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Teaching Classical Piano by Teaching Pop Piano

By Rebecca Langley | Piano Teaching

Jul 23

teaching classical piano
I’m really happy to have Rebecca Langley write for the blog this week. Rebecca’s article about making connections in music goes right to the core of what effective piano pedagogy is all about and the timing couldn’t be better: my podcast with Paul Harris (Mr. Making Connections in Music Himself!) goes live this Sunday and picks-up exactly the thread of Rebecca’s fantastic article below. Enjoy! Tim. 

Are your students eager to learn pop music?

If so, brilliant, because you’re well on the way to also helping them learn to play classical music better.

Whoa! Wait a minute! How does that make sense?

These are students who want to play pop music and we’re talking about teaching classical piano music?!

That’s right! You just need to find a way in.

One approach, that I’m going to share with you in this post, is to:

Now you can get your students excited about both the similarities between the two pieces as well as the wildly different music you can create based on very similar underlying musical ideas.

(You can also approach this in the reverse direction, starting with a piece of classical music that you want to teach, analysing that piece for its ingredients, then finding some pop music that shares some of the same ingredients.)

Finding the Ingredients

If you’re familiar with Paul Harris and his Simultaneous Learning method then you will understand what I mean by ingredients – they are the musical ideas and concepts that make up a piece.

For example:

  • key signature,
  • time signature,
  • rhythmic patterns,
  • melodic ideas and motifs,
  • chord progressions,
  • harmonic and melodic intervals within phrases,
  • phrase structure,
  • articulation,
  • dynamics…

Make a note of just a few of these, then begin your search.

One of my students asked to learn music from a particular singer songwriter. I took one of his pieces and identified the following ingredients:

  • D major key signature
  • Chord progression largely D, G, A i.e. I, IV, V, with a cadence to Em, A, D i.e. ii, V, I
  • Particular rhythmic patterns
  • Repeated intervals at the starts of phrases: minor 3rd followed by a major 2nd.

The simplest ingredient to link to is the D major key signature. A quick flick through the current piano exam pieces for Trinity College London and ABRSM threw up at least one piece in D major in almost every grade.

However, to make a slightly stronger link, look at the chord progression. This particular example has a very standard, very common progression, especially at the cadence. As such, those same pieces that share the key signature often share the same chord progressions.

Related: Chord Progressions for Beginners – Teaching Video

In addition, using the rhythmic patterns or the repeated intervals will make it a bit harder to find classical music that shares the ingredients but will give you an even closer match between your pieces. In this case I found only two pieces across all grades and both exam boards that shared the same rhythmic pattern.

Teaching in Parallel

Having found your related piece of classical piano music, you can now start teaching both the pop piece and the classical piece in parallel. What I love about this approach is that you’ve already put the time in to thinking about the musical ingredients that you are teaching, which paves the way nicely for incorporating aural work, theory, technical exercises, improvisation and composition.

So, how might you include these different aspects of musicianship?

Aural Work

Build aural work upon the similar intervals or chord progressions or rhythmic patterns – or whatever link you chose.

For example, if you’ve linked on the chord progression then students can:

  • sing the base notes of the progression,
  • listen for and sing back the bottom, middle or top notes of chords,
  • learn to identify different chord progressions from the pieces you are using as well as comparison progressions that you can play for them.

Theory

Having picked apart the pieces and found your link you can teach the theory behind that particular ingredient.

So if you picked rhythmic patterns as your link you could teach students about:

  • time signatures,
  • note lengths,
  • bar lengths,
  • rests,
  • grouping of notes,
  • even writing your own rhythms in response to a starting rhythm, which is a common feature of theory exams.

Technical Exercises

Many piano pieces lend themselves very well to being used for technical exercises, for example:

  • scale or arpeggio passages,
  • trills,
  • thumb-under practice.

Plus you can always use the key of the piece as a starting point for practising all the scales, broken chords and arpeggios in that key.

You could even use recordings of the original pieces as backing tracks for the scale practice. If that’s got you thinking about ideas for scales here is an article with lots more ideas for making the learning of scales more enjoyable.

Improvisation and Composition

Improvisation and composition can be especially motivating for students and I find having the two pieces to work on in parallel to be really helpful. It opens up the students’ ideas to what can be achieved with just one key signature, one chord progression, or just one rhythmic pattern.

Students could pull ideas from both pieces and combine them in different ways as a starting point for their improvisation or composition.

Working with improvisation can fuel success for this whole approach – generating excitement about the different musical outcomes from one musical starting point. For more ideas to get started on improvising with your students, this is a brilliant post about teaching improvisation to beginners.

Ready For Some Top Piano Lessons?

Having covered these exciting and important aspects of musicianship you will be starting to become familiar with your two pieces. To continue working on them in parallel, choose sections that share ingredients to learn first. Then explore how the development of the pieces takes these ideas in completely different directions.

What you have now is the material for teaching a really great piano lesson, if not a whole series of inspiring and motivating lessons.

Yes, it is a bit of extra work but you are teaching wider musicianship skills to your students, which really is a brilliant way to get them to develop as musicians. Plus, you are broadening and developing their experience of repertoire and I think a varied diet is very important for all musicians!

Yes, it can be a bit tricky to make the links sometimes, particularly when you are trying to link to specific classical pieces. But if you are struggling trying to find links with, for example, exam pieces, I would recommend trying the chord progressions – possibly out of context of key, so looking at I, IV, V in any key or looking at opening intervals of phrases and then finding those same intervals throughout the pieces that you are trying to link.

Oh, and just in case you were wondering about the song that prompted my search:

I paired this with a piece from a Grade 3 exam piece compilation book: Passepied, the sixth movement from Suite No. 2 in D by Charles Dieupart (this is a simplified version, but you get the idea). The original is in this book: The Best of Grade 3 Piano Chosen by the Examination Boards.

Who would have thought you’d find common ground between those two pieces?!!

I hope you are excited to try this idea out.

What Do You Think?

Do you think it will work for your students? I would love to hear how you get on with it and let me know, in the comments below, some of your pairings of pop and classical pieces.

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About the Author

Rebecca loves all things piano - teaching, learning, playing, listening, blogging... and running the Worthing Piano Lessons studio based on the sunny Sussex coast in England.

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