Monday Mailbag – What’s the Point of Teaching Pieces by Rote?

You suggest teaching by rote, and your website lists “24 Piano Pieces Perfect for Rote Teaching”.   I certainly appreciate that you took the time to develop this list.  But I don’t get it.  Why teach by rote?  How does learning a piece by rote develop skills necessary to aid in learning the next piece of music?  Where is the spill-over” impact of learning by rote?  Why are some music teachers so concerned with “The  product” that they have to “teach” by rote?  Why not focus on the process; since a good process will lead to a good product!  Please enlighten me…

This is a great question, and not that many years ago I had similar feelings about teaching by rote. This was due in part to the experiences I’ve had working with numerous transfer students who can play intermediate level pieces, but lack basic music reading skills. So, to borrow the cliche, I threw the baby out with the bath water. I didn’t want to be one of those teachers who just showed a student what to play so that they could sound like an amazing pianist on the surface with no foundation supporting them.

Thankfully, I have had numerous opportunities and influences that have enlightened me in this matter, so now I will do my best to pass on that enlightenment to all who may be struggling with similar misgivings.

Define “the product” – In my studio, the final product/goal we are aiming for is clearly stated in my studio policy. It’s “that each student will become a skilled musician who will use his/her talents and abilities to serve the Lord. It is important that each student receive a balanced music education that will prepare them for whatever their future in music may be. Every aspect of music works together and contributes to the overall ability of any musician. For this reason I include performance, ear training, technique, theory, composition, improvisation, and sight-reading in the music education of each student.”

The realization that hit me this summer as I participated in the Pattern Play Improvisation Teaching Intensive is that the core of my teaching model was reading and learning repertoire, and other areas of musicianship were included if we had time. This led to a complete revamp of how I organize my teaching and what is assigned every week. (And thus Project 28 was born!) If your ultimate end product is for students to be strong sight-readers, then by all means don’t teach them anything by rote; but if in addition to sight-reading you want them to develop a strong ear, cultivate creativity, build excellent keyboard facility, and have fun playing familiar or cool-sounding tunes that are beyond their reading level, then definitely consider including rote teaching (and also playing by ear and composing and improvising!).

Define “the process” – Chances are if you have more than one student, you have more than one process for learning in your studio. 🙂 Even if your ultimate goal is to develop strong sightreaders, there are probably a hundred different ways you could help them develop that skill. For example, I’m going to assume that many teachers introduce pentascales or full-octave scales by rote. You probably explain the concept to the student and then show them the keys, point out the correct fingering, encourage them to phrase the scales musically, etc. Same with primary triads, chord progressions, and other theory concepts. Then when a student is working on a piece you can point out the use of a particular chord or scale and help them tap into the experience they have already had playing it to generate a more fluent and musical rendering of it.

In the same way, teaching a piece by rote (or learning a song by ear, or improvising on a particular chord progression, etc.) can be every bit as much part of the process of becoming an excellent musician as reading printed notes off of a page. In fact, I can say without reserve from my own musical experience that I wasn’t nearly as good a musician when all I could do was read music (and I’m a strong sightreader!) as since I’ve learned to play by ear, rote, and improvise freely at the piano.

Define “the next piece” – Perhaps tomorrow a student will be asked to play a Christmas song (with no printed music on hand) at a friend’s party; or maybe they will be recruited as the keyboard player for a church service; or they’ll find out it’s the last day to sign up for the school talent show; or a friend will request a song for her wedding, but all she has is a recording of it; and so on. I think sometimes we teachers get so sequestered in our own little studio worlds that we forget the real world of possibilities our students are facing. Having a broad range of skills is essential if we want our students to succeed and impact the culture around them. They should be able to pick out a tune by ear and add a musical accompaniment to it. They should be able to play chords from a lead sheet. They should be able to listen to or watch a piece of music being played and figure out how to replicate it. And yes, they should be able to sightread a piece of printed music with good accuracy and musicality.

Obviously this is a tall order for us teachers to fill! There are so many things we can teach our students to equip them to be successful pianists. And we’re never going to be able to do it perfectly with any student. But what a privilege it is to work with each of them as individuals, assessing their strengths and weaknesses, and incorporating the best teaching approaches to help them reach their potential.

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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