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Integrating Pop Piano Teaching into Your Studio

By Tim Topham | Creativity

May 01

pop piano teaching

If you’ve been following my writing for any length of time, you will be aware that I’m passionate about helping students learn the music they want to learn.

Part of that approach will naturally involve pop music because it’s the kind of music that 9/10 students are listening to at the moment. Students often want to play the music they hear on Spotify, music videos, YouTube and the radio.

It’s my contention that we should all be open to teaching genres of music that are relevant to students. So, I’ve decided to focus this month on Pop Piano Music, with the goal of giving you the skills you need to be able to add this confidently to your teaching repertoire.

Why? Let me explain.

The Benefits of Pop Piano Teaching

In my experience, teaching pop music to piano students has a huge number of benefits, including:

  • Developing a deeper understanding of chords and harmony
  • Exploring the role of accompanying as a pianist
  • Improving reading skills coming from an ability to see and understand chord structure
  • Improving confidence when singing
  • Sharpening aural skills
  • Increasing motivation and practice time
  • Keeping teens and adults in your studio (especially beginners)

With a list of benefits that long, why would anyone not incorporate pop piano teaching into their studio?

Well, here are some of the explanations I’ve heard teachers use about why pop music isn’t worth exploring:

  • Pop music isn’t ‘real’ piano music – it’s just repetitive and boring
  • Pop music is like the ‘junk food’ of music lessons – it doesn’t improve technique so why bother?
  • I don’t have time to explore pop because of all the other things I’m doing in lessons
  • They have an exam in three months and I don’t have time
  • If I start teaching pop, when am I going to teach classical, technique, scales, etc?
  • I don’t listen to any pop music, so how would I know what to teach?
  • I’ve been teaching for 30 years and my methods are working just fine. Why change?

Have you ever felt like this?

If so, you’re going to love the podcasts and blogs that we’ve lined-up for you this month.

But before I tell you more about what to expect throughout May, I just want to give you a little more background about why I’m so passionate about this style of teaching.

It All Comes Back to Goals

You’re probably sick of me harping on about the goals of your teaching, but it truly is fundamental, particularly as it relates to including pop piano teaching in your lessons.

Whether you see merit in teaching pop music and getting the most out of alternate teaching styles all boils down to one thing: what’s the goal of piano teaching today? What do you actually want your students to be able to do? Where are students going with the knowledge and inspiration they receive from you every week?

I actually want you to take a minute to think about your answer.

Even better, think about what the answer would be if you asked your students: “Why are you learning piano?”.

What is the primary thing you’re trying to give students by teaching them piano? Is piano teaching about creating concert performers? Is it to produce festival and competition winners? Is it to help students pass music exams? Is it about being able to read music?

Or is it more than that?

Should music education actually be about giving students a life-long love of music in all its forms? Is it about inspiring curiosity about music-making and kindling a creative fire in students? Perhaps it’s mostly about sharing our all-consuming passion for music through piano and hoping that you light a similar fire in your students. Is it about giving students the skills they need to play music in a variety of styles, to jam along with other instruments, to play by ear, compose and improvise?

What would you like your students to do when they finish lessons with you? Would you like them to be able to play any piece of music at sight or would you like them to be able to sit down with their future partners/families and improvise or play something they’ve heard on the radio?

If you’ve taken a minute to ponder this question, how did you answer?

While many teachers will agree that lessons should be about a love of music, building creative skills and being able to play piano in any situation, I have a feeling that the teaching methods used by many teachers won’t be suited to achieving those outcomes.

While some students will thrive on pure performance, score-reading and memorisation, I know the vast majority probably won’t, and this number will only increase in the future.

As students’ time gets increasingly torn between activities, as gaming technology continues to engage students more than traditional pursuits like learning an instrument, and as the world places increasing emphasis on creative, interpersonal and problem-solving ability, traditional pedagogy has to reinvent itself to stay relevant.

Have you started reinventing your teaching yet?

What’s the Point of Teaching Pop Music?

There’s a lot of talk in piano teaching circles these days about how important it is to stay current with trends and ensure that your teaching is relevant to the 21st Century. Technology, culture and the very upbringing of children is rapidly changing and piano teachers can’t afford to ignore these new realities.

One of the biggest challenges of piano teaching in recent years has been a move to incorporate technology and explore pop music. These are two things which I believe are vital if you want to stay up-to-date in today’s teaching climate.

10 or 20 years ago, children were much more compliant about what they were learning in lessons. Teachers could assign all the pieces, help the students prepare for performance (as that was always the main goal), they could correct errors each lesson, and send the student off with more pieces.

While it is, of course, possible to continue teaching in exactly the same way as we have always done, I believe that it is not going to be in children’s best interests in the future. The sit-down, get out your books, learn this piece, here are the corrections, off you go, approach just won’t have meaning in a future where creativity, innovation and exploration rules.

So what can we do to start integrating more pop piano teaching in our studios today?

A Preview of This Month’s Theme

The goal of this month is to help you feel confident incorporating pop as part of your teaching mix.

Note: I’m not advocating we drop everything and start teaching only pop music.

What I believe, is that pop music has a place in piano pedagogy just as important as aural training, scales and reading. It’s part of a mix of teaching styles that come together to form a modern, integrated approach to piano teaching.

This month on the podcast:

  • I interview Coen Modder, a teacher from the Netherlands with a degree in pop piano (yes, you read that right!) and who teaches students online all around the world. He’ll be sharing his Top 5 Pop Piano Teaching Hacks.
  • I’ll be tearing-down the Top 6 Myths of Teaching Pop
  • Carol Matz will be joining us to talk about her chordal approach to teaching and give us some tips on arranging

And on the blog:

  • We’ve got another great roundup of pop piano teaching tips from teachers across the world
  • In a two-part series, I’m going to show you exactly how you can run a Pop Piano Recital and why you should try it out this year
  • We’ll explore rhythm and how to get the best out of students with this challenging aspect of pop
  • You’ll learn how to create your first chord progressions and teach students to do the same
  • And finally, I’ll show you exactly where to go for more fantastic online pop music resources, so you can continue to learn and incorporate pop music in your teaching

This Month’s Resources

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Tim Topham

About the Author

Tim Topham has one mission in life: to stem the tide of children quitting music lessons by helping teachers maximise student engagement through creativity, technology and innovation. Tim hosts the popular Creative Piano Teaching Podcast, blogs regularly at topmusic.co and speaks at local and international conferences on topics such as pedagogy, business, marketing and entrepreneurship. Tim has been featured in American Music Teacher, The Piano Teacher Magazine, Californian Music Teacher and EPTA Piano Professional. Tim holds an MBA in Educational Leadership, BMus, DipEd and AMusA.

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