve gone off and learned a song on a YouTube tutorial, what I’ll tend to do when they come back is give them some feedback about how they’re playing it, and if they’re able to play it fairly successfully, then have a listen to it along with the original recording. Then encourage them, could they sing instead of playing along?

The next step, then, if they’ve learned it, is to use your musical knowledge and experience to help them create a piano arrangement of it that they might not have got from a YouTube tutorial, which often just teaches you the basics of it. That’s my approach there. We know that students are loving YouTube tutorials. Please don’t ban them from doing it or anything like that or discourage it. It’s totally cool, and it could just be the thing that keeps teenagers and adult students playing, particularly when they’re beginners. YouTube tutorials are not the devil. They’re great. Of course, we can do so much more in lessons with them, but if that’s keeping them playing and practising, totally fine with me.

All right. I’m going to wrap it up there. I do hope this has been helpful for you. As I say, please use the share button if you’ve got a chance. Give me a thumbs up or a heart if you’d like to share that with me. The next repertoire rap, so in two weeks time, I’m going back to books. We’re going back to late beginner, early intermediate. Probably like beginner music actually, around primary, grade one music here. I’m going to show you some of my best choices, the music that kids just totally love, that you probably won’t find in any repertoire exam books and things like that. I hope that’s really useful. I’ll see you in two weeks time. Thank you very much for joining me today.

 

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About the Author

Best-known for his blogging and teaching, Tim is also a well-respected presenter, performer and accompanist based in Melbourne, Australia. You can check him out on Google+, Facebook and Twitter.

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