Many piano teachers, piano students, and parents of piano students ask me how or why I began creating my “Cool Songs” (musicmotivation.com/coolsongs). It began with my “Cool Songs for Cool Kids” Series (Primer Level and Books 1, 2, and 3), and my “Cool Songs that ROCK!” Series (books 1 and 2). To be honest, however, it actually began long before any of those books were created.
I began teaching piano lessons part time in 2003, I was newly married and was selling pianos in a piano store. I didn’t start teaching full time as an independent piano teacher until 2006. Between 2003 and 2006 I had a few different sales jobs I did as well, while continuing to do things on the side for my music career. In 2006 I created my music company, Music Motivation®, at first for my piano studio and for me as a performing musician. I then felt motivated to come out with two books back to back. The first book I ever created was “An Introduction to Scales and Modes.” It is an in-depth tutorial of basic scales and modes in all key signatures. After that I came out with my second book, “Variations on Mary Had a Little Lamb.” This book has nine different arrangements I created using the children’s song, “Mary Had a Little Lamb.” These are some of the arrangements in the book: Mary Took Her Lamb to a Swingin’ Jazz Club, Mary’s Lamb Had the Blues, Mary Took Her Lamb to a 50s Rock Concert, Mary and Her Lamb Live with Indians, etc., etc., until the last arrangement of: Mary Took Her Lamb to a Funeral.
These books were created to help students learn the theory and the practical application of the music. As a result of these two books, my piano studio more than doubled. At my most busy time in teaching, I had around 88 piano students (ironic, don’t you think). The majority were teenage boys (ages 11-19), and most of them wanted to quit piano lessons. Piano teachers and parents of piano students would send me their students who essentially wanted nothing more to do with the instrument. The parents and teachers said they didn’t want their students to quit and asked me to try to motivate them to keep playing the piano (I guess that is what I get for naming my company Music Motivation®). The students would not play from any method book past or present and would never suggest music they wanted to play. I needed to figure out how to reach these students and connect with them. I asked each of them what kind of music they enjoyed and asked them to bring it so they could work on it. The majority would not do it. I then asked them to challenge me to create or compose a piano solo for them during their lesson. They all found this very entertaining. I would tell them to choose a style of music, key signature, and the time signature. With some pieces, such as “Game Over” from “Cool Songs for Cool Kids” book 1, they even said I could only use four notes. It was a game for the students and a challenge for me. With each of these students, I composed a piano solo during their lesson time and even notated it in Finale. At the end of their lesson I printed off the music and sent it home with them. I challenged them to learn the piano solo and then let me know what they thought. I told them I would compose a new piece the following week during their next lesson for them.
It worked! The following week, the students returned and I asked them if they had tried to play it. The majority of these students had not only tried to play it, but had perfected the piece and said they were ready to challenge me to compose a new piano solo. I would accept their challenge and tell them they would need to play what I composed. I asked the students what they honestly thought about the music and almost without exception, the students said they thought the music sounded “cool.” They told me they would play the piano more if they could have more “cool” sounding music like the piano solo I had composed. I appreciated their positive feedback. I told them I would emphasize the music theory in the “cool song” because they need to know their music theory, but I also told them I wanted them to have fun learning these “cool songs” each week. That is how it all began. All of the “cool songs” I had composed in each lesson were later compiled into “Cool Songs for Cool Kids” books 1, 2, and 3. Because of the great feedback of these books, I then created “Cool Songs that ROCK!” books 1 and 2 for older teenagers that were a little more advanced. I have my students play through all of the “cool songs” I create so I can receive their feedback . They know what they like and what sounds “cool” to them. I listen to and now receive feedback from many piano teachers, piano students, and parents of piano students around the world who tell me what they would like me to compose as well. Have fun with this music!
I primarily teach teenagers and adults piano lessons. I have a great connection with these two groups and have found this to be the best niche for me. In teaching so many teenagers who at times have not been too excited about the piano, many of whom wanted to quit and wanted nothing to do with the piano, I tried to focus on how I could help the piano students have fun playing the piano so they would not quit. I wanted them to learn the practical application of the music theory I was teaching. I discovered early on that method books did not work for the teenagers I taught because they wanted more freedom and independence (it’s that stage when they begin to discover their own identity and independence as it is). I believe this is true of most teenagers who play the piano or any instrument for that matter. As a result of my experience in working with teenagers, I have found a few helpful tips that have worked with my own students and would like to share them with you if they will help. Some may work and others won’t – it all depends on the teacher and the students. Different teachers have varying strengths or areas of expertise and I encourage piano teachers to focus on what they do well and how to apply their excitement and enthusiasm for playing the piano to motivate and inspire their piano students to have fun, learn, grow, and do and be their very best. Here are some ideas I have found that have worked for motivating teenagers to play the piano. This list is not complete and is not in any specific order. Try one or all of these. If things are going well for your piano students, keep doing what is working for you!
