Your Students' Favorite Music (this is where you are now)
Forget Hot Cross Buns!
Kodaly's Folk Music, and Our Folk Music
A REAL Song - on Day One?
Don't Play the Blues - at least, not yet
MAGIC chord progression!!
Students Know Who the Good Teachers Are
Ninety Seconds is Enough
The Myth of "Classroom Management"
More Useful Music for Students
With Printed Benchmarks, Visitors know what's going on
Learning Standards, including the Common Core
Irish Fiddle Tunes make sight-reading more fun
Teach Note Reading - Useful books; free stuff
Click on a link, then use your browser's "Back" button to return here.
Now, let's get back to YOUR students. Here are some ideas on CREATING A CURRICULUM based on your students' favorite music.
I was surprised at first when talking to T____ that all the curriculum/methods that had been tried in his Band program had more or less been abandoned already by the teachers. Some had been abandoned after a year of use, and some had been purchased but never even put to use as far as he knew.
Having had some time to think about it, and having had a chance to look at some of them, I think I know the biggest reason. Those books probably generated zero enthusiasm from the 12- and 13-year-old beginner students in his program.
The thing that even experienced music teachers sometimes forget is what drew THEM to music in the first place - it's music. It's a desire to play a CERTAIN MUSIC. Not just music, in some general sense. No - it was the very specific music you were in love with at the time, that made you want to play it, or sing it. It might have been a single, particular song... or a certain artist - you just loved everything that artist recorded... or it was a whole genre of music maybe. For me, it was the rock and roll I was hearing on the radio when I was about 12. The Beatles, the Kinks, the Who, and the huge British Invasion that followed. I was on fire to play that music. I got my hands on a guitar and a chart of chord fingerings, and spent countless hours teaching myself to play, and bugging any other players I came across to show me whatever they knew that I didn't. I don't think I ever had a formal teacher until I was 17 or 18.
My own first years of teaching I only gave private lessons. I would instinctively ask students what THEY wanted to play - what specific songs - and always try to work with that. Often I'd have to say "I think this particular song is too hard to tackle right now. Give me some more suggestions."
Now that I've had quite a bit of experience in classrooms too, I can see it's possible to do the same thing with groups of students. The great thing about being a music teacher is that almost everyone loves music. Especially these days, with everyone carrying around their own music libraries and music players and headphones, it doesn't take much time to elicit suggestions from my students, and what's more, I can instantly hear samples from their portable player.
As music teachers, we'd be wise to have the students propose the repertoire. They'll be so much more invested, inspired, motivated to work through the difficult passages, if it's THEIR music - music they really love. We're there to teach them skills, musicianship, technique... we don't have to shape their musical tastes, we don't have to impose our own. We want to make them into musicians, so that they're capable of one day making music on their own, without needing help from us.
OK - so how do I do that?
Listen to the songs they propose - analytically. Many, many, many rock, R&B, hip hop songs are built from just a few chords, and have a simple melody at least somewhere in the structure. If the beginner student happens to bring you one of the relatively few really difficult, really uncharacteristically complex pop songs - ask for another suggestion. Be open, but don't sink your own ship.
I'm very notation-oriented myself, so I like to write out, say, the tune and the 4-bar chord progression, but this may not be necessary for you. I'll include heaps of song titles and short notated examples at the end of this essay.
I like to teach only enough to get some real music-making happening as soon as possible. I might say "Let's just learn the chorus right now. We'll come back and learn the verse later," because I know the verse is a little harder, and will require a bit more patience and experience. In fact I may even say "I know we didn't learn the whole song, but I want to stop here with this song for now. Let's learn a little of that other song you suggested."
I may do the "easier bits" of several songs before I return to complete a whole verse-chorus-bridge structure of song number one. But in the meantime, we may have learned the "good bits" of three or four songs, learned posture, learned some technique, musicianship and terminology - some foundation to build on - and it's all based on songs my student suggested herself. She's really pleased and motivated to keep on.
So you see, I never use a method book, except to teach and practice sight-reading. In that case, it's great to have a book on hand with pieces of progressive difficulty that the student HAS NEVER HEARD. Otherwise I can't be sure how much is reading and what percentage becomes "playing by ear."
You're going to do the same thing in a group context. Choosing the songs will require some compromise on everyone's part. But get them to suggest songs, listen to them carefully, and choose carefully - find the simplest from among their suggestions and don't let them railroad you into trying to tackle something that's just too difficult for their current skill level.
COMING NEXT: musical examples, how to do it
THE SIMPLE TRICK - turn it into a CANON (3 examples)
A lot of my students have liked the song "Apologize" by the group One Republic, from 2007. If you don't know it, you should probably listen to it now: link to YouTube video of "Apologize"
I'm not sure what genre I'd put this in, (you decide for yourself) but like many current R&B and dance songs, this song uses a four-measure chord progression for the WHOLE SONG! Four chords, four beats on each chord, over and over. Hard to believe? Well, if you think of it, the famous "Canon in D" by Pachelbel just repeats 8 chords over and over
This practice has shown up repeatedly in pop music from the 1950s onward in songs like Blue Moon, Stand By Me, Louie Louie, All Along the Watchtower, and more recently With or Without You by U2, Halo by Beyonce Knowles or We Belong Together by Mariah Carey. Listen to them and you'll see what I mean.
