What Type of Music Can You Play on the Piano?

When I was a teenager, I would listen to the soothing piano music that’s played in the heart-wrenching drama serials on the telly. I love the music. The music spoke to me. I felt connected with the music. So, I decided that I wanted to learn to play the piano.

My mum and I went to this shopping mall called “Forum the shopping mall” very weekend. There’s a music school and a music retailer shop on the ground floor / basement. I often stood outside the school/shop and stared at the pianos, books through the glass. I supposed that’s what you call window shopping.

Finally, my family’s financial situation improved. My mum was able to afford piano lessons for me. That’s when I was 16. I started lessons at the music school. I was delighted. I was taught western classical music.

In Singapore and elsewhere in the world I imagine, to learn the piano is to learn western classical music. I’m not sure how that came about. But that belief is deeply entrenched in the minds of all people that I know. And also, it is imperative to go for piano exams. In fact, when parents discuss about their kids and their music education, the question that constantly pops up is “Which grade is your child in?” For those of you who is unfamiliar with the music exams, most major music examining boards in the world adopt a graded system. It usually starts from grade 1 and ends in grade 8. Thereafter, the diploma exams kicks in. Perhaps to meet the demands for students and parents who wish to have a sense of achievement, various intermediate grades or assessments flowed into the market. For example, there’s preparatory or initial grade which is pre-grade 1. There’s performance certificates at grade 5 and 8. There’s associate diploma to bridge the vast gap between grade 8 and the first level of the diploma exams. There’s also theory exams with their own graded system.

It is only after more than 20 years after I started my piano lessons that I question why learning the piano equates to learning western classical music. I think it’s a tradition. It’s how piano teachers were taught and what they teach their students consequently.

There’s many genres of music. Some of the key ones are:

  • hip hop
  • country
  • classical
  • pop
  • blues
  • metal
  • rock
  • reggae
  • jazz

The list of music genres goes on, almost endless in fact. I question the years that a child/person spends on learning western classical music. Can the child/person play other genres of music? E.g. rock, jazz, blues, pop? No doubt it takes years to be skilled at playing a style of music. But are piano students exposed to those different genres/styles which I believe are essential to the music education of a musician?

At the very least, piano students should be asked “What type of music would you like to be able to play?” That should be the starting point of piano lessons.

Manifesto of Music Lessons

I am uncovering better ways of teaching piano by doing it and helping others do it.
Through this work I have come to value:

Playing by ear over reading notes at all times

Creating your own music over executing other people’s works at all times

Performing frequently over taking graded exams

Improvising using scales and arpeggios over memorising them for exams

That is, while there is value in the items on the right, I value the items on the left more.

Written and signed by Joseph Hong on this day 27 October 2021

Music Students Taught the Traditional Way Versus How Joseph Teaches

ScenarioA student who is taught the traditional wayA student who is taught by Joseph
What instrument does the student need? An acoustic piano is required. Annual tuning is required. Takes 2-3 persons to move the piano. A keyboard with full sized keys and a sustaining pedal is the minimum. Most students upgrade to a (portable) digital piano after a year of lessons with Joseph. There is no annual tuning and the instrument can be moved around e.g. bring the instrument to a family member’s house for the student’s performance.
How about music exams?Most students in Ireland, the UK, and Asian countries enter for annual music exams by examination boards e.g. RIAM, ABRSM, and TCL.

The student will learn at least three exam pieces per year, learn the scales and arpeggios for the grade, practise sight-reading and aural tests especially before the exam.
Totally optional. Joseph is of the opinion that at least one student concert per term, monthly open mic sessions, performing for friends and family, and recording your own pieces on video for e.g. your own Youtube channel/Facebook page are more enriching and enjoyable experiences than exams.

However, where a student wishes to take exams of his/her own accord (and not forced by the parent to do so), there are various non-traditional exam options e.g. Trinity College of London’s Rock and Pop exams, ABRSM performance assessments, etc.
Tunes learnt during lessonsAs the focus of the lessons is to learn to read notes, depending on the student’s note reading ability, the first few years of lessons tend to focus on simple sounding tunes which are based on the notes mastered by the student.As the focus of the lessons is to get the student to play and perform music as soon as possible, students are taught relatively difficult sounding music by rote (i.e. by imitation) which are usually attempted by a student who has 1-2 years of traditional piano lessons.

