Question from a music teacher

I had a lovely comment at the end of March from Adrienne McKinney, a piano teacher in Lexington, KY. She’d read my “Two Things I’ve Written” post, and my recent piece in the Wall Street Journal on alt-classical music. I’m touched that she took me seriously, and replied like this:

In reading your piece here and the WSJ article, the general idea seems

to be that if we want to save classical music we need to ‘let it go,’

in a sense, or at least loosen up a bit. We need to be willing to

embrace something different that has a chance of attracting a bigger

audience, like the nonclassical nights in NY, in order that the

concerts we love to attend now — the traditional classical symphony or

piano recital for that matter — can still exist.

What can I as an independent music teacher do? How can I break out of

my mainstream mold and take this concept to heart? How can local music

teaching organizations get involved?

These are terrific questions. She found one answer, which she put out on Twitter:

Thinking of having each student bring me a CD or mp3 of a favorite song so we can do a studio project. Hoping to build on @gsandow ‘s ideas.

The idea, of course, is to engage with the nonclassical music her students like, and bring it into their lessons with her. I like that! Could help develop a student’s musicianship, for one thing, if with Adrienne’s help they take a recording of a song and do something with it on the piano. And of course it puts the classical music they normally play at their lessons alongside other music they know.

So what do the rest of us think? Does anyone have ideas for Adrienne? And for all the piano teachers out there? This could be a very productive discussion.

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  1. says

    Greg, I want to thank you for sharing my thoughts on this topic with your blog readers. Wow. I am really looking forward to hearing others’ ideas here.

    As for our studio project, my students are already choosing their songs/pieces. :) Some of them are a bit skeptical — mostly the more-advanced students who are unsure of stepping outside their musical comfort-zones (um, like me, I suppose). In general there seems to be a lot of interest. One student already has an idea for incorporating the grand piano with some of the effects that we can create on the digital keyboard. We may have some collaborative music . . .

    Thanks, Adrienne. For your enthusiasm about this, and for sharing how things have developed.

    On Twitter, as Adrienne knows (she retweeted one of the thoughts), we got an explosion of ideas from Olive Yau — @oyau — a teacher in Kirkland, WA, who says in her Twitter profile that she’s “teaching students to be 21st century piano learners.”

    Here’s what she said, in four tweets:

    “i’ve asked my students to let me see their ipod playlists, get the music and they learn thru chords& rhythm playing.”

    “also doing a lot of Keyboard Jam recitals involving parents and friends of students playings. We used up to 10 Clavinovas once a yr” [Everyone understands, I hope, that tweets have to be very short, so we’re all likely to abbreviate things.]

    “have students compose songs – mixing them and play the finished version mp3 as part of the surprise elements in the reitals- Love It”

    “last thing I usually do – plan lots of thematic recitals. Merging the 21st cen elements into the LONG process of piano learning.”

    To which Adrienne replied, on Twitter:

    “i’ve asked my students to let me see their ipod playlists, get the music and they learn thru chords & rhythm playing.”

  2. says

    Hi. Saw the post and wrote a response, and clicking down here to comments to paste it in, see there’s a lot of overlap with the previous comment. Apologies for the duplication.

    One way of putting the problem is that classical music is sometimes perceived as a top/down situation where the student/audience has only the supporting role of reverencing the canon, along with the performance practices of the moment. I’m a music therapist and for me it’s the client that’s the primary concern, so whatever type of music and performance style that works sets the direction.

    If I read Greg correctly, he’s trying to refresh the relationship between the audience and the music by reducing the top/down dynamic and introducing a more general equilibrium. I think music educators can do something similarly with their students (“at least loosen up a bit”) by helping students broaden their relationship with music beyond the technical advancement that’s usually the main focus.

    Include a little improvisation in lessons. Find a key that suits the student’s voice on a song or two and teach them the I, IV & V chords in that key. Get four hands going. In my experience there are lots of classically trained musicians for whom improvisation is terra incognita, and given the skill levels involved, that seems a shame.

    Back in the old days before guitar tuners, one trick I’d show people tuning was to take the string way sharp or flat then work back to being in tune. Playing pieces in ways that are “wrong” can help you find what’s “right”. And if you’re client centered, the “right” way for one person to play a piece will not be the “right” way for someone else.

