We're experts at seeing it coming: The shortening concentration spans, more frequent cancellations, and a mind that is increasingly elsewhere: Your student is going to quit lessons.
You can't always blame them. I wish I could remember who it was so I could share the exact quote (if you know, please comment!), but one of the enlightenment philosophers (Locke, Hobbes, Voltaire), wrote that the amount of time it takes to gain even a moderate proficiency in music so consuming that he questioned the worth of even learning an instrument, when one could simply spend their time listening. Compounded with today's academic pressures and myriad of activities, as hard as it can be teaching under-practiced students, I need to frequently remind myself that it's a miracle so many people even stick with piano lessons as long as they do.
If too much time is spent week after week in visually colorful yet artistically and intellectually dreary method books, a student is bound to lose interest. One of the strongest remedies I've found in reigniting a student's spark is to assign a breed of music that :
- Is able to be learned QUICKLY. This usually means a piece that sounds a lot harder and more impressive than it actually is.
- Is atmospheric and emotional
- Uses lots of the piano (Both in range and pedal)
- Is in a minor key (The verdict is in: most people like sadder and darker things)
- Is something that has instant appeal.
- Is primarily Pattern-Based (Via Ostinatos Sequences, Rhythmic repetition, etc)
Granted, most pieces of great and rewarding piano music do NOT meet these specifications, but there is a time and place for those that do. The following selections highlight some of those qualities put to use in artistic and innovative ways that have left my students hooked and with a (at least temporary) renewed desire to practice.
1.) "The Great Smoky Mountains", by David Carr Glover:
Level: Early Intermediate
Perhaps my all-time favorite teaching piece. This epic, sweeping etude highlights better than any piece of its level how what SOUNDS like a complex flourish of notes that spans the keyboard is actually just recycling of a single triad. Once students catch onto this, they are usually hooked (and relieved). It is also a fantastic tool for teaching weight follow-through in chords to achieve a large, ringing sound.
2.) "Golden Dreams" by Javad Maroufi:
Level: Late Beginner
I've always felt that a word should exist in the English language for the feeling one gets the second they hear a new and exceptionally beautiful melody - as this feeling is so specific and unique. Whatever that word would be, this piece hits you with it from the start.
It's a piece virtually unknown to almost all western musicians, but one of the most popular pieces in Iran. (I discovered this during a period when I had an exclusively Persian studio). It is almost Schubertian in the simplicity of its beauty. A sad and simple melody unfolds over 3 triads in the Left Hand. Can be taught by rote, and is a good exercise for singing out the melody over the accompaniment.
Note: The version in the YouTube video above is a slighter more elaborate version of a more common simplified one, the sheet music of which is easily found online.
3.) Intermezzo No. 1 - Manuel Ponce:
Level: Early Advanced
Written by Mexico's foremost composer. I've never understood why this piece has not caught on elsewhere in the world. (Although Lang Lang recently played it, which has given it some notoriety).
The hardest piece on this list, this may be a challenge for less advanced pianists.
A melancholic and rueful series of double notes over a circle of 5th's progression
always entices listeners with Fur-Elise-Level appeal.
4.) "Comptine d'un Autre Ete" by Yann Tiersen:
One day a student called me who had never had lessons before, didn't know how to read music, but wanted to learn how to play this piece. I wanted to say no, but I wanted money more. I learned that day that rote-teaching (The "Showing" method), was indeed possible and sometimes is effective for certain people. I also got to learn that this piece was one of the most effective and appealing pieces for adult and adolescent students.
5.) "21 Amazingly Easy Pieces", By Barbara Arens :
Every piece in this collection is a gem, and - although the notation might not look "amazingly" easy at first glance, they are so pattern-oriented (and have finger-numbers written in), that they can be learned by reading or rote easily. Such is their brevity that you can play them in a matter of a few seconds for students, one after another, until they find one they like.
6.) "Rawahi" By Elissa Milne:
Level: Early Intermediate
Restless, mysterious, and full of longing. Again, another piece on this list that is almost minimalistic - that makes so much from so little. Trance-like, repetitive structures that don't feel repetitive. This is a piece that, to me, can be successful at any tempo, and we can encourage our students to experiment with such.