Students are taught chords from the very beginning so that they can play along to music.

When students learn to read notes, the focus is on the right hand melodies (i.e. treble clef) and students are taught to create their own left hand patterns. This is a more creative process compared to playing using sheet music which dictate what the left hand plays.
The student wants to play a song that s/he likes.Find/purchase the music sheet if it is available and learn the notes.

Oh no, the notes, the rhythms and the key signatures are too difficult for the student. The left hand part is too difficult.

The piano teacher may not be too keen to spend lesson time to teach the music that the student like.
Maybe start by comping to the tune with chords from the internet. See if the student can pick out the melody by ear and figure something out for the left hand. Or the student can find the fake sheet/sheet music and create his/her own arrangement.
It’s someone’s birthday and the student is asked to play Happy Birthday on the pianoThe student doesn’t have the notes to Happy Birthday. Even if there’s notes, s/he needs to sight-read the music. Depending on the student’s sight-reading skills, the song request may or may not work out.

Even if the student is good at sight-reading, the student will need to go online, assuming there is wifi available, to find a music sheet for Happy Birthday and print out the music as it’s too small on the phone screen. If there is no printer, perhaps the computer/piano can be moved to where the piano/computer is so that the music sheet can be read from the screen?
The student can try to play it by ear. It may just take a minute.

Or … the student can search for the chords (or try to figure them out) to Happy Birthday and comp along as others sing Happy Birthday.
The student is at a relative, friend’s place, or public space and there is a piano waiting to be played.The student does not have his/her music books or sheets and can’t remember any pieces. Or maybe the student can remember bits of a tune.

Or … the student can play her/his three exam pieces which s/he have memorised as s/he has been practising them for almost a year now.
The student can play his/her party pieces which are memorised and replayed frequently so that s/he gets better at performing them each time.
It’s Christmas time and the family wants to get together to sing Christmas carols.

There is a talent show and a friend who is a singer asks the student if s/he can play the piano accompaniment
Sure, the student can get the notes and try to sight-read them. Oh, the notes are too high or too low? The student can try to find another version of the song in a lower/higher key.Sure, the student can get the chords to the tunes and comp along. Oh, the chords are too high or too low? The student can transpose the chords to a lower/higher key which may just take a minute or two.

Why I Stopped Teaching Piano the ‘Traditional’ Way

When I taught piano many years ago, maybe it was 20 years ago, I taught students the way I was taught – focus on passing exams by learning three exam pieces per year. As part of the exams, I will practise all my scales and arpeggios diligently. Needless to say, the focus during lessons is to focus on note reading. Come to think of it, that’s the focus of almost my entire piano education – to learn music by reading notes and executing them. I can play some pretty impressive pieces too.

Nowadays, especially in the last year or so, there’s a transformation in my teaching:

  • I no longer require students to practise on an acoustic piano. It’s fine if they have a digital piano or a keyboard. After all, the focus is on making music. Unless the student is learning western classical music from me (which I generally stopped teaching now), there is really no need for an acoustic piano
  • I focus on teaching chords: students learn comping i.e. coming up with accompaniment (without notes) to play along to their favourite music, accompany the family on Christmas carols, etc.
  • I focus on teaching different styles of music e.g. blues including boogie woogie, pop and rock. Of course, there are different styles in western classical music e.g. baroque, classical, romantic and 20th century. However, the emphasis in the latter is to read and execute notes while the former is learn the vocabulary of each style and create your own pieces. For example in blues, students learn the common turnarounds, endings, introductions, licks by rote which are then memorised.
  • Students are strongly encouraged to play by ear and create their own arrangements of tunes. Unless a pianist is taught using Suzuki which focuses on the ears, playing by ear is usually frowned upon in lessons taught the traditional way. I suspect this is because most teachers don’t quite know what to do or progress the lesson.