Your Students' Favorite Music - How to Use It

First off, let me give you a TABLE OF CONTENTS of this website:

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.

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...

Forget Hot Cross Buns!

Here's the scene: it's the first day of class at your new school in NYC. This is a music class for 9th graders who've never played before - complete beginners. You figure, if you're lucky, you'll be able to teach them to pluck or toot a couple of notes before the end of the period. That would be great. And of course, you want them to play some music. A song. And of course, that's what they want too. It's music class - they expect to play some music.

So what are you going to do? Twinkle Twinkle Little Star? That's six notes! Yikes. Not sure we'll be able to learn six notes on day one. Hot Cross Buns? That's three notes. Three adjacent notes. Mi, re, do.  You're pretty sure they could manage that...

Are you really, seriously, going to offer them "Hot Cross Buns?"

I wouldn't do it, man.

These are NYC kids. They're all wearing headphones, shuffling through their iTunes music collections, googling the lyrics to the latest Kanye release on their smartphones...

I always start by asking them what they're listening to at the moment. Beyond that, what are their favorites? Are there songs they've always wanted to play? It's good to know these things about your students. Music is so bound up with self-image these days. That's good for us as music teachers. Music is important. Maybe not Hot Cross Buns.

A lot of my students are into R&B and hip hop. Rihanna, Kanye, Nikki, Usher, 50 Cent, Alicia Keys.

Alicia Keys has been around for a while now. At a time when a "classic hit" can be a song from five years ago, Alicia has some classic hits. I know some of them are very simple musically. Her song "Fallin'" (2001) is based on a two-measure, two chord loop that repeats over the course of the ENTIRE track. Her song "Karma" (2004) is very simple in another way - a lot of the song is built from three notes. (Mi, re, do again, this time in minor.)

If my students are at all into R&B and hip hop, I can usually get away with suggesting we try a classic Alicia Keys song "because it's pretty easy." Here's what I do with Karma:

As I mentioned in an earlier post, I like to find songs built from a four-bar repeating structure. It's easy to structure the teaching and learning in a way that will differentiate instruction (there are easy parts and harder parts) encourage a practicing style of "no stopping, keep the music going, listen to the group and keep up" which, according to neuroscientists, gives the greatest return on time invested - our fingers or vocal chords being forced to "keep up" with our ears and minds.

If you don't know the song, you should probably listen to it now:

I usually start with the chorus section ("what goes around comes around") and create a four-part canon.

Here's the bass part.  It works as an ostinato in just about any register.

One note, and a simple, repeating rhythm. I find that this 3-3-2 rhythm is very easy for students to hear and reproduce. It seems to be as ingrained as "shave and a haircut - two bits" because it's been used so often in popular music for the last sixty years, I guess.

Next, I introduce the "hook" - the melodic or accompaniment motif that listeners identify with the song:

At this point, I can already divide the class in half and have them play these two parts in canon. The little melodic hook is so powerfully conjuring up the atmosphere of the song that they already feel like they're "playing the song."

The melody and lyrics of the chorus actually seems to be referring to the canon concept: "what goes around comes around; what goes up must come down." Happily, Keys' melody itself actually works as a canon, to boot. I put the 1st entrance, 2nd entrance marks above the melody here to show you.

This part does have more than three notes (it has five) so I might ask only some of the most dexterous students to play this part, and suggest that some students might want to sing rather than play. They aren't as self conscious about this as you might assume. Especially when I proceed to sing it with my own man-on-the-street, unprepossessing voice.

So now we have:

I've put the vocal canon on two lines so you can see how it fits together.

The melody of the verses does, in fact, only use those same three notes as the hook. And it fits as a fifth voice to the canon we've already created! Here's the verse melody:

So here's what it looks like all together:

 As you can see, this arrangement would work well with 20 guitars, an acapella chorus, an Orff instrumentarium, a clarinet class...

Maybe you'd like it in a different key for clarinets? Here you go:

Now here's a collection of TEN classic rock, R&B, reggae, and even contemporary tunes using only four notes. Try out the techniques described above with these songs, if you're stuck for repertoire. Have fun with it. Send in your arrangement, and I'll print it here.

