Developing Functioning Musicians

By Brenda Dillon, Roland Education Consultant


Although anecdotal research doesn’t have the status of empirical research, it still reflects our personal experiences. The following anecdotal research reflects my observations when I am talking with people about their music-making experiences, especially when traveling throughout the country. It’s easy research to conduct and I hope you will try it.

Those of us in the music business are like magnets to the general population. Everybody seems to have a story to tell about their musical life or the lack thereof. Besides people who make their living in music, I have been able to divide the remainder of the population into three distinct categories:

  1. The first category is the largest, and these folks always begin the conversation with, “I’m sorry my mother let me quit.” (They never blame it on the father!) In addition to getting all the blame, we can imagine the music-related wars that occurred in these households until the poor moms finally relented. Life isn’t fair!
  2. The next category always begins with, “I’m sorry I never got to take lessons.” Either their families couldn’t afford lessons or circumstances didn’t allow for music study. I immediately launch into my “It’s Never Too Late” speech and talk about teachers who specialize in teaching adults, as well as the wonderful adult methods available these days.
  3. The smallest category, and it makes me sad to admit it, is made up of people who are still playing the piano long after childhood lessons. When I question them about their training, I find they were trained to be functioning musicians and not just pianists. They don’t need music to play at a party or other gatherings around a piano. They know how to improvise a simple accompaniment to songs the group wants to sing. They know how to pick out melodies by ear on the spot. They know how to transpose so that the music is at an appropriate pitch level for the group. They can sight-read at a functioning level. Bottom line, they didn’t learn just repertoire and technique. They can harmonize, transpose, improvise, ear-play, and sight-play.

Since many teachers offer only 30- to 45-minute private lessons, it’s often difficult to find time for anything beyond repertoire and technique. Also, since learning to play the piano may be the loneliest learning experience of any child or adult, I recommend this activity (scenario) for your consideration. My student has learned “Over the Rainbow” from Performance Plus, Book 3—TV and Movie Music, pp. 14- 16. (See page 3 for this score.)

Performance Plus, published by Warner Bros., is a supplementary series for all methods. It contains excellent pieces appropriate for this activity.

My student informs me that she is attending a family reunion, and there will be a piano there. When I ask if any of her relatives are musical, I learn that most of them aren’t. Therefore, I give her this assignment to complete at the reunion:

  • Select two or three of her uncles (or other male relatives) and teach them to sing the guitar letter names on pitch in measures 5-8: C, A, E, D, G, C. They may not be able to read music, but they can read letters and learn these pitches by ear. My student can help bring them in each time and can play these pitches extra loud every time they occur.
  • Select a female relative and teach this person to sing E, G, E, G, E, G, E, G every time this occurs in the music.
  • Select another female relative and teach this person to sing F, G, F, G, F, G, F, G every time this occurs in the music.
  • Ask the rest of the relatives to sing the melody. I ask my student to not photocopy music, so I will send multiple copies of this piece to the reunion.

If my student doesn’t own Roland’s Music Tutor, I send mine to the reunion. Not only does it give my student some added security, but the orchestral accompaniments are both musical and comprehensive. The disk also frees my student to teach the parts while the Music Tutor provides the accompaniment.

There are numerous benefits to this activity. The greatest benefit is that my student’s self-esteem literally skyrockets. Another benefit is that if my student can teach it, she knows it! I also know that a wonderful bonding will take place within this family. And those uncles won’t be content to just sing their pitches by ear forever. They will likely ask my student to teach them where those keys are on the piano. And uncles have a way of parting with money when they are really pleased about something. So my student may also have the added pleasure of an unexpected monetary gain.

To increase my student’s functional skills, I can also assign her to provide a new accompaniment style based on the harmonies of each measure. This becomes much easier when the disk takes the melody and the student arpeggiates the guitar letter names of each measure as a simple accompaniment.

I can also assign my student to learn “Happy Birthday” in several keys prior to the reunion. It’s distressing to observe the number of college piano majors who can play several concerti beautifully, but can’t play “Happy Birthday” without the music in front of them.

Reflecting on my anecdotal research, I believe the more I do these kinds of activities with my students, the longer they will play after childhood lessons. I try to remember that the music we teachers believe most valid to our lesson curriculum isn’t always the music that’s played or requested in everyday life. It doesn’t make our choices less valid, but it behooves us to remember that functioning musicians do much more than learn a few pieces of repertoire with the technique required to play those pieces.

Should you embark on this anecdotal research or try this activity with one of your students, I would enjoy knowing the results of your experience.

Newsletter Sign-up

Sign-up for Roland’s The Educator
educational e-newsletter.

Contact Us




Mailing Address

Roland Corp. US
5100 S. Eastern Ave.
Los Angeles, CA 90040-2938