1. Ask teenagers what they want to play. It’s simple, but true. Teenagers don’t want to feel like they are being forced to do something they don’t want to. If it is their idea, then they are more excited about it and follow through with what they have decided to do.
2. Find out what music teenagers listen to and ask if they would like to learn their favorite music – with or without sheet music. Sometimes simply listening to the music on their phone or ipod encourages and motivates them to play the piano every day (notice I did not say practice). Help students learn to play the piano every day and set daily goals to accomplish and improve. It’s about progress.
3. Along with the previous suggestion, ask students to come up with at least three to five weekly goals and monthly goals. Sometimes students need an overview or game plan to give them the direction they need. Simply having them take a few moments at the beginning of the month to write out what they would like to accomplish that month will help them learn to direct themselves. It’s not about the teacher telling them what to do. It’s about a music mentor guiding them so they can direct themselves and learn to depend more on themselves and less on the teacher. Again, this is not teacher directed, this is helping the teenagers tell you where they are and where they would like to go musically. You can also encourage them in setting goals in other areas of their life.
4. Teach the following styles: Pop, Rock, Jazz, Blues, Country, Big Band, Show Tunes, New Age, Hymns, Techno, etc. An occasional classical piece is fantastic, but most students at this age are wanting to learn and play music they can perform for their friends. It’s what they know and love. High school age students tend to do very well with classical music and enjoy it more, but, for whatever reason, Jr. High School age students – especially teenage boys, do better if they temporarily focus on other styles of music and have an occasional classical piece here and there then the other way around. I have had several students come to me who were adamant about quitting piano because they “hated everything to do with piano.” It was not true at all! They did not like the classical pieces they were playing. Helping students play many varied styles of music and learn to appreciate all styles. Most of my piano students who “hated” classical music when they were in Jr. High School begged me to play classical pieces in High School. It’s only a stage and phase, but they do come around eventually and enjoy playing classical pieces again. We just can’t lose them in the process!
5. Teenage piano students enjoy changing things up! Do this all the time and in a way to keep them on their toes. Change the format of what is taught and how it is taught. Here are some ideas and suggestions:
- Have the student play their piano music on conga or bongo drums. The treble clef is played with the right conga/bongo drum and the bass clef is played with the left conga/bongo drum. This is great for working on rhythms.
- Turn the music upside down and have the students play their piano music this way. This is fantastic for sight reading. What was the bass clef is now being played as the treble clef with the right hand and what was the treble clef is now being played as the bass clef with the left hand.
- Play a melody on another instrument (recorder, saxophone, guitar, bass, banjo, etc.) and have the student try to reproduce the melody on the piano. This is great for ear training.
- Watch a video on YouTube or listen to an MP3 of a song of the student’s choice and have them try to play the melody followed by the harmony or chord progression of the piece. Again, this is great for ear training and helps them learn how to play by ear.
- Challenge teenagers to compose music of their own. This is a great idea. Some will want to and some won’t. Again, encourage them but do not try to force them to do it. Help them learn how to compose a melody, add harmony, chord progressions, dynamics, etc. Once they have composed their own piece, help them notate it using Finale, Sibelius, or another music notation software program.
7. Encourage teenagers to add other instruments to their music using Garage Band, Logic Pro, Pro Tools, or another software program – there are many choices and options available.
8. If you have encouraged and helped teenagers compose their own music, notate it, and orchestrate it, then encourage them to try to sell their own music. Talk about motivation! When a piano student can set up a simple blog and sell a PDF download of their own composition or upload their music to iTunes, Amazon, SoundCloud, or any other number of online music stores, they get really excited and motivated. It’s fun to see!
