Values of Teaching Rote Music

Before I jump right in to some of the reasons why I like rote teaching, let me give a little definition of what that actually means here. In the music teaching world, Rote Teaching means we teach the music without a sheet for the student to follow. Typically this is done by demonstration and repetition. I decided to try including some rote teaching about 6 years ago after learning about some of the possible benefits, and today I'm sharing some of the big positives I've seen in my own students since then!

5 Benefits of Rote Teaching for Beginners
  • Building Technique
    • I use a lot of the Piano Safari pattern pieces and animal techniques for beginning students. These are short pattern pieces that often focus on a specific skill or technique for striking the keys. Teaching these skills without having the added work of reading sheet music and translating that into notes means young students can really focus on how it feels in their hands and fingers to play the given technique. These techniques are simple, and often focus on using the arm weight and balance of the arm and hand, keeping the wrist in a neutral shape and finding the gentle curve for the fingers that maintains the integrity of the smaller joints. Making these feel like the natural way of playing early on helps ensure the health of students hands and wrists throughout their playing career. 
  • Focus on one skill at a time
    • To be fair, once a student is a confident reader, we can do isolated skill focus with sheet music too, but early on reading notes takes a lot of bandwidth. Playing an instrument, and especially the piano, is an exercise in multi-tasking. So with a rote piece for a beginning student, one day we might focus on the technique we want to feel, the next on the ear training to recognize the patterns and the shape of the song, the next on singing along or keeping time with a duet, and so on. Reading music is an important part of what we learn, but so are these other skills, and rote music gives us the opportunity to give then some equal weight in beginning piano study. 
  • Sophisticated Sounding from day 1
    • When we can use notes a student hasn't learned to read yet, we can use more of the keyboard, and include different steps or scales. One of my favorite pieces to use with my most beginning students each Halloween is Watch Out Here I Come from ComposeCreate, and it includes a really fun half step pattern as students sing 'Here I Come!'. If we were to read these half steps on-staff, we'd need to understand accidentals (sharps, flats and naturals), and little preschool or primer students are just not there yet. So teaching the three note 'here I come' pattern by rote means we get to have a really fun piece of music with sounds that won't happen in our written music until much later. Then we can play it with the teacher duet and really have a spooky time!
    • Similarly rote music can be used in combination with sight reading when music has a section that's harder to read than it is to play. ComposeCreate has several Rote & Reading pieces that have flashy sounding intros and outros. They use a single pattern across the whole keyboard, so they're really not all that difficult to play, but they can be pretty tricky to read for a beginning student. So, the design is to teach the flashy bits by rote, and then to let the student practice their reading on the rest. When put together, they have a piece with some great showcase elements that might be out of reach otherwise. 
  • Keyboard Navigation
    • Being comfortable moving around the keyboard is so very important, and young students can often get really comfortable in the middle area of the keyboard without exploring the higher and lower ends. Rote music that gets us moving around and using more of the keys means we are comfortable with the whole piano, not just a safe bit in the middle. 
  • Ear Training
    • And finally, rote music offers some good opportunities for ear training. Usually learning a rote piece starts by listening to it, then watching it played. As I demonstrate the music, I invite students to talk about any patterns they hear, whether the notes are going up or down, if we hear steps or skips, etc. These are some excellent opportunities for early ear training. And the hope is that down the road that ear training will continue to grow and eventually meet up with their sight reading skill and they'll be able to audiate - which is sort of the ultimate musician's superpower. 
To wrap up this post, here are a few fun videos of some rote music in action!