What role does popular music play in serious piano lessons?

Is teaching music to a child like getting them to eat food?

First you have to eat the healthy stuff: the meat and veggies (i.e. classical music), before you can get to the dessert (i.e. the popular music)? Is popular music a guilty pleasure? Is it only a reward for good work on the ‘real’ music that must be learned? Is popular music only for teens who you’re trying to keep in lessons, or for students ready to quit in an attempt to save them?

Early in my teaching career I had a beginner and taught him by rote some very rhythmic music (Chattanooga Cha-Cha by Jon George). He loved it and loved piano lessons. The following year he went to another teacher and she complained that all he wanted to play was the ‘dessert music.’ I felt it was a comment on my teaching, as I’d put a focus on popular sounds, music he wanted to play, and now she was having a difficult time turning him on to classical and historic music. I considered her to be a more knowledgeable teacher than I was, so this early experience made me want to curtail my own natural instincts to teach popular styles to children because they were only the ‘dessert’ — and less serious. If I wanted to be a serious teacher doing the right thing by my students, I’d better make sure they learned a good helping of historic music first.

So, fast forward to now, post-music-degree, with decades of piano teaching behind me, when I’m asking: Can a serious music teacher in good conscience encourage piano students to learn popular music, perhaps instead of ‘serious’ classical choices?

Andrea Dow, a well-loved current composer, has many popular choices in her catalogue.

Baroque dances…

One thing that has always fascinated me, to draw a quick comparison, is reading about the historic European dances. Nowadays this is the subject of many serious piano teacher workshops. Teachers want to know more about the baroque court dances of Europe, to know the noble footwork behind Bach’s dance suites. Some piano teachers take pride in being able to list the order of the dances by name and knowing the metres and the typical rhythmic characteristics of each one.

Bach, English Suites

Composed in 1714-1715 (Louis XIV died in 1715). Six suites in all, seven to nine dances in each suite:

  • I. Prelude
  • II. Allemande
  • III. Courante
  • IV to VIII dances varied: Courante II, Sarabande, Double I and II -or- Bourrée I and II -or- Gavotte I and II -or- Minuet I and II -or- Passepied I and II
  • VII to IX: Gigue (final dance regardless of dances between)

But have you ever considered that at the time Bach composed his dance suites for keyboard and cello, he was composing popular dance music? Dance music. Popular music. And if you think these dances were benign and scholarly and less gritty than today’s dances, think again. All of them originated in folk regions before they made it to statelier versions in royal courts. And you must remember that it was in the court of Louis XIV (the Sun King) that all was done to excess, and it was this indulgent culture that eventually got his grandson beheaded. Baroque dances were the hotbed of social life, and yet, today, piano teachers seem to treat Bach’s suites as no different in intention or purpose than his church music.

If a serious composer like Bach, composer of composers who dedicated his work to God, invested so much of his time and intelligence into composing suites of dance music as keyboard learning repertoire, then perhaps composers today can also base valid and serious music on popular styles of the past 100 years, music that has originated in our own culture’s folk regions and gradually made it into the mainstream, music that is currently danced to.

Up-and-coming young composer Alexa Madison embraces popular styles in her pieces.

Shift in the wind…

Like Bert sensing the wind changing directions in Mary Poppins, there is now a slow and steady shift that is equalizing popular music in piano circles. Within the past 5-10 years, popular-styled composed music has gained a much wider acceptance as a serious and valid choice of repertoire for piano students. And not just to give in to a student’s odd wish, make an exception to a rule, offer a dumbing-down or deviance from ‘real’ music, but as top-notch pedagogical music.

LCM List C

The London College of Music is one of the world’s premier examination boards. The syllabus has three lists, which follow the same musical guidelines and requirements from Grades 1-8. In all eight levels, students are required to learn a Baroque or Classical selection for List A, a Romantic and/or expressive selection for List B, and a popular-styled selection for List C. In this examination system, popular styles are deemed as important to learn as any other, with no added weight given to one list or piece over another. All three required repertoire pieces equal 60 marks altogether.

