Monday Mailbag – Students and Pop Music

How “strict” are you about your students playing popular music from films, radio, etc. as notated? The piano arrangements are never really identical to the song the student knows, and they naturally play the rhythm they know. Lately I’ve been going through the notated rhythms with them correctly and then giving them permission to play like they know the song, so they realize that what they’re playing is not what’s written in the music. What’s your approach?

Please don’t call the rhythm police on me for this, but I usually let them play it however they think it should sound rhythmically. For those who are interested in playing familiar pop music like this, I often just have them figure it out by ear anyway, so that eliminates the discrepancy between how they think it should sound and how it is notated. For those who do go off of the printed music, though, I let them use it sort of as a loose framework for the piece, but then let them go as much by ear as they want.

My philosophy has shifted over the years as I’ve come to realize the importance of teaching music as sound, not as notes printed on a page. The printed page is just someone’s best attempt to represent visually a sound that they like and want others to be able to reproduce. Some music lends itself more to precise notation; other music…not so much. I will caveat this answer, though, by saying that my approach does depend also on three significant factors:

1. The student’s personality (do they want to learn things precisely, or do they enjoy just being able to play a familiar song without me nitpicking every detail?).

2. The purpose of learning the piece (will it be played in a public forum, or with a group of some sort where it would be important for the student to be playing it exactly as written?).

3. The learning value of the particular piece (is there some element with which the student especially struggles, and that I could capitalize on their interest in the piece to motivate them to strengthen that weakness?).

How about everyone else? Do you make students learn pop music exactly as written? Or do you give some leeway in this area?

Remember, if you have a question you’d like to contribute to next week’s Monday Mailbag, leave it in the comments below or send me an e-mail sometime this week with Monday Mailbag in the subject line!

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