- Parent: “I’d really like little Johnny [age 8, in his first year of lessons] to learn the Moonlight Sonata. Is that possible?”
- Beginning student: “Can I please, please, please learn this song?” [proceeds to play the first two notes of Fur Elise over and over…]
- Student in second year of lessons: “I’ve been playing piano for a LONG time now. When can I learn some Elton John (Scott Joplin/Chopin/Rachmaninoff, etc.)?”
As much as we want to encourage our students’ enthusiasm for music, it can be difficult not to cringe when we get one of these unexpected, and often unrealistic, repertoire requests. It can be tough to envision incorporating the “Moonlight Sonata” into lessons when a student is still struggling to count half notes and whole notes.
However, what if there were a way to use these requests to teach and reinforce the basic skills we are already working on in our lessons? With a little creativity, it can be possible! The next time you get an unexpected repertoire request, consider these options:
Does a simplified version of this piece exist?
I realize there is some controversy over the idea of using simplified music, in particular simplified classical music, in lessons. However, the sad truth is that for those of us who work with primarily “recreational” students, the majority of the students we teach will never reach the proficiency level required to play many of these beloved classical pieces in their original form. If learning a simplified arrangement of a classical piece can motivate your students and bring them the joy of playing a favorite classical piece at the piano, isn’t it an idea worth considering?
There are so many great options for simplified arrangements these days that often a Google search will give you several choices at a variety of levels. But here are a few of my favorite places to look for student-friendly arrangements of both classical and popular music:
- Piano Pronto: Jennifer Eklund has done a wonderful job arranging hundreds of beloved classical themes so that they maintain their original flavor while still being accessible to student pianists. Her method books contain many arrangements, and many more are available as digital downloads on the Piano Pronto site. Her companion site, FM Sheet Music, contains over 1,000 arrangements of pop and movie music for student pianists as well.
- Sheet Music Plus: Just type in the title and choose the level you are looking for. You can find both hard copy collections from a variety of educational music publishers as well as digital downloads of music from independent arrangers in a variety of genres (including my own arrangements of pop, video game, and anime music for students, found HERE).
- Musicnotes: You can find everything from “beginner note” (pre-reading) arrangements to lead sheets to “easy piano” arrangements--and beyond--on this website. Note that the music here is available only in digital, print-on-demand format.
Can the piece be taught by ear or by rote?
Perhaps a simplified version of the requested piece doesn’t exist--or maybe even the simplified version is still too difficult for your student. Can a portion of the piece be taught by rote or by ear? Very often students are happy just to learn an 8 or 16 measure section of their requested piece, with the understanding that as they progress they can learn even more.
In earlier blog posts, I’ve discussed how I teach familiar favorites such as Pachelbel’s “Canon” and “Carol of the Bells” by rote, as well as how I teach pop music by ear.
Can the student learn the bass line and play along with you as a duet?
If your student can play A and E, they can play along with the bass notes to the first section of “Fur Elise.” The bass line for the opening of the “Moonlight Sonata” contains only five notes (and can be transposed to an easier key if necessary). The bass line to many pop songs can be played by knowing just four notes--the roots of the I, IV, V, and vi chords.
Have students play these short bass lines along with you as you play the remainder of the piece, as a duet. Duets are a great way to work on:
- Cueing and ensemble--can you start and end together?
- Counting--hold those bass notes!
- Dynamics and tempo--see if your student can follow the dynamic changes and tempo changes you make as you play (for example, add in a crescendo, diminuendo, or ritardando to challenge your student’s listening skills).
Can you perform the piece for the student or listen to a recording of it together?
What if the requested piece can’t possibly be simplified in a way that makes it accessible for the student to play? There are still opportunities for learning! Consider these ideas:
- If it is a piano piece, can you play it for your student? This is a great way to inspire and demonstrate what your student can achieve over time through hard work and practice.
- Can you find a recording of the piece and use it to work on listening skills? You can:
- Identify concepts such as high/low, loud/soft, fast/slow.
- Identify any orchestral or percussion instruments in the recording.
- Clap the rhythm and march to the beat.
- Identify the form of the piece. Do any of the sections repeat?
- Discuss how the music makes you feel. Is it happy, sad, angry? How do you think the composer created that emotion in the music?
- Learn about the history of the piece. When was it written? Who was the composer? What other pieces did this composer write?
What do you think? Do you welcome student repertoire requests? Any tips you would like to share for turning these requests into learning experiences? I’d love to hear your ideas in the comments!