Why I Teach Folk, Pop, Jazz (and everything in between)...alongside Classical
Now don’t get me wrong, I love classical music best of all. From the sparkling sonatinas of Clementi (in my childhood), to the melancholy waltzes of Chopin (in my adolescence) to the Preludes and Fugues of Bach and Shostakovich (now), classical music has always had a firm place in my heart.
But in my studio, I also teach plenty of non-classical styles—Celtic, Latin, folk, Blues, and Pop.
In the beginning, it was mostly a matter of getting students excited about lessons by encouraging them to play the music they loved. A good enough reason on its own. But before long, I evolved my own reasons for wanting to teach these non-classical styles of music.
Let me explain.
Unlike classical music, in which every single note is dictated by the composer, these non-classical forms often exist as incomplete versions. In other words, some of the notes are left up to the performer.
Often, our only starting point is either:
A) a melody with chord symbols
B) a melody only (no chords indicated)
Although it is often possible to find fully notated arrangements of pieces that students request, I will often resist this temptation. Because in my view, these incomplete versions provide us with something more interesting.
What they provide us with is a theory exercise (a perfect harmonic exercise) that needs completion.
So off we go.
Of the two scenarios listed above, scenario A (melody with chord symbols) is the simpler. In typical pop/folk notation, these chord symbols are written as letter names. For example, G written above the melody line indicates that one should play the major G chord.
However, as my students already know, the G chord does not mean the same thing in all contexts. A G chord in C major has a different function than a G chord in G major. So the theory exercise in this instance is to have the student write the function (indicated by it’s Roman Numeral) beside the letter name. Now instead of seeing a bunch of random letter names, different letter names in different pieces, the student is seeing a pattern (usually involving the I V and IV chords, maybe a few others) that they have seen in their pieces many times before, and will see many times in the future.
Scenario B, in which no chord names are given, presents a slightly more advanced theory exercise. In this scenario, students need to figure out, using a mixture of logic and their ears, which chords might work. But, as my students know, the possibilities are neither limitless nor random. We start, of course, with the I, IV and V chords.
From there we might play around with some chord substitutions. Perhaps we will use the ii chord instead of the IV chord. And since the ii chord is a minor chord, it will tinge the melody with a slightly different, more melancholic feel than if we had used the more predictable major IV chord. This is where theory meets emotion.
Of course, knowing WHICH chord to play doesn’t tell us HOW to play it.
And that’s the second part of this exercise. Depending where the student is in their playing ability, we can make our LH accompaniment as simple or as complicated as we like. Perhaps we will simply play root position triads. Or maybe we will space the notes out more. Perhaps we will invert some of the chords in order to make a more interesting bass line; or leave some of the notes out; add passing notes between chord notes; or add some of the chord notes into the RH part.
Unlike the theory exercises of my childhood theory textbook, there are no absolutely right or wrong answers. We might start by playing it one way, and then a few weeks later experiment with another. It’s all a matter of experimentation.
So how does all of this tie back into classical music (or fully-notated music in any style)?
In my experience as a teacher, I have found that students' understanding of any particular concept will be more complete:
1. the more different angles a particular concept is viewed from
2. the more hands-on their experience of that concept is
3. the more relevant the concept seems to them
Learning popular styles beside their classical repertoire accomplishes all 3 of the above. The hands on experience of creating chords in different formations greatly improves students' ability to recognize, and remember the written chords in the fully-notated classical (or other) works they are learning. Suddenly what were once scary glob-like clusters or seemingly endless strings of black notes, form into meaningful patterns—first into chords, then, on the larger scale, into harmonic progressions.
And when students realize that the music they are playing isn't just some random collection of notes that mysteriously sound good together, they might even get the idea into their heads that they can make up some patterns of their own. And suddenly we are off into the realm of improvisation and composition...(But once again, that's a topic for a whole other article....)
Discover what lies behind the doors that a practical at-the-instrument theory knowledge unlocks...
I teach these non-Classical styles—not only because students love them—but also because I see them as a perfect creative tool for exploring theory from a slightly different vantage point ...