When I reflect on my own musical upbringing in New Jersey, I have many memories of practicing and performing traditional classical repertoire such as sonatinas and minuets. However, what I recall the most being a child of the 1970s and 1980s were the times where I impressed my school friends and teachers with the pop music that I could play at the piano. Playing tunes like Axel F or songs by Michael Jackson, Billy Joel, and Madonna was what made me popular among classmates.
Sometimes I would learn them from the sheet music that was available. More often than not, I would listen to the radio or watch MTV and wait for the song to come on and try to play along on my piano or keyboard. At the time, I didn’t realize all of the informal learning processes going on that were developing my listening skills. In addition to my classical piano studies, I also played in garage bands with my classmates that involved a whole different skill set. When I got to college, I realized in my aural skills classes that I had developed perfect pitch or absolute pitch.
Fast forward to the 21st century, and I have had the privilege to teach piano to both of my two children. Being able to oversee their musical progress on a daily basis definitely has its advantages. Of course practicing piano especially at a young age can be a solitary experience. However, I created collaborative experiences by playing accompaniments both by me playing on another piano or with MIDI accompaniment files with them in the early stages of lessons. Many piano methods contain written out accompaniments for teachers to play. If the method does not have an accompaniment, it is usually easily harmonized with two or three different chords that you can improvise with a simple accompaniment pattern.
The MIDI accompaniment files offered another dimension to my kids’ music-making experience. By practicing along regularly with virtual drummers, bass players, and guitarists, it gave them listening and musicianship skills that they ordinarily would not experience if they simply practiced alone. The most noticeable enhanced skill was their ability to play with a steady rhythm. Research has shown that practicing with some sort of external rhythmic stimulus whether it’s a metronome, MIDI accompaniment, digital audio accompaniment, or other musicians, improves musicians’ rhythmic accuracy and continuity. In particular, popular music or music in a popular style tends to be in a predictable duple meter that students can naturally gravitate to despite having few musical experiences in their early musical training.
Another benefit of playing with accompaniments and popular music is the exposure of commonly used melodic patterns and chord progressions. When young students listen to this music constantly, it becomes part of their aural vocabulary and makes reading and playing similar patterns much more easily.
Even as my kids were playing through method books and MIDI files, there would be some pop songs that they could pick up by ear or I could show them by rote. Even if some of the melodies and rhythms are beyond the students’ abilities, you can probably pick out parts of a piece that students can handle at their current skill level. A few years ago, my daughter Olivia was only 4-years-old when she could play most of the piano riffs in “Skyfall” by Adele. It certainly helps that the majority of the song can be harmonized with C and E-flat, but to her it was very motivating to know that she can contribute significantly to a real song.
One of the main advantages of MIDI accompaniments is that they can slow down or speed up without losing quality of audio. However, thanks to various apps such as AnyTune, NoteStar, and Piano Maestro, digital audio can similarly be manipulated so that students can play along with their favorite popular music. What’s great is that they don’t have to wait for these songs to play on the radio or MTV, but it can be brought up whenever they want on their iPads or other mobile devices. It makes me wish I had this technology when I was growing up!
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