Cheers! - til next time.

...and don't forget to write.

Kodaly's folk music, and our folk music

Zoltan Kodaly's work and thought is incalculably influential on current music education theory and practice. See below for a more complete description of his approach. I have tremendous respect for this method, but I have one large gripe with the practice of his adherents in our day: it's their conception of the place - or even definition - of "folk music" in music education.

Kodaly and a few others developed an idea of taking the "mother tongue" concept of language studies and applying it to music education. (Broadly speaking, the idea that one's native folk music is the musical equivalent of one's mother tongue.) I don't think the idea sprang fully formed from his mind. In 1905 he had begun to visit remote Hungarian villages to collect folk songs, recording them on phonographic cylinders   The next year, he wrote a thesis ("Strophic Construction in Hungarian Folksong") and met fellow composer Bela Bartok. Their efforts, and the methods he and Bartok and a few others worked out resulted ultimately in a vast collection of eastern European folk songs - more than 10,000. I think initially they just thought of these songs as a treasure trove of cultural heritage and artistic inspiration. But this work gave him a profound insight, that developed for him into a rather revolutionary approach to formal music education - namely, the use of folk songs as a vehicle for the first stages of learning music. It became clearer and clearer to him over the course of the subsequent thirty years.

The best way to teach music is through actually playing good repertoire, in a carefully planned sequence of ascending difficulty to gradually bring students along to something approaching mastery. This may seem obvious, but let me put it another way. The best way to teach music is by having the students play a sequence of good pieces, and sing good songs. Because when the repertoire is good, the students will be motivated to listen over and over, to practice, to put in the repetition required to perfect the piece or song, to put in the repetition over the long haul to develop an ever strengthening technique which will enable the playing of ever more challenging pieces, etc.

But now we are forced to define "good." Well, there is no simple definition. Because it doesn't simply mean exalted, or noble, or astonishing, or clever. Really, good music is music that I like. And for you, good music is music that you like. One reason we like a piece of music is because we've heard it a lot, it's familiar, we "know" it. That's not the only reason, but it's one reason. So whether it's a song her mother sang to her every bedtime for many, many years, or a song she and her brothers sang on the way to school nearly every day, or a song sung at every birthday celebration she's ever attended... a child will know and love those songs, and want to play them.

While some music teachers were insisting that students begin with the easy pedagogical pieces by Bach, or Czerny, or Kuhlau, or any of an endless procession of lesser lights, Kodaly realized that folk music from childhood has all the basic characteristics needed to teach the foundations of music and to develop a love of music, and has the added benefit of being already familiar to the students. They already "know" it, and it can be used to teach all the fundamental musical concepts and techniques to musical beginners. However, many doctrinaire Kodaly followers are still using Hungarian folk music to teach American children, or perhaps the more forward-thinking are using American (most often Appalachian) folk songs from the 1800s and 1900s. But these are not the songs American children are currently growing up with. These are no longer the musical mother tongue. So they are no longer "folk" music in the sense that Kodaly used the term.

For better or worse, the music of childhood, the musical mother tongue is now the music of television, of Pixar and Disney movies, of iTunes and the SmartPhone. The littlest kids are listening to what their parents pop in the DVD player for them. Once they get to be about seven, they really do start to amass their own music collections. Once they get to be about eleven, they carry their own SmartPhones with them, and play their favorite songs over and over, all day long (to the consternation of their parents and teachers.) And they SING! They sing all the time. They imitate the good - and bad - habits and mannerisms of their favorite singers. They watch American Idol, and begin to develop an ability to discriminate between great vocal performances and merely good ones. And there's no reason this is a bad thing. It's a start, in any case, toward developing a critical faculty.

So in my own teaching I wanted to preserve the 99% of Kodaly's approach that is thorough, profound and brilliant, while amending the repertoire component just a bit.

I've often wondered why more music teachers didn't incorporate current popular music like rock, R&B, and jazz into their teaching - as far back as an article I wrote in 1979. I thought then, and still do, that it's mostly because to do so just seems like too much trouble. If you're a conservatory-trained musician yourself, if you've spent most of your life listening to and playing classical music exclusively, you don't have pop hits at your fingertips, or in your readily accessible memory, or on the tip of your tongue. You'd have to do what would almost amount to research! Sounds dreadful, especially after you've perhaps recently jumped through the hoops of writing papers and dissertations to get your music degree and education certification.

