MTNA Conference; Pedagogy Saturday: Cracking the Code: Teaching Adults Jazz/Pop



I’m a Scott Houston fan so I was really excited to go to this presentation. I always wanted to see him speak in person and was out of town when he came to Arizona and spoke at the Musical Instrument Museum. Scott Houston is best known as “The Piano Guy” from his PBS show. I know sometimes he gets a bad rap from teachers because of his teaching style, but I look at his style as a huge benefit in the RMM world of teaching. Matter of fact, I have used his materials when I taught a summer workshop to my students on lead sheet reading. They were very helpful and made my job a whole lot easier.

Scott mentioned that he only teaches adults, so this topic is close to his heart and he knows what he is talking about!

He begins by asking why teach adults?

#5 They are Fun

#4 They get your jokes

#3 They like music you can relate to instead of the latest Disney starlet of the month tunes.

#2 Don’t pick their noses then play our piano

#1They are there because THEY want to be…

BUT! They are so…. different!


He explains that adults may be nodding “ok” in lessons but here is what they are really thinking…  Here I go again, when can I play a tune?  Adults typically don’t share everything they are thinking. As a teacher our job #1 is to get them playing a tune they like ASAP!

He shared that guitar teachers have many successful adults students because they teach a tune the very first lesson. So the adult student walks away feeling pretty good about themselves and is able to share something with their family and friends from Day 1.

Scott shared some helpful steps to create the same environment of success from Day 1…

-First, start with a few chords in the LH (pretend you a guitar teacher). “Let’s learn a few chords”. If you want you can even use chord diagrams though there is no need to show the chords notated…yet. (These would be diagrams shown on the keyboard)

-Don’t worry about what fingers to use (have them experiment which sounds the best).

Until they know why it doesn’t work, they won’t realize why it’s important. Let them figure it out on their own. You will have plenty of opportunities to teach the “rest” later. They will quickly figure out that something doesn’t feel right. When this happens, this is a great time to show them a “better” way.

-Relax…  There is no need to show the chords notated, notes, lead sheet, etc… (yet!)

-Have them use their aural skills. See if they could tell you when they should change chords. Have them figure it out by ear. It’s empowering for them to figure that out by ear.

-Have them hum or sing a few tunes they can PLAY along with. Yes- PLAY! Let them experience making music!


The second step is to introduce playing a melody line. No music Yet? Start on simple melody and help them hunt and peck. (Forrest Kinney calls this “Trial and Ear”)

Introduce notation with this justification: You now know you can figure it out yourself. You an always try to hunt and peck a new melody that’s not cheating. Soon they will realize on their own that learning it from music notation can save you a lot of time once you get the hang of it.

***It’s like leading a horse to water if you do it in this order.

Scott reminded us that we can teach notation however we want to. In pop style playing, the notation is the guide, not the gospel…  We play to create, not to clone. (That’s what recordings are for) Play musically!

He then asks, why does notation exists? The answer is simple: there was no other way to record music. He had us reflect on our own playing and chances are… when you feel the most musical/creativity is typically when you don’t have the notation. The only reason notation exists is to get a melody line learned so you won’t need it anymore.

Another tip concerning notation at the beginning is to just stick to the treble clef. It’s all that is needed to read a lead sheet. (unless they request to learn notes in bass clef) Give it to them when they are ready and want it. Teach things only when they are needed.


The third step is having them play with hands together. When you have a struggle- first thing is figure out which hand should come down, slow it down a lot.


Teaching order for adult students: (different from what many are used to)

1. Play tune student wants to play

2. Learn chords

3. Learn melody

4. Teach something new in context

Snowball gets bigger and students gets happier.


Scott Houston just came out with a brand new lead sheet book called Three Chord Songs Fake Book published by Hal Leonard. There are 200 songs using just 3 Chords! Fantastic resource for getting started and help make our students feel successful from day 1!



  1. Saundra

    Jennifer, did you get to look at this fake book? I’m VERY excited to see something like it. What did you think? I have an adult student who I think might like this … but I would like to know morf since it’s $30.

  2. fame1444

    Thanks for sharing, Jennifer! It really helps those like me who could not go to Disney this year for the convention. I find that this way of teaching is also effective for a lot of kids (not all) as well. I am so glad that there are voices out there saying that music making should be enjoyable!

    • foxxpianostudio

      You are welcome! Totally agree that these things can be used with kids as well. (Did you see my post on RMM and Teenagers?) 🙂

      • fame1444

        Yes, and it was awesome!!!

  3. Alice

    Thanks, Jennifer! I went to a Scott Houston workshop when MTNA was in Atlanta, but he didn’t show! He’d cancelled but the teachers waiting didn’t get the message. Disappointed!


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