    Encourage a little composition. It’s a great way to play with theory, and increases appreciation of well composed pieces.

    Anything to augment all the solo playing. Find an instrumentalist who needs an accompanist for a couple of pieces. Maybe the local teachers organization could connect people for two (or more) piano pieces. Ensemble playing is a different way of learning how to play music that can round out a student’s feel for music.

    As a music therapist, one thing that never ceases to fascinate me is the myriad combinations of talents and abilities individuals bring to music making. The better we can understand just how it is a particular student is processing music and performing it, the better we can help him or her become a better musician, and to be less likely to burn out and give up music on down the road. And from Greg’s perspective, I think they’ll be more the kind of audience players and composers enjoy creating music for.

  3. says

    I like to try to find people who work in the field to speak live to audiences/young people whenever I organize “outreach” events. Most people who are classical music professionals are “normal” people, who have similar daily lives to the rest of us and like other forms of culture too. They can usually talk about classical music in real and emotional terms, not the lofty cliches we might often hear from the “top-tier” classical music superstars. So perhaps players from Adrienne’s local orchestra could participate in her class.

  4. Dave Irwi says

    All excellent ideas. I try to have my students develop a little repertoire of Gershwin, Cole Porter. Etc , but I think I’m going to begin bringing much more current pop songs into the mix. The clarinet can be a mega-geeky instrument from student’s perspective, and I don’t know if it would ever be accepted by the youth culture as a “cool” instrument; however, if we don’t give kids the tools to do it it will never happen.

    I think of players such as Don Bryon, and how they are innovative in a fresh and hip way. No reason that couldn’t continue if students were were give. “permission” to stretch out.

  5. says

    Don’t mean to sound like a broken record, but improvisation is the key toward modernizing the classical music medium!

    A lot of the times students learn how to play notes but don’t learn how to make music — I think it’s important for musicians to actually be able to internalize how it feels to modulate keys, execute form, or develop a theme, etc. Most of the ideas found in classical music can be (and has been) applied in an intuitive manner, and it helps to make the performer feel as if they were part of the process of music-making.

    The classical music establishment has been opposed to this for far too long, I think, largely in fear of devaluing the image of the composer as being some sort of messiah. But having an understanding of what goes into process of creativity in the end just helps you to appreciate great work when it shows itself, regardless if its done spontaneously or notated in score form. Music doesn’t have to be an intimidating or mysterious thing, as many people seem to make it out to be.

    Just as a plug, I recently started a blog on this subject matter and am going to try to turn this into a doctoral project somewhere. The end product should be much bigger and a lot more comprehensive, but maybe some people might find it somewhat interesting:

    Improvisation Exercises for Musicians

  6. says

    As a classical musician I have found my early training in Jazz to be invaluable. The ear training that young students receive for scatting and the ability to hold/emphasize the ‘money note’ (7th’s and 2nd’s) in a chord are just two of the skills that I likely would have received little to no training in if I had trained only in classical repertoire. This early jazz training helped me better understand how to embellish Handel, led to a comfort with Corigliano and much more.

    In my private voice studio, I have made it ‘mandatory’ for all students to simultaneously learn at least 1 Jazz Standard (in both a jazz style and it’s original form if ‘borrowed’ from a musical, ex. anything by Gershwin, Porter or Rogers and Hammerstein), 1 Classical Standard (ex. anything in 24 Italian Songs, etc) AND something they are currently listening to.

    This has given my students and I a great springboard for conversations about swung 8th notes, off beat rhythms, emphasizing the off beat and more pitch and harmony discussions than I could list.

    While they can choose which piece they perform in recital, I also give them opportunities to perform in none classical venues as well (local coffee shop open mic nights have been a HUGE hit with parents and students alike.)

    Additionally, students of all ages work on vocal improve during each lesson. This isn’t a huge emphasis for me with all students but an important way for students of all ages to learn to make a ‘mistake’ sound intentional.

    If we as teachers can’t bridge this great divide between classical music and other genres how can we expect our students to?

    BTW: If there are other vocal teachers reading this who want to hear more about how this integration has worked for me, or suggestions for popular music that emphasizes food vocal technique please drop me an e-mail.