Before I go on to talk about how to incorporate contemporary popular music into your lessons, here are some excerpts from the complete statement of the Kodaly approach, from the Organization of American Kodaly Educators  copied from their website: please visit it.

The Kodály Concept
    Is a philosophy of education and a concept of teaching.
    Is a comprehensive program to train basic musical skills and teach the reading and writing of music.
    Is an integration of many of the best ideas, techniques, and approaches to music education.
    Is an experience-based approach to teaching.

Essential and Key Elements of the Concept

    We should first learn to love music as human sound and as an experience that enriches life.
    The voice is the most natural instrument and one which every person possesses.
    Kodály called singing "the essence" of this concept.
    Singing is a powerful means of musical expression.
    What we produce by ourselves is better learned; and there is a stronger feeling of success and accomplishment.
    Learning through singing should precede instrumental training.
    It is in the child's best interest to understand the basics of reading music before beginning the difficult task of learning the technique of an instrument.
    What do we sing?
        Folk songs and games of the American Culture
        Traditional children's songs and games
        Folk songs of other cultures
        Music of the masters from all ages
        Pedagogical exercises written by master composers
    Singing best develops the inner, musical ear.

"If we ourselves sing often, this provides a deep experience of happiness in music. Through our own musical activities, we learn to know the pulsation, rhythm, and shape of melody. The enjoyment given encourages the study of instruments and the listening to other pieces of music as well." (Kodály, 1964)

Folk Music
    Folk music is the music of the people. There can be no better material for singing than the songs and games used by children for centuries.
    Folk Music has all the basic characteristics needed to teach the foundations of music and to develop a love of music - a love that will last a life time.
    Folk music is the classical music of the people, and, as such, is a perfect bridge leading to and working hand-in-hand with-art music.

"The compositions of every country, if original, are based on the songs of its own people. That is why their folk songs must be constantly sung, observed, and studied." (Kodály, 1964)

Music and Quality
   We believe that music enhances the quality of life. So that it may have the impact it deserves, only the best music should be used for teaching:
        Folk music, which is the most representative of the culture
        The best music composed by the masters
    Quality music demands quality teaching:
        Teachers need to be as well-trained as possible
        Teachers' training must be well-rounded
        Teachers need to develop their musical and vocal skills to the highest degree possible

"The pure soul of the child must be considered sacred; what we implant there must stand every test, and if we plant anything bad, we poison his soul for life."
(Selected Writings, p. 141)

    Presentation of materials, concepts, and development of skills can be done in a meaningful way only if the curriculum is well sequenced.
    A carefully planned sequence, well taught, will result in successful experiences for children and teacher. Success breeds success - and fosters a love of music.
    A Kodály sequenced curriculum is an experience-based approach to learning rather than a cognitive developmental approach.

"Music must not be approached from its intellectual, rational side, nor should it be conveyed to the child as a system of algebraic symbols, or as a secret writing of a language with which he has no connection. The way should be paved for direct intuition."
(Selected Writings, Kodaly, p.120)

COMING NEXT:  popular music that works for pedagogy (songs you can use)


Getting back to "folk" music, or music the folks are actually listening to, here's a list of songs that students have requested in recent years, that have worked WELL for me, for teaching purposes. Teaching beginners, in fact.

Apologize - One Republic and Timbaland
Numb - Linkin Park and Jay-Z
So Sick of Love Songs - NeYo
Yeah! - Usher
Outta Control - 50 Cent
Forget You - Cee Lo Green
Forever Young - Alphaville (and Jay-Z)
Titanic (movie theme) - James Horner
Fallin' - Alicia Keys
We Belong Together - Mariah Carey
Lean On Me - Bill Withers
Stand by Me - Ben E. King; Lennon; others
Halo - Beyonce Knowles
World's Greatest - R Kelly
Friends Forever (Graduation Song) - Vitamin C, and Pachelbel
Hey Ya! - Outkast
Sail! - Awolnation

