Using Pop Music in Private Music Lessons

I recently saw Sara Bareilles in concert.

“Say what you wanna say and let the words fall out.”

Like many, I first became a fan of Sara’s in 2007, when “Love Song” hit it big.

And throughout the last 6 years, her music has helped mark significant moments in my life:

  • 2008: Working on my senior individualized project (SIP) at Kingswood Day Camp. One of my groups (7-8 year old girls) sang “Love Song” for their performance; some campers had only 1 week to prepare, while others had 3).
  • 2010: Listening to “King of Anything” with my graduate school roommate while we both worked on essays.
  • 2010: Putting “Responsible” on repeat after first hearing it on a mix sent to me by a friend.
  • 2011: Wondering how “Send Me The Moon” manages to perfectly encapsulate long distance relationships as seen from my perspective.
  • 2012: Letting “Uncharted” echo anxiety I had about major life changes.
  • 2013: Singing along to “Brave” in San Diego:

And best of all: whenever I listen to her music I remember how important it is to never underestimate how well pop music can capture a place in time and resonate with a listener.

Expand your library of teachable songs.

It can be easy to renounce a song or artist based on your own opinion — especially when you don’t have a personal connection to it. However, I’m not sure that doing so is the best way to respond when your student requests a certain song for their music lessons.

As a private teacher, I believe that it’s important to never disqualify a song solely based on its status as pop music.

In fact, I’m happy to take it one step further and argue that teachable moments lie within every song.

Sure, some songs may not be appropriate for a student based on:

  • The student’s age,
  • A song’s language/explicit content, or
  • Its difficulty level

It’s important to keep those variables in mind and remember that you control the direction in which you and your student are traveling. Perhaps you can agree on a rule to complement every student-chosen song with one or two pieces chosen by you.

Of course, it’s okay if you personally dislike a song or artist; everyone has their own tastes and opinions! However, make sure that you avoid pushing your own feelings on your student.

And it’s also okay to veto a selection if you objectively look at all of its components and come to the conclusion that it is not appropriate for your student at this time.

Make a connection.

The best pop songs allow the listener to step into the artist’s shoes and appropriate their emotions as their own.

Because of this, your student’s song request may be very personal to them.

I’ll be the first to admit that it’s easy to overlook the importance of making a direct connection with a student — especially if you’re working with a limited time period. However, small talk can go a long way to providing insight and rapport. Consider asking about:

  • Where your student first heard the song.
  • Whether your student knows the words and can sing along with or without provided lyrics.
  • Who your student likes to listen to the song with, and why.
  • Any favorite memories your student may have that are tied to this song.

I know I’d be excited to share my experiences of Sara Bareilles’ music with my own instructor.

Put it all together.

I’ve heard some teachers disparage pop songs because its musical components can be too simplistic. Of course, if you have an advanced student, playing a 3-chord song like Johnny Cash’s “Ring Of Fire” can be accomplished quickly. Why stop there, though?

While it can be difficult to fit in active listening and music analysis into the time you have with your student, guided listening assignments can be given to a student to complete throughout the week. Here are some ideas:

  1. Get a good understanding for the song’s tempo by clapping or tapping along to the beat.
  2. Hum along with a section, like a chorus, verse, or bridge, and listen to how the melody interacts with the harmony’s rhythms or chords.
  3. Use a provided time signature — as easy as telling your student to count groupings of 2, 3, or 4 — to count how long a specific section, like a chorus, verse, or bridge, lasts.

Your student may not yet have the musical vocabulary needed to be able to describe what she is hearing, but regularly practicing active listening and going over key elements together can quickly help her progress. Consider creating a guided listening worksheet with multiple-choice or fill-in-the-blank answer sheets. As your student’s ears develop, move to short-answers that allow for more open-ended responses.

Once a student is familiar with a song, consider integrating creative exercises into the unit:

  1. Allow the student to create their own dynamics for the song.
    • Remember to include decrescendos/crescendos (i.e., a gradual build or quieting down) or terraced dynamics (i.e., an abrupt shift in volume level — and a great opportunity to discuss baroque music).
  2. Use a song’s key and/or melodic line as a jumping-off point for creativity.
    • Depending on their proficiency level, have them select new chords to use, embellish or change the melody, or improvise over the chord changes.
  3. Tapping or count through harmonic rhythm, then create a new rhythmic accompaniment or strumming pattern.
    • You may be surprised at how complex these rhythms can be!

Remember to guide your student appropriately. Your student’s ear training skills may allow him to re-harmonize a melody with ease, but he may not have a good understanding of which chords are good options yet. Give him options to use during his first attempt at an exercise; later on, he may be able to identify options on his own and complete the reharmonization independently.

Do you integrate pop music and/or student requests into private music lessons?

I’d love to hear from you about what you do. Leave a comment and let’s discuss!

(Better yet – if you want to learn how to play Sara Bareilles’ music on your guitar, let’s get started!)

Sara Bareilles @ SDSU, 2013

One thought on “Using Pop Music in Private Music Lessons

  1. Pingback: Teaching Pop Music: Music Theory with the Rolling Stones - Justine Dolorfino

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