Monday Mailbag – How to Teach by Rote

Natalie, how exactly do you teach these rote pieces? I am curious, as my students seem to lose what they learned at lesson before the next week.

There are only a handful of students that I ever teach anything by rote. Kinesthetic/tactile learners are the best candidates for rote teaching because they tend to have keyboard facility that exceeds their ability to read music or even play by ear, for the most part. It’s helpful if they have a good ear, but the students who love rote-learning are typically those students who can play something once or twice and then just remember how to play it with no further instruction. Which is partly why learning pieces from printed music is so difficult for them – if they play it once incorrectly, they are apt to keep playing it that way by default (you know that glazed-over look when a student is looking at the book, but you know they’re not seeing a thing? :-)).

I don’t go out of my way to teach pieces by rote to students who aren’t naturally inclined toward that style of learning. If I think they might benefit from it, I’ll try one of the simpler pieces from my list of favorites (Cross Current and Poet’s Lament are two in particular that I teach a lot!). Here’s the procedure I usually follow:

  1. Play the entire piece through up to tempo and with lots of emotion.
  2. Ask if they like it and would like to learn how to play it. This is usually met with an enthusiastic nod and a little bit of trepidation because it seems out of reach for them.
  3. Proceed to play only the first phrase at a slow tempo, pointing out the patterns that make it relatively easy to remember and play.
  4. Break it down to just the left hand (since usually this is the more steady, straightforward part), play very deliberately, talking them through the note/scale/chord pattern and which fingering should be used. Incidentally, playing the first time with correct fingering is extremely important for these types of learners!
  5. Have them try the first left hand phrase that I’ve just demonstrated. If they are successful, have them repeat it a few times to establish the muscle memory. Again, as they play talk them through each movement to assist them in playing it correctly the very first time, including fingering, notes, rhythms, dynamics, articulations, mood, etc. You’ll be amazed at how much they can absorb at once this way!
  6. Teach the remainder of the first phrase for the left hand this way until they have it down solidly.
  7. Teach the right hand (usually the melody) in the same manner until they have mastered the first phrase.
  8. If they seem ready, let them try putting the hands together. Don’t make this a big deal, though. Often they need some time to work with the parts separately on their own at home, and almost without fail they’ll come back the following week with all of it hands together.
  9. I often conclude this teaching session with a stern admonition that they must practice this every single day and keep it fresh in their fingers because I am not going to teach them the same thing the following week. Of course, I make exceptions if the student genuinely struggles with some aspect of the piece, but it’s not worth the time for either of us to keep re-teaching/re-learning the same thing week after week. And usually they are motivated enough by wanting to play the piece well that it’s not an issue for those who truly are inclined toward this learning approach.

Any other thoughts on rote teaching? Do you teach some of your students by rote? If so, do you have any steps to add to this? or strategies that have worked well?

Remember, if you have a question you’d like to contribute to next week’s Monday Mailbag, leave it in the comments below or send me an e-mail sometime this week with Monday Mailbag in the subject line!

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