Seven Nation Army - White Stripes
Beat It - Michael Jackson
Imagine - Lennon
Hey Jude - Beatles
Teen Spirit - Nirvana
Come as You Are - Nirvana
Conga - Gloria Estefan
Because of You - Kelly Clarkson
Time After Time Cyndi Lauper
We Will Rock You - Queen
Enter Sandman - Metallica
Knockin' on Heaven's Door - Bob Dylan (and Guns'n'Roses)
You Ain't Goin' Nowhere (Easy Chair) - Bob Dylan
All Along the Watchtower - Bob Dylan (and Jimi Hendrix)
Hurt - NIN (and Johnny Cash)
Wild Thing - Jimi Hendrix (and Prince)
Love Song - The Cure
Creep - Radiohead
Smoke on the Water - Deep Purple
Sweet Home Alabama - Lynyrd Skynyrd
Every Breath You Take - Sting (and Tupac)
With or Without You - U2

C Jam Blues - Duke Ellington, 1942
In a Mellow Tone - Duke Ellington, recorded 1940 (also a hit for Basie, 1950s)
Satin Doll - Duke Ellington, 1953
Equinox - John Coltrane (recorded 1960; released 1964 on "Coltrane's Sound")
One Note Samba - Jobim, 1962

I'll add to this list in future posts, and please send me your discoveries. I would love to add them and acknowledge your contributions.   Write to

One observation: many of the R&B, hip hop or rock songs listed above work with the "canon" approach I described in a previous post, which is great for beginning students. I've been surprised that the 4-bar repeating accompaniment (chaconne?) which is so popular with R&B folks lately was never much of a factor for, say, the Beatles. Lennon and McCartney stuck more to the verse-chorus-bridge format of Tin Pan Alley, and seldom worked in phrases of less than eight bars. So most of their 200 or so songs are "more difficult" than a lot of contemporary R&B, at least from the perspectives of either harmonic structure or formal structure.

A REAL song - on DAY ONE?

Are you beginning to understand that you need a "real song" even on the first day? When you're teaching very young children, you can get away with "Mary Had a Little Lamb" but this just doesn't cut it with junior high age, and definitely not with high school. They may be beginners, they may even accept that fact, but they know that Mary Had a Little Lamb is baby music. And, although it's complicated, if you propose they PLAY Mary Had a Little Lamb, they feel that it's telling them something about you. You don't "get" them, you don't "respect" them, you don't really "care" about music, you're just an academic drone who does things by the book. None of this is true, of course, but they're kids - they're not taking the time to make fine distinctions about a carefully planned sequential curriculum. They don't care about the fact that they can only play two notes.

So here are some solutions that can SAVE that first day of class.

There are a couple of ways to approach it:

1. find songs with very simple melodies of only two or three notes for your first song, or

2. find songs with extremely simple accompaniments - sometimes a single note! - and you play the melody, or members of the class sing the melody. (Or you put on the CD and the class plays along to that. But I know that's not acceptable to some people. I confess I don't like to do that. I prefer the students be making all the music.)

Here are some examples of the first approach.

Kindergarten                   Scale tones                 R&B, Rock, Pop alternatives

                                         SD                      C Jam Blues (Ellington)
                                                                   One Note Samba (Jobim) actually has two notes!

Hot Cross Buns                  MRD                   Knockin' On Heaven's Door (Dylan)
Mary Had a Little Lamb                                 Karma (Alicia Keys) minorMRD
Fooba Wooba John                                       With or Without You (U2)

Star Light Star Bright          LSM                   I Hate Myself For Lovin' You (Jett) DLS
Lucy Locket                                                Seven Nation Army (White Stripes) DLS
Little Sally Saucer

Juba                                  FMRD                  Lean On Me (Withers)
Twinkle Twinkle(2nd phrase)                          Get Up Stand Up (Marley)
Oh How Lovely is the Evening                        Every Breath You Take (Sting)
Go Tell Aunt Rhody                                      We Will Rock You (Queen)
                                                                   I Love Rock & Roll (Jett)

If you have songs to add to this list, please let me know.