  7. says

    I think the above comments have raised many good points about how to train 21st century musicians. But beyond learning how to play instruments, I think it’s crucial that we teach children how to talk/write about music; about how why they like a piece, or why they do not, and what they feel when listening to it. Too many times have I gotten into a conversation about music with someone who hasn’t studied music and instantly been labeled a music elitist…simply because I can talk about why I like or don’t like a song or piece. If children learned a basic musical vocabulary, then perhaps it would be easier for pop music lovers to become comfortable with classical music and vice versa through conversation/debate.

  8. Anne Fennell says

    I teach in a public K-8 visual and performing arts school in southern California and composition is a driving force of my program. There are so many possibilities when connecting students to music, but one that continually repeats itself: history and human emotion. The ‘why’ and ‘when’ a piece is composed can be a fantastic jumping point because students can see the same ‘why’ and ‘when’ in this day and age, compared to past times in history. Connecting a young person’s understanding of the world and their emotional interpretation of it to a piece of music from the past is powerful because they understand it on a personal and larger level. Then, applying the elements of music comes easily because they can hear why the changes in the music might occur. They not only begin to see their own place in the world but understand it more.

    A simple question I have asked, after listening to a piece of music: What emotion does this music convey? Depending on their answer, we then step into that piece (historically), and the emotion, and I ask them how that emotion can be represented through sound. We also discuss if, how, and when they have experienced this emotion in their lives. These ideas are very important because they then will have a mental and emotional resource to draw from as they compose. We list the elements of music and discuss how each element can contribute to this, so when they begin to compose they have a framework from which to write. It’s as if the elements (pitch, tempo, dynamics, melody, etc.) become the fence on which they can then hang their music thoughts.

    One thing I’ve learned is that we know more than we can verbally express and just letting go and allowing the music to flow is VITAL. While writing down music is important, it does depend on what the ultimate educational goal is and sometimes recording it or drawing wild line designs can represent it as well. If we get ‘hung up’ on notating every single note, the students’ creativity stops flowing. They are able to play more difficult patterns then they can notate and I let it go. I’ve also let go of one VERY important word: ‘NO’. As a result, in my middle school ensemble we’ll have rhythm patterns of 5 against 7, and harmonies that progress in unique paths; and while my college music theory professor’s voice lingers like a ghost, hauntingly repeating in the back of my mind: ‘but V must resolve into I’, I let my students go and not limit them to what I was bound. And in the end, because a large group of students know exponentially more than I will ever know, their compositions are greater than I could ever imagine.

    My goal is not to limit my students, but to push them to discover new possibilities and apply these to their world and what they know. When they compose their own music they begin to have ownership of their learning because they are actively engaged in true listening of other types of music and their own music to make connections. They also will remember their music for years to come and this is music making in its finest because the music will never end if the white sheet with black notes isn’t in front of them. Music making then just becomes a part of who they are and how they connect the world to their thoughts, perceptions, and emotions.

  9. says

    Hi – wonderful conversation! As the education director at From the Top, my first reaction to the question about how to bridge the gap between classical and not-classical for music students was “Ask the kids!” And that’s the direction that may of the answers point toward. I’m also going to put in a shameless plug for our PBS series “From the Top at Carnegie Hall”, which includes many examples of kids jamming, improvising, playing jazz and classical and folk, and talking about why they love music. I’ll also suggest one learning activity that addresses the jazz-classical link and invites students to improvise on a familiar classical tune (Episode 12, We’ll Improvise, at I’m happy to hear from teachers who want to know more about this.


  10. says

    Greg says: Wonderful comments from everyone! I’m so glad I posted Adrienne’s query. We’re drawing on such excitement and such creativity, from all over the country.

    One more set of comments from Twitter, this time from Wendy Stevens — @composecreate — a teacher from Wichita, KS. Her thoughts:

    “Had a World Music Festival this year- it expanded my students harmonic/rhythmic vocabulary. They loved rhythms of other cultures!”

    “I’m teaching a composition class this summer where students will study/write dance music–all kinds of old and newer dance forms.”

    “[In response to Olive Yau, who’d said she has her piano students compose songs.] We’re doing that this year too. Students who wrote compositions will play them as well as their regular recital piece.”

