I have a student who loves Star Wars more than food. I acquired this student about a year or so ago, and learned about this passion of his within approximately two-and-a-half minutes of his first lesson. He presented me with one of his most prized possessions: a book containing all the major themes of Star Wars Episodes IV-VI arranged for “Easy Piano.” He said that his old teacher had let him learn a little bit of a couple of the pieces in the book, but he wanted to learn more of them. I assured him that we would make sure we had time for that.
The rest of our first lesson consisted of the usual “get to know you” exercises and, of course, evaluations of skill level, technique, sight-reading ability, rhythm, and musicality. He performed beautifully and displayed amazing potential. I gave him some assignments in his new methods books and included part of a Star Wars piece.
The following week, he came into his lesson, sat down at the piano, and played the page and a half or so of the Star Wars piece I had assigned perfectly (note and rhythm-wise, anyway) and from memory. I was excited to say the least, as any teacher who discovers that their student actually practices would be in that situation. I said “That was quite good. I’m assuming you’d like to start with Star Wars today?” He nodded and smiled. So we worked on adding some dramatic dynamics and some kick-butt articulation.
We moved on to his lesson book, performance book, and theory book, and the contrast was stark. He had clearly practiced the other pieces no more than two or three times, and only half of his theory assignment was completed. We had a discussion about the importance of the other assignments, and he said he would do better next week.
The next week came, and the situation was essentially no different (except this time he had actually completed the theory assignment); the Star Wars piece was blossoming into a fantastic demonstration of musical excellence, and his other pieces were not quite on the same level. The notes and rhythms were accurate, but not solid, and there was little difference in articulation or dynamics.
Finally, I had an epiphany.
My job is not to teach this child to be a technician at the piano, pushing all the correct buttons and depressing the correct pedals at exactly the correct times. No, that certainly is not my job.
My job is to teach this child to be a musician; to love the piano and love making sound with the piano. I am not drilling fingering, I am teaching the easiest and most natural way for him to accomplish his goal: playing the piece(s) that he loves.
I do not really need a method book to do that.
Please do not misunderstand me, I think that methods books, especially the Faber Piano Adventures and Alfred’s Premier Piano Course, are absolutely fantastic and I definitely recommend every student use a method when learning to play the piano. However, for this particular student, I have now restructured his lessons. I look at the concepts he’s learning in his method books, and spend the necessary amount of time presenting him with and helping him discover on his own the concepts, and then I ask him to show me where in his current Star Wars piece we can use this new information (or even if he can identify its use or relevance in a previous piece.
I can teach him articulation, fingering, dynamics, rhythm, harmonic relationships, and musicality, etc., — everything he needs to know — in a Star Wars piece.
So, just let the kid play Star Wars. Let your students play what they want to play, especially as beginners. Teach them to love the piano. (Trust me, most students will not love playing “C D E F G, G F E D C” every week for five weeks, or more, before they get to play something actually melodic.)
Let them play what they want to play, but teach them how to play it better and more musically than they ever thought possible. After all, you are their teacher.