So I DO believe that a careful sequence is important, but within even the small list above I'd wager you can identify a sequence of songs that will accomplish your pedagogical agenda for the first few classes. Because I've learned it's so important to have the students feeling, from the very beginning, that they're playing "real" music. If possible, even music that they chose themselves. I often bring recordings of the songs I listed above and say "Well, we're going to have to find an easy song to play, obviously. Let's listen to a few songs I have here, and you tell me which ones you like best."

Part two: if even two notes is too many.

The other approach I mentioned is having the students play an accompaniment, while you play the melody. This opens up a lot more possibilities, but of course you need to identify some songs where even extremely simple accompaniments can still be effective.

I think the best thing for me to do here is just dive in with some examples.

In an earlier entry I elaborated what amounts to a lesson plan for teaching the song Karma by Alicia Keys. In that plan, I assumed the students could play three notes: D, E and F. But what if it's really the first day of class, and you're only going to have time to teach them one note? (Maybe you're a clarinet teacher, and assembling the instrument, teaching the embouchure, getting a nice toot out of them has taken almost the whole period...) There's still time to take that one note and put it into a song.

For example, even with a wind instrument, where your students need to take a breath more frequently on day one, the accompaniment to Karma could become something like this:

Then divide the class in half, to fill in the gap, like this:

When they can keep this going, you can play the hook, so we have this:

And you can send them out of the class with the promise "Tomorrow we'll play more of this song. I'll teach you the part I just played," and the kids leave feeling like they've really achieved something. And they have.

Here's one more example

If your students have any interest in rock from the 90s there's a good chance they'll like this song - "Come As You Are" by Nirvana.

A possible bass line can be just TWO adjacent scale notes. (I and bVII, but no need to get technical.) So there's a very good chance you can teach this on the first day. Here's what I would do.

Get the students to play straight quarter notes like this:

Then YOU play the "hook" - which is very easy for guitarists, but not so easy for other instruments. Here it is, combined with the bass line.

Then you can either sing or play the melody - only four notes! - and say "I'm going to teach you this very soon. We just need to learn a couple more notes." Here's what it sounds like together.

To keep them going just a bit longer on the first day, you might also want to try some rhythmic variations on the two note bass line. They can play it in eighth notes like this:

Or they can play a pattern. Lots of possibilities with this idea. Here's one:

Hope that gives you lots of other ideas about what to do on DAY ONE.

As always, you can write to me at


DON'T Play the Blues! (At least, not yet.)

What's this? More heresy?

A lot of teachers who do utilize pop music in their teaching try to incorporate a 12-bar blues very early on. I've discovered, however, that a 12-bar blues structure isn't as easy as one would think. This is because, when you're an absolute beginner, a 12-measure pattern feels like a very LONG pattern. Yes, a blues is a simple structure in that it uses only three chords, but keeping track of which chord you're on while struggling to get your untrained fingers to press the correct keys or frets or holes is very challenging, even stressful for some people. So even if I'm just trying to teach simple accompanying to guitarists or keyboardists, I won't introduce a 12-bar blues until they've done quite a few 2-bar or 4-bar pattern songs. And there are actually a LOT of those, fortunately.

By now, you've realized: I like to make lists and charts and things like that. So here's a table of song suggestions with INCREDIBLY SIMPLE harmonic structures - only one, two or three chords - but they're NOT 12-bar blues, they're repeating structures of only 2 or 4 bars. Your students will find them MUCH easier to keep the music and rhythm going with these songs, especially if you're teaching a large class. In each category below there's at least one song that most of the kids in your class will like. Something for everyone.

