How learning guitar made me a better piano teacher

By Tim Topham | Piano Teaching

Jul 13

learning guitar

Question: Why is learning guitar so popular?

Answer: Because it’s easy to sound cool and play great music in just a couple of lessons.

What can piano teachers learn from this?

Can we use a guitar-teaching method and apply it to piano?

The backstory

Back when I was working as an outdoor education teacher on an island off the coast of Tasmania (if you haven’t heard that story, then I’d recommend listening to Hugh Sung interview me on A Musical Life Podcast) I didn’t have much of an opportunity to play the piano. We were often out on trips and it wasn’t exactly an instrument you could play beside the campfire. Other students were bringing guitars and singing and I wanted in on the action.

I’d never really tried playing guitar before, but I knew the basics: learn some chord patterns, strum the chords in the rhythm of the song, sing over the top and voila: you’re a musician.

When I was next in Melbourne, I decided to buy a hand made Maton steel string guitar (made near me in Melbourne) – it was an absolute work of art and I quickly became quite attached! It had the most lovely sound (when the guy at the shop demonstrated) and I was hooked.

I downloaded some chord fingering charts and headed to Ultimate Guitar (a resource I still use today for piano) and downloaded the chords and lyrics for some of my favourite songs.

What’s being a beginner like?

I have long advocated that one of the best professional development experiences for any teacher is to learn a new instrument from scratch.

Back when I was teaching at Whitefriars College in Melbourne around 2010, I was asked to help teach the Year 7 classroom band program, teaching trombone and trumpet to around 20 kids at a time.

I’ve never played either instrument, but I was happy to give it a shot.

Learning how to play two completely new instruments ended up being one of the best things I’ve done – not only for my knowledge of brass instruments when conducting bands, but just for the experience of being a beginner again.

Reminding ourselves what it’s like to be a beginner with all its joys and frustrations is an experience that money simply can’t buy.

I encourage any serious teacher to consider learning a new instrument as some of the best professional development opportunities of your career.

As pianists, even learning how to use all the functions of your digital piano is great, or perhaps learning to use the pedals on an organ. However, nothing can beat learning a completely foreign instrument.

Learning guitar

The way I taught myself guitar was to learn chord patterns with the left hand. (That and dealing with callouses on the ends of my fingers and building up the stamina to hold the steel strings against the fret board!).

I practisesd as much as my soft, padded, pianists fingers would let me and gradually built up a repertoire of chords that I needed to play the music that I wanted to learn.

I downloaded chord and lyric charts from Ultimate Guitar so that I could sing along and play my favourite songs.

Here’s what the chord/lyric charts look like:

teaching piano chords

As piano teachers, we’d probably look at that and think, “How am I meant to play that?! Where’s the music?”

But for guitar players, that’s all you need.

With only a few chords (thanks Circle of 5ths), you can play much of the popular repertoire.

See a chord you don’t know how to play? Just google to find out where to put your fingers. Practise moving from chord to chord smoothly and you’ve got it.

Now sure, before all the guitar teachers out there get too angry, I realise there is more to learning the guitar than strumming some chords.

However my point is that because strumming chords is relatively easy to master and can be the focus of the first lessons, students can see quick progress and experience some huge wins really early in their learning.

If this works so well, why is it that most piano teaching is so fixated on middle C position, single note-melodies and note reading?

How is this relevant to piano teaching?

It actually couldn’t be more relevant.

What I realised was that the reason that playing guitar is so much fun is because learning chords gives you the ability to play just about anything without much technical knowledge.

As long as you can keep a steady rhythm with your right hand and know a few chord shapes (we all know how few chords make up most songs, right?), then you can play music.

It also takes away the stress of note reading. It gets you moving around the piano.

It gets you sounding like a musician.

And that’s pretty cool right?

Sound like something you’d like to try?

How to incorporate chords into your teaching

If this method of teaching is all new to you, then I’d like to check out some of the resources here at timtopham.com.

Here are some of the most popular articles about this on the blog:

You may have heard about my online training course called: PianoFlix: Teaching Pop Piano.

This is an 8-part video series that goes into detail about my chordal approach to teaching music and looking at how to teach pop using this method.

The full course, and all my teaching videos, downloads and resources are available to members of my Inner Circle, but here’s a quick sneak-peak from one of the introductory videos:

 

 

If you’d like access to the full series, you can grab a monthly Inner Circle membership by clicking here.

While you’re there, you’ll also get access to two of my other most popular PDF resources: my 10-week Chord Teaching Lesson Plan, with step-by-step instructions about how to teach chords that cover 10 lessons over the course of a year and my Easy Chord Progressions to Inspire Creativity download which allows you to get creative while exploring some of the coolest chord progressions.

You can watch how I teach using these lesson plans in the videos inside the members area.

Conclusion

Adding some elements of a “guitar teaching method” to your piano instruction is actually relatively easy and can have a huge impact on the way you teach.

You don’t need to revolutionise all your teaching. You can just add elements of a chordal approach and watch as your students not only make faster progress, but also understand the construction of all their music. Students become better readers, more versatile players and start understanding the elements of composition.

What’s the weirdest instrument you’ve ever tried to learn?

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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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