By Tom Gerou
Over the years, I have enjoyed arranging many titles for the Top Hits, Praise Hits, and Patriotic Solos books in Alfred’s Basic Piano Library. Knowing that students enjoy playing familiar popular music, I recently added Popular Hits, Levels 1A, 1B, 2, and 3 to the library. In choosing pieces, I selected more current titles than are contained in many pop books that are a part of methods. These arrangements are correlated page by page with the Lesson Books and reinforce the concepts introduced in the method.
Arranging popular music to reinforce the concepts introduced in the Lesson Book pages presents unique challenges. At the early levels, this is especially true. Choosing age-appropriate titles with melodies that fit within a limited range of notes is one of those challenges. To ensure that pieces are not too long, I often only arrange the most recognizable section(s). At the earlier levels (1A and 1B), teacher duet parts support the student part and offer a richer, more satisfying experience. The remainder of this article will point out the concepts reinforced in pieces from various levels of the Popular Hits books and identify challenging that I encountered when making them musically and technically accessible for students.
Popular Hits, Level 1A: Just the Way You Are (Amazing)
The slurs in the arrangement of the Bruno Mars “Just the Way You Are (Amazing)” reinforce legato playing. The legato RH melody alternates with harmonic 2nds, 3rds, and 4ths in the LH. The intervals fill in the harmony between fragments of the melody. The common note (G) at the top of each interval makes the motion easier. In measures 12-13, the lower notes of the harmonic intervals are ascending. Measure 16 uses a broken C major triad (skips or 3rds) before finishing the final chord.
Repeat signs are introduced in this level, and I encourage students to always observe the repeats. Not only does the piece sound more substantial by being longer (albeit with a literal repeat), but it encourages students to respect the balance of form when learning sonatinas and sonatas in later studies. Repeats are essential to balancing sections within the form of the piece—they are not optional. To avoid using the half rest, which has not been introduced, the piece begins with a 2nd in the LH in the student part. When taking the repeat, the 2nd also helps propel the motion.
Popular Hits, Level 1A: Theme from Superman
The arrangement of “Theme from Superman” is an example of the melody re-notated in 3/4 meter with augmented (doubled) rhythmic values to avoid the use of triplets. In the method, students have not been introduced to triplets that are essential to this melody. When played up to tempo, the perception is the same as a triplet, yet the quarter-note notation allows the student to count with familiar rhythmic values.
This arrangement is in C position with an accidental (F-sharp in measure 18) placed within an interval of a 3rd. Sharps are new to the student and the use of the F-sharp remains within the RH range of C position. The duet part directly supports the student part with emphasis placed on hearing the pulse—essential to the beginning student.
Popular Hits, Level 1B: Let It Go (from Walt Disney’s Frozen)
When students begin to play hands together, it is important to avoid too many occurrences in the same arrangement. In “Let It Go” from Disney’s Frozen, a pattern is set up using 3rds in both the RH and the LH. Students briefly play hands together. In these instances, the interval of a 3rd is used as an accompanying figure, requiring careful balance between the hands.
Popular Hits, Level 1B: Cantina Band (from Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope)
Staccato and legato touches are used in this arrangement of a Star Wars® favorite, “Cantina Band.” Students are given ample opportunity to review sharps and flats introduced in Level 1A and utilize eighth notes introduced in this level.
Popular Hits, Level 1B: Batman Theme
The well-known Batman theme is a wonderful correlation to the pages in the Lesson Book where half steps are introduced. The theme passes from LH to RH, offering the opportunity to practice half steps in both hands. In measure 2, an eighth rest is added in the LH to allow students to prepare for the next measure. A quarter rest in the RH serves the same function. The 2nds in the RH melody are held, letting students focus on the accompanying chromatic pattern.
Popular Hits, Level 1B: All About That Bass
D-flat is used to allow the natural sign to be reinforced in the Meghan Trainor hit, “All About That Bass.” By using a D-flat instead of a C-sharp, the student can clearly see the interval of a 3rd when approaching the B-flat. I took advantage of the title and arranged the melody in the LH (the “Bass”) throughout. On the second page, the melody is repeated an octave lower.
Popular Hits, Level 2: Over the Rainbow (As sung by Israel “IZ” Kamakawiwo’ole)
This famous melody, “Over the Rainbow,” was reinterpreted by the artist IZ with the accompaniment of a ukulele. A typical ukulele accompaniment pattern is retained in the LH. To avoid unnecessary difficulty, the pattern is dropped and restarted throughout the piece. Although the melody is familiar, the interpretation by IZ provides a contemporary version of the melody.
Hand shifts are necessary throughout the piece but are preceded by rests to allow time for the hands to move. Measure 8 uses an ascending five-finger pattern in the LH, while measures 15 and 16 use an extended hand position and the interval of an octave in the RH.
Popular Hits, Level 2: Take On the World (Theme from Girl Meets World)
“Take on the World” is the theme from a popular Disney Channel series, Girl Meets World. The two rhythm patterns in the LH in measures 1-2 and 3-4 are used throughout the song. By minimizing the number of patterns that are used, students can easily learn and practice them. In measures 9 and 10, the RH melody uses an ascending G major scale. The LH scale descends in measures 11 and 12 as part of the accompaniment.
Popular Hits, Level 2: Star Wars (Main Theme)
This arrangement of “Star Wars® (Main Theme)” requires the LH to cross over the RH in measure 7. Students enjoy the motion and it serves to avoid stretching or changing hand positions to reach the high D. The RH remains in D position for the chords in measures 8-9. The melody shifts between the hands when the LH crosses over the RH.
Popular Hits, Level 3: What Do You Mean?
This Justin Bieber song is perfect for reinforcing pedaling, playing 8va, and easy hand shifting. I added an introduction (measures 1-4) to the beginning and repeated it in measures 22-25 to give variety to the arrangement. In measure 5, the student pedals the first three beats as the harmony settles on a 9th chord. The sound is unique so the student should let the chord ring out, an effect supported by the pedal. Similar pedaling is repeated throughout the piece.
A LH rhythm is introduced in measure 13 that echoes throughout the remainder of the piece. It helps the piece move forward with more rhythmic activity. The measure also provides an opportunity to cross finger 2 over finger 1.
Popular Hits, Level 3: See You Again (from Furious 7)
As students make progress, they gradually extend out of a five-finger position. “See You Again” from the movie Furious 7 opens with a C major triad using fingers 1, 2, and 3, so that the 4th finger can execute a wider-range melody.
In measure 1, intervals are played instead of triads that students have not yet learned. In measure 3, a second inversion F major triad (IV) and the root position C major triad (I)are used since students have studied these close position chords. This change of harmonic density offers variety throughout the piece.
Popular Hits, Level 3: Colour My World
“Colour My World,” by the band Chicago, allows the student to practice broken triads in the RH. I only arranged the introduction, as it stands quite well as an individual piece. In measure 1 of the original, the RH would have played a broken, four-note 7th chord. I eliminated the first note in each pattern of this arrangement so that the RH only plays triads throughout. This piece is also an excellent vehicle for working on syncopated pedaling as the downbeat of each measure is pedaled consistently throughout.
Correlating popular songs to a method is a challenging undertaking. However, the final result provides student-friendly arrangements that thoroughly reinforce the skills and concepts at each level while making them satisfying for students, teachers, and audiences. I hope that you and your students enjoy playing these “Popular Hits.”