The 10 Commandments of Teaching Pop

The 10 Commandments of Teaching Pop

10 commandments pop teaching

Want to know the 10 rules that I always follow when teaching pop music to today’s students?

I’ve called the list my 10 Commandments of Teaching Pop and you can find it below.


The 10 Commandments of Teaching Pop

  1. Ask them what they want to learn. The first and most important commandment! Make sure you ask the student which bit of the song they want to learn. 9 times out of 10, they will only really want to learn a section of the piece, so if that’s near the end, there’s no point teaching from the beginning. Just focus in on the section they want to learn and watch them focus like never before.
  2. Watch and listen together. If a student asks you to help them with a song, or they bring music you music with which you’re unfamiliar, jump on YouTube, search for the song and watch the video together in the lesson. Yes, this might take a few minutes, but it helps you understand how the song goes, the key elements (bass line, rhythm, drums, riffs) and the part that they want to learn (see Commandment 1).
  3. Check Noviscore. If it is a popular new song, search for the music on Noviscore first. This is a fantastic new resource for piano teachers as the guys at Noviscore produce excellent arrangements of songs for students at three different levels of difficulty. You can download the arrangement and print right in your lesson. Note: I will be offering a 30% off Noviscore discount to Winter Webshop participants this weekend.
  4. If not, Google it. Google the song title to see what other arrangements might be available. Google will likely find versions on musicnotes and sheetmusicplus and you’ll be able to preview the first page of music. This is great for exploring the key and chord progression and getting a feel for the music and whether it’s at the right level for the student.
  5. Change the key. Whether you’re learning the song by ear, from chords or from the music, change the key if it makes it easier for the student (most online sites allow for changing the key). While this means that they won’t be able to play along with YouTube, they’ll be able to learn and understand the music much more quickly. Learning quickly = more practice = more fun!
  6. Teach the song with chords. Even if you’re learning the music from a good arrangement, teach them the outline of the song using chords while you learn the notation. Chord progressions are one of the best ways of teaching students about the construction of music so don’t miss this opportunity. If you’re used to teaching from the music alone, you may have missed the fact that pop music always features guitar chord symbols above the music (see below). Not sure where to start teaching kids about chords? Check out my 10-week chord teaching plan (available now to Inner Circle Members).
  7. Use backing tracks. Whether it’s Notestar by Yamaha, Chromatik or iReal Pro, apps will make all the difference to your students’ enjoyment of playing their pop song. What might have otherwise been a four-chord song will suddenly come alive when they can play along with a full band and singer. Explore these three apps at home yourself so you know how they work. Forget all the other apps – these are my Top 3. Not sure how to use them? Members get access to my Tech How-To videos where you can watch “over my shoulder” as I show you how to use these apps and also see me teaching with them live in my studio. Not a member?
  8. Enjoy your epic fails. When you teach outside your comfort zone, you’re going to make mistakes and some things you do are doing to nosedive. Perhaps you won’t know what the next chord is, you won’t know how to teach something that you can hear, you won’t be able to sight read the music, you won’t know a confusing chord or you just won’t know what to do next. IT’S OK! Give yourself permission to make mistakes and have a laugh with your student. They’ll love you for being authentic, for being fallible and for trying.
  9. Be positive. Yes, even if you can’t stand the music, be positive. Even if rap is the last thing you’d choose to listen to and the song they’ve chosen has very little musical merit (I’d tend to agree in most cases), go with it. Your students will be engaged and motivated, even if you are struggling. You don’t have to spend all year on it: explore it for a few lessons and then you can always suggest a better pop song for piano, such as those in my Top 10 Pop Songs list.
  10. Have fun! If you’re not enjoying yourself when you teach pop, your students will know it and the experience will quickly go downhill. If you’re anti-pop, don’t even try. Get in the right mindset first. Be curious. Be an explorer. See how much your students care about this music and engage with them in it. You might just find yourself enjoying it after all!

What’s the commandment you find hardest to follow?

Leave your answer below.

Tim Topham

Tim Topham is the founder and director of TopMusic. Tim hosts the popular Integrated Music Teaching Podcast, blogs regularly at and speaks at local and international conferences on topics such as integrated teaching, creativity, business, marketing and entrepreneurship. Tim has been featured in American Music Teacher, The Piano Teacher Magazine, California Music Teacher and EPTA Piano Professional. Tim holds an MBA in Educational Leadership, BMus, DipEd and AMusA.

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10 commandments pop teaching
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  1. I agree with Kathleen. Would love to use more backing tracks! Which of your three apps is the easiest to use for us teachers just getting started–Notestar, Chromatik or iReal Pro? Or do they all serve different purposes for your uses? Is there a blog or video anywhere where you show how you use these three apps?

  2. It’s really hard for me to use the backing track thing…I even have iReal Pro downloaded, but can’t figure out how to use it – it’s so complicated!

    • Hi Kathleen. Here’s a quick video to get you started. It’s about how to load songs into iReal Pro and may be a good way to get started. I’ll see if I can record a ‘how to build your own tracks’ video soon 🙂

      • Thanks so much, Tim! I can’t believe you have the time to respond to likely the hundreds of comments you may receive. I look forward to the webinar this coming Friday!

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