MMTA Popular Styles Exams

September 17, 2019
MMTA is proud to offer an ever-expanding Popular Styles exam curriculum.  Read below for information about the program, and what teachers and students are saying about the exams and curriculum materials.
  1. "The Popular Styles exam is very helpful because it helps the player see chords in a different way, making it easier to tell what chord it is and recognize it in different positions. Also, the exam helped me keep tempo when I had to play with a recorded bass-and-drums backing track.  I gained a steadier sense of rhythm."

    - Tanishka Mhaskar, grade 11 in Wayzata Senior High.  Tanishka has passed Popular Styles 2, Theory 4, and Piano 6
  1. "Young students quickly connect with the LH Shuffle Patterns (P5 to M6), adding the RH pentatonic and blues patterns, set in the supplemental 12-Bar Etudes, found on the website.  They soon catch on to the patterns, and are excited to recognize the archetypal “rock sound” of these.  

    - Cheri Sykes, Popular Styles program development team

    Major pentatonic 12-bar etude

    Minor pentatonic 12-bar etude

    Blues scale etude

    Student video (blues scale etude)
  2. "As a classically trained pianist, I've found the Popular Styles materials to be really helpful in bringing this genre to my students in a way that's understandable to them AND to me.  I always found this type of music intimidating to teach, but these materials have helped to guide me in what steps to take and in what order to take them.

    "One of my students who took all 4 levels said that having taken the Popular Styles exams really helped prepare him when he took his senior year at the St. Paul Conservatory for Performing Artists.  He was thrown into jazz classes where he had to improvise and read lead sheets and, as a result of taking those exams,  had some experience along those lines to help him."

    - Sue Wege, MMTA member
From teachers
  1. What does the term "popular styles" mean?

    The word "popular" can, of course, have lots of meanings, but in the world of music, at the risk of generalizing, there are two main branches in the family tree:  classical and popular.  Just as there are different styles in classical music—Baroque, "Classical", Romantic, Impressionist, Expressionist—there are also styles in popular music: rock, jazz, blues, country, folk, reggae, worldbeat, some (but not all) musical theater, and, yes, "pop"... in other words, "pop" music is just one of many "popular styles".

    Actually, the MMTA Popular Styles exam program doesn't strive so much to teach (and write exam questions on), for example, the difference between a rock beat and a jazz beat; the goal is more to teach a contemporary approach to keyboard skills, theory, sight playing, and interpretation; and of course to include improvisation.

    Finally, the program uses play-along "rhythm section" (bass and drum) recordings in order to simulate the kind of ensemble and rhythmic mindset required in popular music.  
  2. What's the best way to get familiar with the Popular Styles program?

    Log into the MMTA website.  Open the Materials dropdown tab, and choose Popular Styles Exams. Open and read all the files on this page.  Print out the level 1 exam workbook.  Walk yourself through it, and then teach it to a student.  Talk to teachers who are familiar with the program.  You can also invite a member of the Popular Styles development team to demo the program at a meeting of your local association.

  3. How often are the exams given?

    Exams are scheduled about once a month.  Beginning in 2019-2020, the Piano Education team and exam site managers have committed to including Popular Styles at all exam sites statewide.
  4. What are the parts of the exam?

    The Popular Styles exam has four parts:  1) melodic patterns; 2) harmonic patterns; 3) listening and singing; and 4) performance.  Parts 1 and 2 are keyboard skills oriented.  Part 3 is aural.  Part 4 is sightplaying, transposing, repertoire, lead sheets, and improvisation (depending on level).
  5. What are some approaches to teaching improvisation?

    See page 20 of the level 3 exam workbook for starters.  Also see the Popular Styles Resources doc on the MMTA website.  (Both of these docs are available on the Materials/Popular Styles Exams page of the MMTA website.)

    But first and foremost, approach improvisation with a spirit of curiosity and wonder... trial and error... lack of judgement... and let your ears lead the way.  Maybe don't even use the "I-word".  Spend at least as much time trying to plink out familiar melodies on the piano in lots of different keys, and harmonizing them, as you do actually improvising.  Don't give up when you guess wrong.

    Improvisation is a great group activity.  Call some colleagues and get together and try some things out.  Conduct an "improvisation studio class."  When your students improvise during lessons, be sure to play along with them, either piano duet style or on another instrument such as a hand drum, guitar, ukulele, bass, or whatever you feel comfortable playing.  Above all, start slowly and simply, using easy music.
  6. Where do we get the lead sheets?

