BUILD UP DETAIL GRADUALLY AND TEACH TRANSFERABLE SKILLS
When starting a new song, I teach a skeleton version first – this could be root notes for each chord for example – and play roughly through the whole song. I then build up the detail by adding new layers one by one, to gradually ‘flesh out’ the skeleton. Progress is more satisfying using this method, and the new layers – patterns/ rhythmic or melodic features etc – are all good teaching points. They are transferable techniques which can be applied to other songs.
BUILD IMPROVISATION AND COMPOSITION AROUND THE CURRENT SONG
Once the teaching points of a song have been addressed, you can put the new knowledge into practice, and consolidate it – for example by writing and playing an alternative chord sequence in that key, or by creating melodies over the chord sequence, using a certain scale or mode, or a particular rhythmic feature. If you do this from the start, and if you set specific and limited parameters, your students will gain experience and confidence, without fear or shyness. In using and manipulating musical materials, real learning will take place – the kind that stays with you and has been fully internalised – and your students in the future may have the capacity to become songwriters, composers, arrangers or producers. I used to worry that this kind of activity slowed down ‘progress’ towards grade exams – and you may indeed need to adapt your timeframe. But ultimately – and more importantly – as teachers of a creative subject, we should be teaching creatively.
SHARE IN AND ENCOURAGE YOUR STUDENTS’ OWN MUSICAL INTERESTS
For me starting out playing piano, it was the end of the 1970s and the era of synth pop – I loved the synthesiser sounds of Kraftwerk, Human League, and Gary Numan, playing along with the songs and trying to work out the keyboard lines. Back then, my piano teachers didn’t encourage and share in this. I had some really great teachers, but they weren’t interested in the music I actually liked – this seemed to be a separate and unconnected interest that I had on my own.
So now I think it’s really important to share, engage with and find worth in your students’ music. A few minutes listening to, discussing or playing your students’ favourite song is not a waste of lesson time – it’s where you can take an interest, connect and share their enthusiasm about music – and this will motivate them to practise more. Many children start out liking everything (or nothing), so we should appreciate when they start to prefer a particular style, artist or band. You might not think it’s good quality music, but remember that their taste develops over time. There is always something to talk about – your own aural skills and experience can help you to identify a typical or interesting chord sequence, scale, sound, a rhythmic framework, a production feature, or a classic song they might not know, which has influenced their favourite band. Get them to remember the names of keyboard players they like, so they build up knowledge and awareness of different musicians. Your students will occasionally introduce you to great music, and you can ‘bank’ any interesting or useful songs for future reference and repertoire, whilst keeping your own knowledge of current music up to date.