I’m sure many of you have encountered teen beginners or transfer students who can either play anything by ear but are completely lost when you give them a piece of sheet music or can play off of sheet music but are completely uninspired.
These kinds of piano students take a lot of energy to teach. You’re either searching for ways to deal with their lack of reading ability (while keeping them interested) or you’re looking for ways to motivate them while maintaining some sense of progression. When method books just don’t work for these teens it’s time for a new approach.
Square Pegs and Round Holes
Attempting to fit these kinds of piano students into a method book series is like trying to push a square peg into around hole. It just doesn’t work. And while you may spend some time attempting to make that square peg round… one of you is going to give up eventually.
This is where piano lessons based on functionality come in. What are “functional piano lessons”? They are lessons based on meeting the interests of your student; giving them the specific skills they need to use the piano in a way that motivates them. And while the perception may exist that functional piano lessons are not quality piano lessons, I’d like to dispel that with a question; “Why is your teen in piano lessons?
If the answer is “To become a concert pianist or a piano teacher” then yes, piano lessons based solely on functionality would be doing them a disservice. However, if the answer is “For personal enjoyment” then we’re doing them a disservice by not meeting the unique needs of these piano kids. Piano lessons with the sole goal of having your students enjoy music life-long are better than no piano lessons at all. And no piano lessons at all is often the route teens may take if their needs aren’t being met.
Find Functionality and Build a Program
One of the hardest things as a piano teacher (on our time management at least) is having students who don’t “fit” into a method book series or a typical classical piano program. It means we’re forever searching for repertoire, for an approach, for a sense of being able to mark progress. So the next time you encounter a teen piano student who is “lost” try one of the following approaches.
1) The Composer – If you have a teen who is prolific in their creativity, this is a great way to both hook into their interests, but also provide repertoire for them… their own! Start out simple, choose 4-chord progressions, teach them how to create a right hand melody and learn the structure of a typical “song” (verse, chorus, bridge etc.).
Take apart their favorite songs that they listen to and discuss how they were created (discover the primary chords, talk about motives, patterns, melodic variation etc.) Have fun and create variations on the themes of the songs they love. You don’t need to get into Sonatina form or discussions of counterpoint and harmony (unless they’re wanting to compose this style of music). Keep it simple and approachable and feed them more and more as they need it.
2) The Jammer – Teens who are self-taught off of YouTube or who play by ear often have the idea that playing in a group or with another singer or instrument would be cool. A method book isn’t going to teach this… but you sure can! These kinds of students benefit from a solid understanding of how chords work. They also need to learn to improvise on these chords either providing the right hand melody themselves on the piano or by accompanying themselves (or someone else) while they sing.
How do you mark a sense of progression with these students? Start with simple chords, and then gradually build into more complex chords, learn to figure out chord progressions by ear, learn how to add dim, sus and aug chords to add some texture to their playing. Use video and live performances to provide goals for these students and get them used to polishing even a chorded/improvised piece. You can find the chords for almost every pop song in the world on guitar sites (for free) and you and your student can have a blast creating improvised arrangements of their favorite music.
3) The Collector – Many of my teenage girls fall into this category. They can read music and they can play well, but anything other than music that they’ve chosen themselves is completely uninteresting. They’re “collectors” of that which they find beautiful.
With these students you can create a list of pieces (this is a great listening assignment too!) that they love. This list forms your “project” for the year. Decide on an end goal (video recording, a performance etc.) and spend your teaching time giving them the technical skills and theory knowledge they need to tackle this list. It’s okay to have a year of piano lessons based solely on music your teen has chosen themselves no matter how ecclectic. In fact… doesn’t that sound lovely?! The key is in starting with a clear list; having expectations. This saves you from guessing at repertoire and searching for it yourself and it keeps your teens completely engaged.
Hooray For Alternative Approaches
Allowing yourself the flexibility to tailor your lessons completely to your teens’ needs is a freeing experience. When you think of it, X-ray technicians don’t spend 8 years in medical school training to become a doctor; they enroll in a program designed specifically to teach them how to be an x-ray technician. Don’t treat all of your piano kids as though they will be “doctors” when they’re clearly telling you they want something else. You’ll end up with some highly skilled specialists who are motivated to continue with piano long-term. And who knows, some may decide to become “doctors” after all!