  11. says

    For years much music teaching has focused on helping people learn to work instruments in a particular style, but the comments here suggest changing the emphasis, to help people use music to create meaning. What a wonderful switch! This change of goal will lead easily to finding wonderful projects. (And in my experience, expressive goals have the happy side-effect of building skills quickly, because musical communication depends on controlling sound.)

    For me it’s not about constructing bridges between styles; it’s about using a variety of resources to help people develop their inborn musicality. It’s great to hear about students improvising, performing in a variety of venues, creating their own music, and building on what they like.

    Going deeply into a particular repertoire can be very fulfilling and extremely valuable. But most people these days have wide-ranging musical enthusiasms, and our musical culture is so rich and diverse that it’s now easier than ever to see that each kind of music is but one manifestation of a basic human activity.

  12. Yvonne says

    Here in Australia private music teachers can work to a national curriculum (AMEB, Australian Music Examinations Board), which offers, as its name suggests, a program of graded examinations in a whole range of instruments as well as theory, aural, etc. right up to diploma level. It’s been a very long time since I’ve done or taught an AMEB exam; nowadays I hear about it through a relative who teaches piano.

    What’s been interesting is to see how, in the past ten years, the AMEB syllabus has been embracing contemporary styles of music-making and students whose goals might be more wide-ranging or flexible than the tradition path to “pianistic perfection”. And since such formal initiatives always tend to follow what’s already been happening on the ground, my guess is that there has been a strong movement in private music teaching here for quite some time (15 years, more?) to engage students with popular music, jazz styles, improvisation and so on. The newer syllabus options simply recognise this and allow students and teachers to take these things “seriously” and to chart their technical and musical progress.

    So I would suggest to any private music teachers who are exploring this idea to take a look at what’s happening and what’s been tried within the Australian system as part of the investigation. Could be interesting.

  13. Yvonne says

    When I was a kid learning piano any popular music I played (old or current) was strictly extra-curricular. I dabbled on my own. What I did find was that my tastes in popular music were heavily influenced by whether it would work on piano or not. I remember myself going for Billy Joel, Elton John, certain Culture Club songs [ahem! I was a teenager in the 80s], later Tori Amos, in preference to a lot of other songs that just didn’t transfer to my instrument (and my core classical training) or weren’t so satisfying, melodically/lyrically, to sing. It’s perhaps not surprising that I also gravitated to really old popular music (Gershwin, Porter et al).

    And that’s still an issue today. I have a relative who teaches piano and who incorporates popular music, composing and improvisation in her teaching [somewhat intrepidly, since her own training in the 70s/80s omitted all of these things!]. She often finds that kids bring to her songs that they like but which are actually way beyond their technique or theoretical grasp (especially rhythmically and especially with some badly transcribed sheet music) or which will simply never transfer well to the piano.

    One part of her job then, especially with the less advanced students, is teaching them how to choose, from the songs that they like, the ones that will work for their instrument/technique and end up giving a satisfying musical experience. (So perhaps she’s teaching “orchestration” as well!)

  14. says

    I love this thread. Very relevant and contains many ideas that are immediately applicable. I grew up playing classical piano and regret that, after 15 years of lessons, I didn’t learn how to play by ear and improvise. When I was a teenager, people would ask me to play something and I felt slightly “out of touch” playing Beethoven or Bach — when I really wanted to be able to take requests! Anyway, this concept of serious practice, scales and memorization vs. intuitive play and improvisation brings back a flood of memories…

  15. says

    Greg, I went to Juilliard and have known your name for years but we never met. A good friend of mine wrote a Liszt style piano transcription/fantasy on the “My Heart will go On” from Titanic melody. It was dazzling in it’s effectiveness. And of course accessible to anyone who knows that tune. I Think this is a great exercise…pick a popular melody or melody and write a fantasy on themes. Obviously, composers used to do this all the time!


    Hi, Kimball. At least we’re meeting (sort of) now!

    I’m going to guess that Jeffrey Biegel, who often comments here, would like to see that Titanic Fantasy. Unless he hates the song, as I’m afraid some people did. I love the idea of writing pieces like that. I’ve wanted to do it with Led Zeppelin songs. The only problem might be getting the rights, and in some cases that might be a nightmare.

    Chris O’Riley — if you’re reading this, what was it like getting the rights to the Radiohead songs, and other pop songs, that you’ve transcribed?