LCM Exam Repertoire Requirements

  • List A – Baroque and Classical music, with composers like Bach, Mozart, Beethoven, Scarlatti and more. The music in this list develops an understanding of historic articulation in pieces with faster tempi.
  • List B – Romantic, Impressionist, Nationalist, Traditional and expressive music from any era, with composers like Chopin, Debussy, Bartok, Kabalevsky and more, as well as recent or living composers like Nakada, Wedgwood, Lloyd Webber and more. The music in this list develops tender, expressive playing.
  • List C – Popular and contemporary styles, with composers like Joplin, Mier, Milne, Norton and more. This list develops popular styles like jazz, blues, ragtime, foxtrot, cha-cha-cha and more!

With a high-profile exam board like LCM opting to give equal prominence to contemporary popular music styles, it shows a major shift towards widespread acceptance of this music. The large-scale use of this exam system signifies that teachers and students all over the globe readily accept the validity of LCM’s printed popular repertoire selections.

A shift in RCM

The Royal Conservatory of Music has seen a shift, as well. In past editions a greater emphasis was given to printing pieces of a more experimental and atonal nature, whereas recently these titles can still be included in the syllabus but are printed less often. Instead, the books come with a larger selection of pieces in popular styles like jazz and ragtime.

Elena Cobb’s Higgledy Piggledy Jazz program teaches improvisation and was inspired by the ABRSM Jazz exam syllabus.

The music of our time

The music that has the honour of representing an age is the same music that is embraced and kept alive by the largest group of people. It is impossible to ignore popular music, or to hold to the belief that somehow because it is popular it has a lower intellectual value.

On the contrary, music that comes from soul, from raw culture, from suffering, persevering, surviving, overcoming, and thriving, has the most relevancy. It has always been so. Any style of music that has ever held a mirror up to nature (as all good art does) and has held its own against the ravages of time, has the right to define the age musically.

If frequency of performance and market share are any indication of a music style’s relevancy, popular music has made its decisive mark on the 20th and 21st centuries. It is our responsibility (and can be our joy) as piano teachers to create musically literate students who are well versed in the music of our time. J.S. Bach did the same for his children when he selected the music for their family’s keyboard volumes and when he composed his dance suites. I can’t think of a better example for today’s piano teachers than him.

My Rock Collection Series is set for its latest addition, Rock this Town for Elementary piano.

Want a sneak peek listen to some tracks from my book, Rock this Town, set to be released next week? Take a listen!

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I appreciate shares, comments and likes. Happy teaching!

7 thoughts on “What role does popular music play in serious piano lessons?

Add yours

  1. Great comments, Rebekah! I’ve often wondered why pop is considered dessert, when it’s often the most ‘nutritious’ for so many people. I think the music teacher food pyramid could use a good update!

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    1. I feel the same way, and comparing it to a food pyramid is very smart. What I’m trying to communicate, and I’m not sure whether I’m doing a good job, is that the music of our time is 100% valid as teaching material, the same way the music of Bach’s time was 100% valid as teaching material when he was alive. For today’s musicians there is certainly room for both, and I relish the moment a student falls in love with baroque and classical repertoire. I love that repertoire, too! But to be true to our own age, I feel children need a steady diet of music in their own “music language” — music from our time that they are already immersed in. Thanks for your comment!

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  2. Forever Ever After (that G Major Korean pop ballad piece making me feel tender-hearted) reminds me of Yiruma. Black Tie Showdown is in tight-harmony jazz style. What is tight-harmony jazz, anyway? What are Sad Clown and Rock Block inspired by? Also, may I hear the Swedish style IN A JAM inspired by Abba? Rock Block in G reminds me of a raucous block party and Sad Clown in Am (originally from Sprouts) reminds me of when I have bad days.

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