9. Ask your teenage piano students to mentor younger piano students you teach. This helps them take on responsibility and they learn so much when they teach. Along these lines, if you have siblings you teach, during the younger piano student’s lesson, ask if their older sibling will sit on the bench with them or in a chair next to them and “Be the Teacher” for 5-10 minutes or so. They can then see what their sibling is not doing that they should be doing and can help correct problems like wrong notes, timing/counting, dynamics, etc. In teaching their younger sister or brother, they learn so much more in the process. The teacher really is the one who grows and learns the most.
10. Film your student as they play a piece and then, with permission, share it on a social media site. Especially if or when they have played a piece well, this is a great way to highlight or feature the student. It gives them an audience and they feel a sense of accomplishment.
Have your students film themselves and create their own YouTube page (again they will need permission from their parents to do so). They feel like a “cool” rockstar and celebrity when they film themselves and share their piano performance with family and friends. It’s also nice for the teacher to share it as well.
11. Help students create or learn how to create their own music video. Students love this. I like to use Final Cut as the video editing software program, but there are many others like iMovie and other options that free to download.
Have special concerts or activities for the teenage piano students: e.g. touring a piano factory to learn how pianos are made or repaired, attending a special concert, having what I refer to as “Casual Concerts” where the students can wear jeans and a t-shirt and can use their music or play anything they want – they can even invite friends to perform with them using any instrument, and many other similar ideas.
12. Along with teaching composition, teach improvisation, jazz, blues, how to play from fake books, etc.. They love different styles and genres.
13. If you teach teenage boys, start the lesson doing push ups. I will get down with the student and we will do 25 push ups together. We may go into my gym that is in the room next to the piano studio and lift weights together for four or five minutes. While lifting I explain about the importance of doing reps (repetition) and sets – either in weight lifting or in playing the piano. I explain why I have them repeat measures over and over again until they have the notes correct, the timing right on, and the dynamics beautifully delivered. It’s like lifting weights, but at the piano.
14. Have the student try to sing while they are playing. Ask them to invite a friend to their lesson who plays another instrument and you will have them jam together with you at the lesson. This is also fun to do for piano recitals and concerts. In my own “Piano Concerts” (recitals), I refer to it as a Jam Session or “Jammin’ with Jerald.”
15. At a piano recital or concert, ask a few of the students to be the opening act and perform their own music while the audience is coming in. This is fun to do and is a great opportunity for the students to share their music with others.
16. There are so many great ideas out there. This is only a handful. I love hearing about the creative ideas others have and how they inspire and motivate their piano students. Please leave a comment below and let me know how you are motivating your own piano students. If you are a teenager, let me know what motivates you to play the piano. I would love to hear from you.
Download a copy of my Music Motivation® Mentorship Map I created:
This is my Purpose and Mission in life:
“My purpose and mission in life is to motivate myself and others through my music and writing, to help others find their purpose and mission in life, and to teach values that encourage everyone everywhere to do and be their best.” – Jerald Simon
A message from Jerald to piano students and parents:
If you come to piano lessons each week and walk away only having learned about music notation, rhythm, and dots on a page, then I have failed as a Music Mentor. Life lessons are just as important, if not more important than music lessons. I would rather have you learn more about goal setting and achieving, character, dedication, and personal improvement. To have you learn to love music, appreciate it, and play it, is a wonderful byproduct you will have for the rest of your life – a talent that will enrich your life and the lives of others. To become a better musician is wonderful and important, but to become a better person is more important.
As a Music Mentor I want to mentor students to be the very best they can be. If you choose not to practice, you essentially choose not to improve. This is true in any area of life. Everyone has the same amount of time allotted to them. What you choose to do with your time, and where you spend your time, has little to do with the activities being done and more to do with the value attached to each activity.
I believe it’s important to be well-rounded and have many diverse interests. I want students to enjoy music, to learn to be creative and understand how to express themselves musically – either by creating music of their own, or interpreting the music of others – by arranging and improvising well known music. In addition, I encourage students to play sports, dance, sing, draw, read, and develop all of their talents. I want them to be more than musicians, I want them to learn to become well-rounded individuals.
Above all, I want everyone to continually improve and do their best. I encourage everyone to set goals, dream big, and be the best they can be in whatever they choose to do. Life is full of wonderful choices. Choose the best out of life and learn as much as you can from everyone everywhere. I prefer being called a Music Mentor because I want to mentor others and help them to live their dreams.
Your life is your musical symphony. Make it a masterpiece!
Have a beautiful day!