I once asked my classical piano teacher, “What pieces should I learn?” I think I was feeling like in order to be a good example for my students I needed to complete some specific list of repertoire. She was a concert pianist so I really expected to hear a list of pieces I must know in order to deserve to call myself a piano teacher. I was pretty surprised when she said, “You couldn’t learn all of the great music if you tried. You should choose music that you love. You’ll be more motivated to practice.” She knew that when you tackle something that is challenging you need to have a strong desire to stay at it in order to finish it and master it. She also reminded me that I had a huge list of things I was dying to learn and only so much time. It’s a shame to waste that time slogging through things out of obligation instead of love. Most people that take lessons don’t have music as a job so I think this is especially true for the majority of students. I don’t mean to imply that you should only do the things you want to do and not the things you need to do. I am suggesting that you can use your desire to play specific music as a way to motivate you to learn the skills you need.
There is no reason why music you love can’t be a vehicle for learning. Each piece of music has lessons waiting inside of it, whether it’s technique required in order to play it beautifully or theory embedded that reveals how it works. Seeing the skills and knowledge related to music in action makes for more powerful learning. A deeper level of understanding happens when you can see the purpose of learning something. That’s one of the things that I love about music. When you put in the work, it gives you the instant gratification of being able to play a piece.
Make sure that your teacher can actually teach you the style or skills you need. EXAMPLE: I often get students that want to play and sing pop songs and had a previous teacher that was giving them official sheet music from publishers. Even though the teacher clearly wanted to help the student learn the music they wanted, they were trying to approach it with the wrong tools. Learning how to comp with chords using a chord/lyric sheet or lead sheet is the best approach for a play and sing situation. Reasons why:
- Seeing song form laid out in clear groupings allows easier memorization and a better understanding of how songs work.
- Trying to do two things at once is hard enough; singers need to be able to put their primary focus on the singing not on reading through eight pages of a detailed piano part.
- It’s unnecessary and usually not desirable to have two parts doing exactly the same thing. Sheet music (unless it says ‘transcription’) is not specifically arranged for piano/vocal which means that the melody which is intended for the singer is ALSO worked into the piano part. Publishers do this to try and make the sheet music work for as many purposes as possible so they so they can sell the same thing to as many people as possible. If you listen to any pop song, you’ll notice that the piano does NOT duplicate the melody along with the singer. The piano’s role in this situation is to support the singer not step all over them by playing their part over the top of them.
Music really needs to be arranged for the instrumentation it’s being used for to work the best. The arrangement that will work best for a piano solo is not going to be the best arrangement for a piano/vocal or for a full band. This is all to point out that the tools and skills for one kind of music are not exactly the same for all music. You need to have a teacher that understands what you’ll need to learn to do the music you’re interested in.
I often remind my students (especially adult students!) to remember why they’re at lessons. Most people, even kids that may not have chosen to do lessons, have music that speaks to them and a desire to be able to play an instrument and ENJOY it. If it’s turning into drudgery, it’s time to change things up. Look for new music and make sure that you have a teacher that inspires you and cares about what YOU want to get out it. It’s your lesson!