Are You Afraid of Rote Teaching? Consider this.
About seven years ago, I met Katie Fisher in Toronto at an MTNA conference. She was the wife of a college classmate of mine (Christopher Fisher who has written here about group teaching) and she and her friend Dr. Julie Knerr were writing a piano method at the time called Piano Safari. Since there are such great methods out there already, I wasn’t too interested in trying a new one, but I was interested in contributing music to a method since I loved composing music. Long story short, I was intrigued by their method when they took the time to explain it to me. It had an interesting approach of teaching rhythm in a progressive way, teaching students to read in a variety of ways, and
That’s a scary word to teachers like me who were taught in a traditional way. But when you think about it, we know deep down inside that students can play much more complicated music than they can read when they first come to us! After all, babies learn to talk waaaaay before they ever learn to read. It seems logical to teach some music by rote just like we teach children to talk by rote. But alas, it’s even scary for me to say that out loud. It’s so against the way we have been taught!
Enough of what I have to say. I asked Julie and Katie to write an article explaining how rote teaching works and why it won’t ruin a student’s chances of reading music at all! I’m trying their method this year and doing some supplemental rote teaching as well and let me tell you…the students LOVE it and they are still learning to read, very well!
The Benefits of Rote Teaching
By Dr. Julie Knerr and Katherine Fisher
Featuring Pieces from Piano Safari Levels 1 and 2, available at www.pianosafari.com
As a result of our examination and use of various piano methods, we have come to believe that the primary goal of some of the early level methods is not necessarily to teach children to play the piano. Instead, the goal of these methods is to teach children to read music notation at the piano. Because of this intense focus on reading, these methods can be compared to a grammar book intended to teach a student an ancient language.
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Although a person may learn to read and write in ancient Greek through a grammar book, it will not be useful for learning to speak the language the way it sounded in the time of Alexander the Great. In order to speak the language correctly and become fluent, one would need to hear the language spoken and practice speaking it.
In the same way, a piano method that is focused on reading music notation may guide the teacher in teaching students to read music notation, but it may not teach them to understand music aurally or to express it artistically.
Also, students may become disillusioned and uninspired when all the pieces in the book are at the same reading level with the same texture of single line melodies and simple rhythms. Most children have been exposed to complicated music since birth, and they are capable of playing more difficult music than they can read.
Teaching students by rote (i.e. by imitation without extensive reference to the score) allows students to develop their ears, technique, and memory without the added complication of reading the notation. Music is an aural art, so students must learn music with their ears as well as with their eyes. A balance between pieces taught by notation (eye) and those taught by rote (ear) will help students deeply understand and fully express music.
Using rote teaching for pieces provides the following benefits:
Students are able to play aurally satisfying music from the beginning of study.
The following video shows a four-year-old student playing “Charlie Chipmunk,” by Julie Knerr, a piece we teach at the very first lesson. Happy, bouncy pieces like this one are exciting for students to learn, because they can play satisfying- sounding music at the very beginning of their piano study.
Students who are taught by rote come to an early realization that music is composed of patterns and a logical structure. They learn Rote Pieces in larger groupings of notes rather than one note at a time. They notice repeating ideas and variations of these ideas more easily when the distraction of reading the score is removed.
Later on, having grasped patterns and structures by rote, students’ ability to see notation in patterns enhances their sight reading skill.
“Crocodile in the Nile,” a piece Wendy Lynn Stevens composed for Piano Safari Repertoire Book 1, is one example of a piece that sounds complicated but is very simple because of its repeating patterns. Students also love the big arm crash at the end!
The first half of the piece has an alternating hand pattern:
The second half of the piece has an ascending pattern:
These patterns make up the entire piece and create a logical structure that students easily grasp.
Students are comfortable with playing pieces by memory because this is the way they learn their Rote Pieces. When students begin reading, they use their ears and memories in combination with their eyes to a much greater extent than students who are taught only by reading the notation.
Students can learn pieces that are much longer than they would have the stamina or ability to play if they were required to read the notation. These pieces increase the ability of students to concentrate for longer periods of time. Rather than playing pieces that are only ten seconds long, they can play pieces that last nearly a minute, like, “I Love Coffee,” which Carolyn Shaak has graciously allowed us to reprint in Piano Safari Repertoire Book 1. For a young child, one minute is a long time to concentrate without a break. This piece consists of six distinct parts that are taught one at a time and then combined into one long piece. See www.shaakpianomusic.com for other materials written by Bernard and Carolyn Shaak.