So, I like to find these 4-chord songs and teach them as canons. My classes seem to be more focused, and for a longer time, when they're playing a popular song as a canon: "feeling" the beat together, first playing the bass line, then the chord notes, then the melodic "hook," then starting all over from the bass line. They are willing to practice any given piece MANY more times when we do it this way. They seem to progress more quickly when they have a repertoire of 5 or 6 songs they can play this way. They spend much more of the period actually playing, because the group's momentum pulls them along, makes them "forgive" themselves for their mistakes (Keep going! Fix it the next time around!) And they feel like they're really making music, playing "real" music - not just some exercise or drill. So of course I'm careful to take their suggestions and shape them into a sequenced repertoire that builds incrementally, adding just one or at most two new techniques or concepts per song. (More - much more! - on this later.)
I usually first teach the bass line: either 4 quarter notes to a bar, or maybe just one whole note to a bar. Let's go back to "Apologize" for the sake of illustration. The bass notes are
I'll get all the students playing that. That usually takes them about thirty seconds to master. Then I'll start playing the blocked chord or arpeggio for each measure, and some or all the students will want to learn that.
The chord progression is Cmi, Ab, Eb, Gmi
I've left it in the original key of Cminor for our purposes, but you may want to transpose it for your students. Anyway, I go right to the concept of the canon by having the class divide in two and play continuously, and swap their parts several times.
When they're able to keep it going on their own, I'll start playing a very short simple snippet of the melody. At this point some kids will already have mastered the bass line and the arpeggios and will be paying attention to the little melody I'm playing. So I'll teach it to them, and start getting them to rotate with me in a three-voice canon, even though some of the kids are still only playing voices one and two, or even only voice one.
Here's the first snippet of melody from "Apologize." As you see, it's only 4 notes!
All in all, we've only been doing this for literally a few minutes, and I'll start making the rounds, getting more and more of the kids to learn the melody. Pretty soon I've got at least a core group who can trade off all three parts. Here's what we're playing: (twice on each line, then move to the next line)
I'll be calling out "Get ready - - and - SWITCH!" to help them move to the next part on time. The important thing is, it sounds full, it sounds like music, and it's THEIR music. This canonic approach teaches so many things at once: it gets them to listen to the underlying beat to stay together and enter on time (or catch up, if they fall behind) it teaches them to practice by keeping the music going, rather than fits and starts, it gets them to listen to the other musicians, gets them to follow a conductor's cues (using unorthodox terminology at this point) and of course it gives them some technique...
COMING NEXT another example
ANOTHER CANON - 80s rock
It's 1987 to be precise. From U2's album The Joshua Tree. The song "With or Without You" has proven to be a perennial favorite. Who can say why? I've had many students request U2 songs over the years, and usually they'll be content to accept "With or Without You" as the easiest one to start with. If you don't know it (What? Have you been living in a cave for 25 years?) here's a link to it:
Did you notice - 40,000,000 views?
Again, I'll usually start with the bass:
Then add chords, let's say in open fifths (like a rock guitarist would play them)
And the melody here again has only four notes! This snippet of melody comes about 2:25 into the track with the lyrics "...and you give yourself away..."
Here they are, all aligned.
Obviously, if you've got a woodwind group, you just use the top note of the chord, or do the two notes divisi. I'm just laying out the strategy. The great thing is, if the kids are more advanced, or as they become more advanced, you can elaborate these parts, make them more interesting and challenging. You want your kids to learn scales? Throw in a descending scale at the beginning of each measure! It sure beats a dry-as-dust approach to learning scales.
COMING NEXT: But I'm a chorus teacher!
ANOTHER CANON - classic rock, with vocals
Here's an example of the same idea using vocalists - and lyrics. This 1973 Dylan song has been covered by so many performers I don't know where to begin listing them. For better or worse, (all right - worse) I'd wager that most of my students are more familiar with the Guns'n'Roses version than with Bob Dylan's.
Bob Dylan: www.youtube.com/watch?v=5_swaxOidGU
Eric Clapton: www.youtube.com/watch?v=-ItL_N400V4
On this one, I'll usually start with the melody - all of three notes: Mi, Re and Do! I've put it in the key of G for this example.
I used the key of G because it keeps everything in a very comfortable vocal range. The upper harmony, a third higher than the melody, only goes up to E...
...and the lower harmony only goes down to E:
Here's what all three look like, in alignment:
Now what we have is a sort of "barbershop harmony" effect. If you want to take it a step further, we can get more of the "acapella group" sound by adding vocal accompaniment.
A bass part first:
and then a tenor part, just harmonizing with the bass. Nothing fancy.
Here's what the two parts sound like together.
And here's the WHOLE THING. Five parts, but notice that each part uses ONLY THREE NOTES!!!
And don't forget: have the kids sing this AS A CANON, so that they're learning ALL the parts, singing in all parts of their range (it's just an octave) listening to each other, entering on time... play with the dynamics, play with the texture (have three kids try it "solo?" Have the whole class sing "against" you? Divide into "teams?" And of course this song works just as well as an instrumental number with your wind band, or played on 20 guitars. You're going to be able to get a lot more mileage out of each item in your repertoire when the kids have requested it themselves, and they love the song.
COMING NEXT: some rationale (justification?) for using popular music. Let's start with the idea of "folk music."
And yes, you can get in touch with me. "Dear nyc," email me at... email@example.com