    See the Lead Sheets doc (available on the Materials/Popular Styles Exams page of the MMTA website).  This repertoire list is broken down of course by levels, and is electronic and interactive.  Each title comes with three links:
    1) to go online and purchase the lead sheet
    2) to listen to a well-known recording of the song
    3) to read background information about the song or tune's origins

    Each title also comes with performance notes to guide beginner lead-sheet players through some of the more "interesting" parts of each song, and how to make their performance match what's on the backing track.
  7. How do the levels of Popular Styles fit with other MMTA programs?  Is Level 1 Popular Styles the equivalent of Level 1 Piano Exam or Theory Level 1?

    Popular Styles was designed as a stand-alone program, not necessarily meant to be integrated with other MMTA programs.  So there is some overlap in the keyboard and aural skills areas.  But as far as leveling is concerned, Popular Styles level 1 is roughly at about Piano/Theory level 2, or perhaps a commercial method 2B level.  

    Currently Popular Styles has levels 1-4.  Levels 5-8 are in the planning stages.  However, it's possible we will add a level at the bottom end, call it level 1, rename the current levels 1-4 as 2-5, and just add levels 6-8 at the upper end.  This is planned for 2024.
  8. How do I fit this program into what I'm already used to teaching?

    Some teachers have used the program primarily with students who might not resonate with the classical exam or contest programs, but rather, have popular music as the main focus of their lessons.  Other teachers use the keyboard, aural, and theory concepts in the Popular Styles program instead of, or alternating with, classical versions of the same.  Some teachers make sure every student is always working on both classical AND popular music (and, playing by ear and improvising) in their lessons.  

    The bottom line is that if you have an intermediate student who is already maxing out a 45-minute lesson, something probably has to give, in order to make room for popular music, contemporary theory, lead sheets, playing by ear, and improvising.  Change can be difficult but it can also be very rewarding.  Popular music doesn't have to be a side dish -- it can be a main course!
  9. How do teachers combine Popular Styles with piano and theory exams?

    The same way they combine piano exams with theory exams.  Some teachers sign their students up for more than one exam on the same day or in the same season.  Some teachers alternate different exams in different seasons or years.  A GREAT many teachers use the Popular Styles exam workbooks (AND the theory and sightplaying workbooks and exam/contest repertoinre) strictly as teaching and learning aids, and forego the exam/contest world altogether.  Again, it's all a matter of prioritization and making the lesson experience as student-centric as possible.
From parents
  1. What will my student learn from this event? 

    Primarily, the Popular Styles program opens students up to the world of playing by ear, "knowing their chords", playing from lead sheets, improvising, and including more variety in their lesson experience.  It should also be said that one of the most overlooked aspects of popular music is the time feel.  It's maybe a bit of an oversimplification to say that when you play classical music, beats 1 and 3 are the strong beats, and when you play popular music, it's 2 and 4; but this is certainly a good example of how the rhythmic aspect of a performance can singlehandedly define the difference between one style and another.
  2. Do they really have to do all those listening reports?

    Listening is crucially important in ALL music, of course; but in popular music, it's the primary way the music is actually learned.  This is true when learning by ear of course, but also when learning from a lead sheet or even when learning from a fully notated arrangement.  It's not just allowed but encouraged, even expected, for popular tunes to be altered and personalized by the performer.  Listening to what you are going to perform, or to music in the style of what you want to perform, and listening critically, is the beginning of being able to learn music by ear and to be able to interpret popular tunes authentically.
  3. How do we download the play-along recordings (backing tracks) so we can practice the lead sheets for the exam?

    Play-along recordings (backing tracks) can be found by following this link: instructions are in this doc:  Using and Creating Backing Tracks (available on the Materials/Popular Styles Exams page of the MMTA website). Teachers can use this doc to guide their students through the process, and even to create their own custom backing tracks.
From students
  1. Can I really use the book during the exam?

    Yes, the Popular Styles exam is open-book, for two reasons:  1) it covers a LOT of material in a short amount of time; and 2) Sitting for an exam using written-out music and cues, but being very familiar with them, is a pretty effective simulation of the way real-world rock, pop, and jazz musicians do their jobs.  You're kind of half reading and half playing by ear.  You don't have to have the whole thing memorized -- you just need a nudge to get you started and the rest you know.
  2. Why are the songs so old?

    Not all "popular music" is "pop".  "The Crawdad Song", for example, is a 500+ year old melody.  "La Bamba" is 300+ years old.  Popular music is not just current hits -- it's a tradition worthy of serious inquiry.  But if you have some suggestions for songs that would be great additions to the program, we would love to bring them in!