Students are creative while improvising and composing because they have been exposed to a variety of sounds and patterns presented in Rote Pieces. The wide array of musical ideas in their ears, minds, and hands provide tools with which to invent their own music. Because beginning students often create at the piano by building on sounds and patterns to which they have already been exposed, the student who uses limited positions during his early lessons may not have the foresight to improvise and create in more sophisticated ways.
This is a video of four-year-old Isaiah improvising his piece, “Rocket Ship Going Up to Space.” He took his knowledge of glissandos, five-finger patterns, and transposition from the Rote Pieces and Technical Exercises he had been studying in his piano lessons. Here you will see how he combines them in his own unique way.
Students are free to focus on playing with proper technique when they are not simultaneously reading notation. For example, the teacher who is working with a student on a two-note slur can instruct him to watch his hand for the down-up motion of the wrist.
It is often difficult for an early level student to multi-task, so the chance for success in mastering certain technical skills increases when the distraction of the score is removed.
Although it may seem counterintuitive, we have found that playing Rote Pieces actually aids in the development of reading notation.Teaching by rote and by reading do not need to be at odds. A combination of the two approaches gives students a well-rounded approach to achieve success in the many facets of playing the piano.
When students play pieces learned by rote, they gain a repertoire of intervals, patterns, and technical motions in their muscle memory. When learning to read notation, this repertoire of patterns allows students to focus on what their eyes see rather than simultaneously having to acquire new motions for their hands.
A musical example of how Rote Pieces can aid reading is found in the following pair of pieces.
“King of the African Drum,” by Julie Knerr, is a Rote Piece found in Unit 1 of Piano Safari Repertoire Book 1. It uses a chromatic descending pattern in the RH:
Later, in Piano Safari Repertoire Book 2, students play a similar pattern, this time in the Reading Piece “Monkey and the Shoe,” by Julie Knerr.
Because the student is already familiar with the keyboard topography and technical feeling of a chromatic passage such as this, the student can easily decode this passage by reading the notation and then immediately transfer it to the piano and play it effortlessly.
An interesting comparison to the rote vs. reading debate is the controversy in schools over teaching children to read phonetically or through the whole language method. Those who support phonics teach the sounds that make up words, and believe in a “parts to whole” approach. Those who support whole language immerse the children in books and literature and hope they will learn to read in a more organic manner. In short, they believe in more of a “whole to parts” philosophy. We can compare this to the way children learn the language of music. Students who learn by reading notes exclusively represent more of the “parts to whole” approach, as opposed to those who learn by rote first. We contend that the best method is a blending of the two approaches: rote and reading® presented simultaneously.
Our goal in creating Piano Safari was to integrate the best features of all the piano methods we have used in our teaching. Combining aspects of rote teaching (Suzuki) with intervallic reading (Clark, Chronister, Blickenstaff) provides, in our opinion, the most solid foundation for beginning piano students to become musical and literate pianists.
Don’t miss the follow up articles where Julie and Katie answer common questions about incorporating rote teaching into your curriculum! Sign up for the newsletter and you’ll get an email every two weeks with links to the new articles along with other news in the world of piano teaching.
About the authors:
Dr. Julie Knerr taught applied piano, piano pedagogy, and group piano at the University of Missouri and Oklahoma City University. She holds a PhD in Music Education with an Emphasis in Piano Pedagogy from the University of Oklahoma, as well as BM and MM degrees in Piano Performance and Piano Pedagogy. She just joined the piano faculty of the Hartt School of Music Community Division in West Hartford, Connecticut, where she teaches piano to children.
Katherine Fisher is on the faculty at the Athens Community Music School at Ohio University. She holds degrees in piano performance and pedagogy from the Wheaton College Conservatory and the University of Oklahoma. An active performer, Katherine collaborates with her husband Dr. Christopher Fisher in the Fisher Piano Duo. She and Christopher are currently co-authoring the revised and expanded edition Piano Duet Repertoire, published by Indiana University Press. She is co-author of Piano Safari.