For the first time, my students have really gotten the hang of how to play chords along with music. They’re having a great time learning the chords and exploring music with them, so I wanted to share with you a little bit about what we’re doing.

I’ve always been stumped about how to teach students to play and think with chords because, as I mentioned recently, sometimes my music theory brain gets in the way and I try to analyze too much.

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This summer, I was feeling like I had gotten into a bit of a rut with the intermediate repertoire that I teach, so I logged in to the Upbeat Piano Teacher Webinars to look for some fresh inspiration.

I only watched 1 of the videos, but I picked exactly the one I needed to see. It was an interview with Heather Nanney from FunKey Music Academy explaining how she teaches her students to play chords. I immediately printed off some of her resources and shared them with all of my late elementary through high school students.

She created 9 Chord Variations based on the super common chord progression C-am-F-G. The 9 variations are different rhythmic patterns that are commonly found in a lot of popular music. My students have been mastering a couple of the variations each week and now that we’re several weeks into the school year, many of them can confidently play all of them.

Heather has some great tips about how to transfer the concepts learned in the chord variations over to popular music that a lot of students are interested in.

She has some great suggestions, especially for teaching students to play in different keys.

This summer when I was teaching a lot of ukulele, my students and I had discovered tons of great ukulele play along videos on YouTube. Since the ukulele easily plays the exact same chord progression as the ones in Heather’s Chord Variations, we’ve found that it works really well to play along on the piano with ukulele videos.

I plug my iPad in to my Clavinova with an audio cable and adapter to balance the sound between the piano and iPad. Then the students can easily play along. It’s kind of like karaoke except with chords.

My students have been doing a great job listening to the beat of the music and finding a chord pattern that fits the music. They’ve gotten really good a figuring out new chords that show up in some of the songs, either by ear or by thinking through how to find a note.

One of the best parts of working with chords is that it’s something that several students can do together and they feel like they’re jamming together. Sometimes students will chose to focus on the bass line and other times they will improvise patterns with the chords.

Here are some of the videos that have been a hit with my students:

Of course there are hundreds of other play along videos out there, so chances are you can find something that appeals to your students.

Discovering this approach to teaching chords has been a huge relief to me! When a student comes to me and requests to play a popular song, it’s always a struggle to find a great pedagogically sound piano arrangement. In the past teaching chords specific to one song was a clumsy approach because students don’t understand the concept of the chords, they memorize how to play them.

Heather’s Chord Variations has been the perfect solution. My students get a really solid start using chords then they have the skills they need to transfer chord playing to more complicated music.

This type of chord playing has been a really fun balance to the more serious and academic approach we take to a lot of our music.

If you’re looking for some fresh inspiration in your teaching, check out the Upbeat Piano Teacher Webinars. They are packed with some amazing gems and they happen to be open for enrollment right now and just until the end of the month.

My current season of life with young kids makes it difficult to travel to conferences and devote a lot of time to my own continuing education, so webinars have been the perfect solution for me and I love that I can tune in when I need inspiration and I don’t have to watch them all at once.


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