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C.P.E. Bach meets Death Cab for Cutie

I think I have finally reached an age where I can say: "Teaching today just isn't like it used to be." In the "good old days," my way of working with a high-school sophomore went like this: I would peruse the MTNA Syllabus and choose several appropriate pieces listed at my student's current performance level. At the next lesson, I would demonstrate each one, asking the student to choose the piece that most appealed to him or her. If she selected C.P.E. Bach's Solfeggietto, for example, I would ask her to purchase a Henle edition of the piece at our local music store.

The following week I would bring my know-how, pencil, and metronome to the lesson. Together the student and I would analyze the piece both formally and harmonically, tackle the technical hot spots, and work on the phrasing, dynamics, and tempo. After working this way for an average of six-to-eight weeks, the student would then memorize the work, dutifully performing it at the syllabus exam and the recital. We would then move on to the next piece.

Not so today. Three weeks ago, my sophomore student, Leah, bounded into her lesson and said, "Listen to this piece I heard on YouTube!" She removed her iPad from her overloaded backpack, tapped the YouTube app, and typed in "Solfeggietto."

For the next half hour Leah and I reveled in a few of the 748 performances of the piece. Emily Bear, the wunderkind six-year-old, played the notes in a rat-a-tat race of sound; others savored each phrase, adjusting the tempo to the dynamics. One teacher played the piece note-by-note in a slow moving tutorial that took nine minutes!

We heard Bach's music performed—for good or ill—on piano, synthesizer, organ, acoustic guitar, and with rock drum accompaniment. Our favorite: Eddie Daniel's clarinet version, "Solfeggietto Metamorphosis" in a 1987 Carnegie Hall performance with the West Texas State Symphonic Band. Check it out at

Leah already had the music for Solfeggietto with her. She subscribes to Piano Street, an Internet music website that enables her to print out unlimited classical works for a yearly fee. We later ordered a Henle edition from our local dealer via the Internet, but the Piano Street version allowed Leah to begin learning the music right away. With a rich variety of performances fresh in her ear, Leah began to sight-read and analyze Bach's work.

Leah and I have been using YouTube for over two years now. After passing Level Nine in the Illinois AIM MTNA syllabus exams, she became dispirited about her piano study. She felt hemmed in by all the theory and specific repertoire requirements. She wanted to play some popular repertoire along with her classical pieces. Knowing Leah's exquisite taste in music, I readily agreed, letting her bring new music to me. We chose only those songs that translated well to the piano, beginning with The Beatles and Elton John before moving on to songs by Adele, music from Wicked, and yes, even Lady Gaga.

Leah's high level of theory knowledge made these pieces easy to learn, and I drove her crazy continually pointing out how the long hours she spent preparing for theory exams was making it easy for her to learn popular music. Also, I never failed to mention that many pop tunes (Beatles and Elton John excluded) often have no more than three or four chords per song! Leah patiently tolerated my snobbery. On the other hand, she continually pointed out the challenge pop music asks of the pianist in recreating its orchestral texture and rhythmic variety. I listened and agreed.

At first Leah played the music from Piano/Vocal/Guitar and advanced arrangements of the music, but these quickly left both of us feeling frustrated. After spending several hours transposing one arrangement to a key that would fit her voice (Leah also sings), she said, "I might as well have written my own version of this song!" We both looked at each other and said, "Let's do it!" Turning to YouTube, Leah began learning the music directly from the videos with great success.

Leah first finds the melody by ear. She then writes out a chart of the harmony using pop symbols. The creative work then begins! Leah loves the challenge of devising ways to make chord progressions move smoothly and stay in the range of the original music. She especially excels at recreating the orchestral texture of the piece by varying octaves or by creating rhythmic riffs that sound like a drum or guitar, but fit the piano. She works to contrast every verse and to keep the piece growing into an organic whole by varying accompaniment, dynamics, and articulation.

Every week Leah works harder and longer on her music. Her technique, already solid, has begun to reach new levels; one week her arrangement included two against three, which she tossed off with ease. Leah's latest version of the haunting song, "What Sarah Said," by Death Cab for Cutie, spun into a full-fledged, ten-minute piano composition of her own using the harmonies and melodies from the song.

What about classical music? Leah loves it even more. She found Solfeggietto because I suggested she listen to Martha Argerich on YouTube. No, Martha wasn't playing C.P.E's war horse, but the "You may also like" section led her to the piece. Now for the best part: Leah learned Solfeggietto in two weeks! She wrote out a chord chart of the piece, chatted about the ways Bach had varied the texture and dynamics to keep the piece growing, and played around with different tempos and articulations until she found the ones she liked, which we both agreed fit the music's style.

Leah played both Bach and Death Cab for Cutie at the winter recital—to great applause. She is now working on a "Solfeggietto Metamorphosis" of her own, one that resembles a Chopin nocturne, which she is also studying. No, teaching today just isn't like it used to be. It's better.

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