SONGS with only ONE chord:
Chain of Fools - Aretha Franklin
Who Do You Love? - Bo Diddley
Get Up, Stand Up - Bob Marley
I Want to Take You Higher - Sly Stone
 We Will Rock You - Queen
Karma - Alicia Keys

SONGS with TWO chords:
Listen Here - Eddie Harris
Fallin' - Alicia Keys
Shout - Isley Brothers
Feelin' Alright - Dave Mason
Oye Como Va - Santana
Come As You Are - Nirvana
Chameleon - Herbie Hancock

SONGS with THREE chords:
All Along the Watchtower - Dylan (and Hendrix)
Knockin' on Heaven's Door - Dylan
Sweet Home Alabama - Lynyrd Skynyrd
Beat It - Michael Jackson
Forget You - Cee Lo Green
Stay With Me - Rod Stewart

SONGS with FOUR chords: (one per measure)
With or Without You - U2
Apologize - One Republic
Halo - Beyonce Knowles
We Didn't Start the Fire - Billy Joel
Kids - MGMT
Pumped Up Kicks - Foster the People

If you don't know these songs, go to YouTube and listen to them. They were all very big hits (in their day, whatever it was) so they're going to be readily available, and most people who have not been living in a cave in the Himalayas for the past forty years will have heard them. You're going to recognize most of them, even if you didn't know them by title.

As always, if you have any additions, I'd love to incorporate them into this post.
You can write me at

MAGIC chord progression!!

Six Four One Five    -    vi    IV    I    V     -    Ami    F    C    G

4 simple chords, and a world of new repertoire. 

Once you think your students can play a song with four chords... check out this repertoire:

This chord progression is the new "Heart and Soul." In fact, it's the same four chords - just in a different order. But nobody uses them in the sequence they occurred in "Heart and Soul" or "Blue Moon" or "Stand by Me." It's hard to explain why the slight re-ordering of the components is now hip, and the old order is terribly, terribly un-hip. So I won't even try. Here's a list of really useful repertoire to know. Your students will be happy just playing the accompaniment to these songs, or just the bass note if they're complete beginners. And these songs - because the chord progression is completely diatonic - are perfect for IMPROVISATION practice.  Happy listening!

"Love the Way You Lie" by Eminem and Rihanna 
"Apologize" by Timbaland and OneRepublic...   are in the same key

Gmi    Eb     Bb     F
Emi     C      G      D     (with capo III)

"If I Were a Boy"        by Beyonce
D#mi   B    F#   C#
Ami    F    C      G   (with capo on VI)

"Numb"             by Jay-Z and Linkin Park (intro and verses)
F#mi    D     A     E
Emi     C     G      D    (with capo II)

and here's a list with SOMETHING FOR EVERYONE. Believe me, the list is ten times this size! Check out this other blog at

The following songs were HUGE hits in their various genres. Your students WILL know some of them.

Pink - "Here Comes The Weekend"
Rihanna featuring Calvin Harris - "We Found Love"
The Offspring - "You're Gonna Go Far, Kid"
Lady GaGa - "Poker Face"
Akon - "Beautiful"
Red Hot Chili Peppers - "Snow"
Demi Lovato - "Unbroken"

Green Day - "Holiday" (intro and verses)
Bruno Mars - "Grenade" (chorus)
Miley Cyrus - "Stay" (chorus)
Kelly Clarkson - "Stronger" (chorus)
Sarah McLachlan's "Building a Mystery"
Joan Osborne's "One of Us",
Jewel's "Hands."
Melissa Etheridge's "Angels Would Fall."
Nina Gordon's "Tonight and the Rest of My Life."
Beyoncé's "If I Were a Boy"
Aimee Mann ("Borrowing Time"),
Secondhand Serenade ("Fall for You"),
Katy Perry ("Fingerprints"),
Moby ("Every Day It's 1989"),
Sugarland ("Take Me As I Am"),
Carolina Liar ("I'm Not Over"),
T.I. ("Whatever You Like"),
Smashing Pumpkins "Disarm,"
Bon Jovi "It's My Life,"
on the Axis of Awesome video, they start with
the same 4 chords:    I   V  vi   IV   (same sequence, different starting point)
Here's the video:

Journey - Don't Stop Believing 1981

James Blunt - You're Beautiful

Alphaville - Forever Young

Jason Mraz - I'm Yours

Mika - Happy Ending

Alex Lloyd - Amazing

The Calling - Wherever You Will Go

Elton John - Can You Feel The Love Tonight

Maroon 5 - She Will Be Loved

The Last Goodnight - Pictures Of You

U2 - With Or Without You

Crowded House - Fall At Your Feet

Kasey Chambers - Not Pretty Enough

      now "double time" (only two beats per chord)

