Coty Cockrell

Professional creative site for Coty Cockrell.  Music, Theater, Art. 

The Theory of Musicality - Learn Piano like a Rockstar

It never fails - every time I take on new piano students (especially teens and adults) the primary reason they want lessons is so they can play the music that they love. Church hymns, pop music, show tunes, even budding songwriters who want to bolster their instrumental performance skills. I am totally inspired by these new, eager students! Their drive, their vision... there's no better reason to make music than because you love it. 

I usually start out the first session with an informal chat about their goals with piano, what they want to get out of private lessons. Their eyes light up as they describe themselves performing the music that they are passionate about.  

There's also a common backstory, an all-too-familiar tale of childhood piano lessons (sometimes for ten years or more), but they just didn't stick. An old-fashioned, curmudgeonly piano teacher who stuck to outdated method books is usually in the equation somewhere. 

When I first began teaching, I defensively clung to the structure of technique: scales, music theory, method books, and a regimented approach to my favorite instrument. Unsurprisingly, many students began to fall off due to lack of interest. I thought, how can you play complicated music if you haven't mastered the basics first? I found myself caught between a responsibility to teach classical technique and music theory, and a pressure to indulge the student's initial impulse to dive into the music head-first, knowing that it would be an uphill climb. 

That is, until I realized that the two didn't have to be mutually exclusive. 

A few years ago, I was having a conversation with Ben Lassiter, a good friend of mine and a remarkable guitarist and educator. As we were each talking about our students, he mentioned a six year old who was really excelling at a remarkable rate. He had already learned several songs and chords, and was able to take that basic knowledge and even expand on it at home. I thought back to my piano students, many who were struggling to move past even the most basic exercises. What was the breakdown?

I asked him about his process when teaching a new student. To my surprise, he seemed to have a very similar approach as I did, asking them what kind of music they wanted to play. The major difference, however, was that he actually incorporated pop music into the curriculum first!

But how do you go from being a total beginner to playing the hits on the radio? 

The answer was so simple: one chord at a time. He explained that when starting out, they'd pick a song together, usually something popular and simple. In pop music, there is no shortage of "three chord songs", so with only three chords to learn and an almost infinite number of songs out there, the scope was manageable and exciting. 

Sure, scales and arpeggios and other minutia of technique would come in good time. But this approach also changes the role of teacher from "master" to "guide", merely opening the door for the student so that he can gain the basic tools needed to explore his musical world. From the Beatles to Taylor Swift, Ben's students would eagerly go through song after song, unknowingly developing more sophisticated skills like rhythm and counting, subdividing, harmony, and song form.  They would learn the various chords in a song, then put them into practice right away. Sometimes they would even sing along! It was an ingenious method, and I sort of hated him for how laid-back and relaxed he made the whole thing sound. 

If it could work so well for guitar, what about piano? 

I was able to test my theory with a bright young lady who began studying with me. At thirteen years old she had already been taking piano for a few years. I could tell that she enjoyed playing, but had reached an age where she was starting to become bored with the method books and short pieces she had been given up until then. 

At the start of one lesson, rather than have her play through her assigned piece I asked her what music was on her iPod. Katy Perry, Taylor Swift, One Direction, Adele, Bruno Mars... once she started listing off names, she almost tripped over herself getting to the next one! This girl LOVED music, but was somehow disconnected from it in her own lessons! It was almost like her piano lessons had nothing to do with her inherent passion for her own music. 

So I went out on a very precarious limb: I asked her if she'd like to play some of that stuff in her lesson, not just the stuff from the book. 

I thought she was going to somersault off the bench. 

The first song we looked at was "Rolling In The Deep" by Adele. I pulled up the chord changes from a guitar tablature website and began writing them out on a piece of staff paper. She was excited, and intensely curious. This quiet little girl, who had such a lovely smile but would rather fade into the wallpaper if she could, was asking question after question, pointing to the paper and eagerly trying to figure out what these strange hieroglyphics meant.

As I started to show her how to interpret each chord, that when you see "Dm" that means to play D-F-A all together, the questions started rolling in. "How come that's not D Major? So the little 'm' stands for minor? What if it WAS D Major? What would the... the 'chord symbol'? What would it say if it was major? What does that seven mean?"

It was astounding. Rather than lecturing, almost by rote, that the dominant seven chord falls on the fifth scale degree, she was learning it on her own. Willingly. Eagerly. Sure, a dominant chord just sounded right, but she still wanted to know why.  So we drew out a major scale and began to dive into the theory of WHY the dominant seven chord is spelled like it is, and why certain chords were major and certain ones were minor. All of this from a three-chord pop song, with no method or theory book. 

For her homework, I gave her another song, and told her to write out the chords and practice playing them. 

Fast-forward a few months: she maintained some classical repertoire in her studies, but retained it much better because she better understood the harmony behind the notes. She also whizzed through pop song after pop song, expanding into classic hits and even a few jazz standards. Her understanding of chords continued to develop, and she even became involved as the keyboardist for a small rock band comprised of students her age!

This approach works because the music comes first. Developing good technique is super important, and mastering technique and music theory takes time. However, if you don't have passion to keep driving you forward, you'll never stick around long enough to get the chance. 

In future posts, I'll be digging deeper into the specifics of understanding chord symbols, and how to use them to get you closer to what you truly care about: the music you want to play.

Thanks for reading. And until next time, stay squirrelly. 

Ben 2.jpg

Ben Lassiter lives in Durham, North Carolina, where he shares his rockstar talent with students from seven years old to adults.  He has a master's degree in Jazz Studies from North Carolina Central University with an emphasis in Composition and Arranging.  He also plays in the nationally renowned swing ensemble, The Mint Julep Jazz Band.  

Check him out at his website,