NCKP 2015: Teaching Pop Music

piano workshop

Getting the most out of teaching pop music - Handout Notes

Tim Topham: Thursday 30 July 2015

Click here for full slideshow on SlideShare.

I've witnessed first-hand the powerful effect that being open to teaching pop music can have on students. Having a teaching approach that welcomes pop music into lessons can have a positive approach on the relationship between teacher and student, it can have a huge motivational impact on students (particularly teenagers) and it gives students an invaluable understanding of the building blocks of music. 

There are myriad pedagogical benefits of working with students on pop music including keeping things relevant, helping teach theory, harmony, chords, musical structure and rhythm in an engaging way and keeping students highly motivated.

Pop is the lens through which we can most effectively teach today’s students about music.

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There are really two ways to approach pop in music teaching: 

Student wants to learn a piece and drives the movement towards pop in your lesson

This is when your encouragement and positive attitude can have a HUGE impact on a student's motivation. Embrace their desire to learn something different and use some of the tools from today to engage with the student and their music, even if you don't really like it!

You introduce a piece as a way of teaching the building blocks of music

I regularly use pop as a way for students to put into practice the things I've been teaching them about chords and progressions. If you're unsure of the best songs to use to get started, then check out my post: Top 10 Pop Songs for Piano Students. 

pop piano hits

Here are some of the links that I discussed in my workshop today:

  • Notestar App for backing tracks - the best play-along app for piano students. Provides band and full vocals with music and lead sheet on-screen. Highly customisable, regularly updated with the latest music.
  • Best iPad apps for Piano Teachers - check out my list of recommendations. Read about what iPad models and sizes I recommend for piano teachers.
  • Pop Piano Hits - One of the best series of pop music in easy arrangements that actually sound good!

If a student asks to learn a pop song, then the first thing to do is find out what part they actually want to play! 9/10 students just want to learn the main riff/theme/chord progression/melody; they don't want to learn the whole song and perform it at a concert (although that's possible). 

Allow yourself to just teach the fragments that the student wants to learn. You don't have to learn the whole piece, and you don't have to work on it for months to get it performance ready. In fact, this is probably the opposite of what you should do! Students enjoy the quick successes and short term nature of playing pop music. Learn fast (but with depth) and move on to the next thing.

Remember, above all, modern piano teaching is flexible. If you are comfortable teaching in a flexible way (ie. not always following every dot and dash in a score above all else) and using a variety of methods to learn a piece, you’re ultimately going to be a much more versatile teacher and you’re going to be giving your students a much deeper and broader understanding of musical styles and structure.

If chords are the building blocks of tonal music, why aren’t we making them a priority?

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Chords/Improv Teaching Links

For pop piano teaching to be relevant, teachers must demonstrate links.

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Making Connections

paul harris
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