The Beatles - Let it Be

Red Hot Chili Peppers - Under the Bridge

Daryl Braithwaite - The Horses

Bob Marley - No Woman No Cry

Marcy Playground - Sex and Candy

Men At Work - Land Down Under

Banjo Patterson's Waltzing Matilda

A Ha - Take On Me

Green Day - When I Come Around

Eagle Eye Cherry - Save Tonight

Toto - Africa

and right here, they shift the order of measures, so that
the progression becomes    vi IV I V     (same order, different starting point)

Beyonce - If I Were A Boy (D#mi) 2008

The Offspring - Self Esteem (Ami) 1994

The Offspring - You're Gonna Go Far Kid (Ami) 2008

Pink - You and Your Hand (Emi) 2006 16,000,000 views

Lady Gaga - Poker Face (G#mi) 2008, 144,000,000 views

The Fray - You Found Me (G#mi) 2008, 36,000,000 views

30h!3 - Don't Trust Me (Gmi) 2008 22,000,000 views

MGMT - Kids (F#mi) 2009 20,000,000 views

Natalie Imbruglia - Torn 1997

Five For Fighting - Superman 2001

STUDENTS KNOW who the good teachers are!

There's a very interesting article in the October 2012 issue of The Atlantic magazine. It's by Amanda Ripley.

Ripley is reporting on the study by Harvard's Ronald Ferguson (a decade ago) and the Gates Foundation's recent interest in it. The Gates Foundation undertook a massive study of 3,000 teachers. In addition to looking at their credentials, their students' test scores, and their supervisors' observations, they asked THEIR STUDENTS to give an opinion on the classroom experience with that teacher.

In one classroom, kids said they worked hard, paid attention, and corrected their mistakes; they liked being there, and they believed that the teacher cared about them. In the next classroom, the very same kids reported that the teacher had trouble explaining things and didn’t notice when students failed to understand a lesson.

"The survey did not ask Do you like your teacher? Is your teacher nice? This wasn’t a popularity contest. The survey mostly asked questions about what students saw, day in and day out. Their survey answers, it turned out, were more reliable than any other known measure of teacher performance - including classroom observations and student test-score growth.

Of the 36 items included in the Gates Foundation study, the FIVE that most correlated with student learning were very straightforward:

1. Students in this class treat the teacher with respect.
2. My classmates behave the way my teacher wants them to.
3. Our class stays busy and doesn’t waste time.
4. In this class, we learn a lot almost every day.
5. In this class, we learn to correct our mistakes.

When Ferguson and Kane shared these five statements at conferences, teachers were surprised. They had typically thought it most important to care about kids, but what mattered more, according to the study, was whether teachers had control over the classroom and made it a challenging place to be. As most of us remember from our own school days, those two conditions did not always coexist: some teachers had high levels of control, but low levels of rigor.

I'd really recommend reading the Ripley article. (link above)

So how do we get our students to treat us with respect, and get them to behave the way they ought to? How do we get them to stay focused on the hard work of learning to play an instrument?

The answer is in: the Myth of "Classroom Management" further ahead...

Ninety seconds is enough

Watching a few classes or rehearsals from out in the auditorium seats this past week, I was thinking:

- it's very hard for the students to maintain full-body focus for more than about a minute and a half - literally.
- it's hard for them to infuse sufficient energy into the quieter parts of a pop song - usually the verse, that is.
Let's face it - these are aspects of performing that take years to master.

If you notice, on all the vocal competition shows these days (American Idol, X-Factor, The Voice) contestants compete using 90-second versions of the songs. This is usually

