One of the challenges that often face music teachers is a tension that develops between students playing music they enjoy, and teachers who want their students to play music that facilitates growth in musicianship. Often, this comes down to the teacher wanting the student to play classical music, and the student wanting to play popular music. Many teachers take the attitude of accommodating their students with a sort of compromise, where if the student will practice a classical piece, the teacher will allow the student to prepare a popular piece for a portion of the lesson. While this arrangement is workable, there is a better way.
The core arts standards for music include a content standard for selecting under the artistic process of performing. The enduring understanding (EU) is, “performers’ interest in and knowledge of musical works, understanding of their own technical skill, and the context for a performance influence the selection of repertoire.” The essential question is, “how do performers select repertoire?” This immediately brings an aspect of music teaching that often is overlooked: teaching students how to select repertoire is one of the responsibilities of a music teacher. When the teacher selects all of the repertoire, or has an overriding influence on selection, the student never learns how to independently make these choices. The standard includes three areas for the performer to consider when selecting repertoire: interest, knowledge, and technical skill.
All three can be developed through further study, so sometimes a student may select a musical work from interest, but realize that s/he needs more technical skill in order to realistically begin practicing the piece. This can be an excellent motivator for working to develop technical skill, and for the teacher to assign exercises and repertoire to accomplish technical growth that the student might not otherwise be receptive to learning. On the other hand, a student may select a musical work based on interest and find that they have plenty of technical skill to play the music, and can successfully perform it with very little practice. These selections are valid for the student to simply enjoy music making, without attempting to grow or improve from the experience. We all enjoy just sitting down and playing or singing music without always working on things we can’t yet play fully. Selecting on knowledge can be a way for students to discover and explore new pieces within a familiar idiom. A student may be knowledgable about minuets, but perhaps has only played those of Mozart and Haydn. What about minuets by other composers? What about related forms such as Landler, waltz, scherzo and polonaise?
For the teacher’s part, one should sometimes take the approach that the skill or concept to be taught is more important than the musical work chosen. For example, if a piano teacher wants to work on developing independence of hands using a broken chord accompaniment, she might use Schubert’s Waltz in A-flat major, D. 365, but she might also use the song “Let It Go” form the movie Frozen. The student may practice “Frozen” much more, and learn the skill much better than if they must learn it from the Waltz. The teacher can then show the student that Schubert used the same kind of writing almost two hundred years ago, and perhaps interest the student in playing Schubert to after building the skill on the easier popular song. This makes the inclusion of popular music and classical music part of a holistic approach to music teaching, and makes it possible for the student to evaluate their own needs and interests while considering repertoire possibilities. We shouldn’t feel as though we must indulge in our students’ musical tastes in order to hold their interest, but instead look for opportunities for better, more effective instruction by using the music they are interested in to build concepts and skills. If the music they select is consistently “too easy” for the growth the teacher is looking for, add value to those selections by having the student improvise on their selection, thereby incorporating more advanced technical opportunities, or even compose variations which the student must then play. Judging music a student wants to play as inappropriate or as only a reward for good behavior practicing classical pieces promotes a musical narrow mindedness that is contrary to one of the goals all music teachers should have, that of teaching a diverse repertoire.