verse 1
I usually make customized cuts in whatever goes onto my concert programs. I get complaints about this before the concert itself - from students who don't want to give up a single second in the spotlight, from colleagues who are purists. But I get very few complaints when the students have just performed, and have given an exciting, energized performance from beginning to end. I think we should be very mindful of the audience, and how the energy level, and the fidget level comes across to them. You know your students; you know how long they can maintain an intense focus. Go ahead and tailor your arrangements to their current capabilities. 
Keep introductions short - the audience didn't come to hear your piano accompanist. Until students are very experienced, keep quiet verses in the beginning of the arrangement. Once they explode with the contrasting dynamic of the chorus, keep the energy high out to the end. Keep the arrangement short, and do another song.
I find from my experience that kids are able to maintain or snap back to focus when each new song starts, so I'm always more inclined to put two abridged performances (each about 90 seconds) on a program rather than a three- or four-minute rendition of a single song which uses the same arrangement as the hit record. And of course I practice the full body stance, the attitude, the facial expressions, the head and arm movements with the class as part of our rehearsals.
What we do in class isn't always the same as what we want to put on the concert. (We may do six verses of a song in class, so that every student gets a chance to sing a solo line or two.) But on the concert, the audience is not coming to see a demonstration class. They're expecting, maybe not consciously, to be getting a performance, and I think that's what we should do our very best to give them.
Do you have any thoughts on this subject? Please let me know at

The Myth of "Classroom Management"

I've come to believe that "classroom management" is a term that confuses the issue and does nothing to address the problem it purports to solve.

We hear things like "Ms. Smith has excellent classroom management skills." But what exactly are these skills?

You can find books and websites with lists of "classroom management skills" like "You need to be determined to establish your authority in the classroom at all costs," or "In order to maintain good working relationships with the students that you teach, you need to be able to demonstrate patience." At first glance, these pronouncements seem right, but on closer inspection they are too vague to be really useful, especially to a less experienced teacher. I admit, it sounds like a good idea, but HOW does one establish authority? Or HOW does one demonstrate patience? It's difficult to say, really. But let me move a step ahead and say that those things are not really necessary if you have good repertoire and good pacing.

I will take it on faith that you know your stuff. You've mastered your instrument, and you understand what it took to master it. I think, to get students to pay attention to you, they must feel that you've got something they want. They want to be able to play or sing - like you! Maybe not your style. Maybe in a completely different genre of music. But they recognize that you can do it - you can really play.

Almost everyone loves music. And almost everyone would LOVE to be able to play or sing like you do. You make it look so easy. So this much I'll take for granted.

The real clincher is: can you find the appropriate piece of THEIR music to teach them that next technique, get them to that next plateau of proficiency? You understand that musicians need to progress toward mastery in small steps. (Think back to Kodaly, above.) You can't really skip any steps, or they'll come back to plague you later, right?

But kids are kids. They're sometimes lazy. Sometimes they're just tired and sleepy. They're sometimes contrary - they want to see whether they can annoy you. I don't know why - they just do. But if you've got a SONG they really, really like... they're going to pay attention. They're going to try and try, and forget about the lunch period coming up. They're no longer interested in trying to annoy you. That's not nearly so interesting anymore. They'll try and try again, and they'll look over at the kid beside them, and see that he's getting it... and they'll ask him for help. And they won't want to give up, even after the bell has rung.

So the two things to keep in mind are
1. Have a collection of THEIR music, sequenced carefully, to enable them to play songs they love in a gradual progression always toward increasing technical mastery.

2. Don't kill their enthusiasm. In a given session, don't spend too long on any one song. As soon as possible, develop a repertoire of 5 or 6 songs, each perhaps focusing on a particular skill or technique, and move to the next song as soon as (or before!) the kids get restless.

These two points are the same as what I said above: have good repertoire and good pacing.

Good repertoire is simply repertoire they really, really like. (Keep asking them for suggestions. Don't ever stop searching for fresh, useful repertoire.)

Good pacing is paying attention to the class's responsiveness and moving to the next activity before you "lose" them.

If you're more of a purist than I am, let me reassure you on one point. Over the years - and I have been teaching for many years - I have noticed that, without fail, as my students' technical proficiency has reached even what we would call a modest level, their taste in music begins to broaden. They begin to take notice of genres of music they had previously ignored, and appreciate what they're hearing. Of course I make a point of having some "other" kind of music playing when they enter the classroom or the studio. I may even say, "Oh, there you are. I was just listening to this piece by Bach. Do you like it?" Or - even better! - I'll make a point of being in the process of practicing something as they walk in, and say "I'm playing this on Saturday night. I was just stealing a few minutes to practice while I was waiting for you to arrive."