By Amy Greer
Yesterday Jake came into the studio with the screen door banging behind him. “What new song are you going to teach me today?” were the first words out of his mouth. He was almost shouting in his excitement. Jake is six years old, a precocious child who started lessons almost a year ago. He is progressing nicely. He can play major and minor five-finger patterns in all twelve keys. He has been initiated into the “flashcard club,” meaning he can identify the notes on the piano of 30 flashcards in under a minute. He is halfway through the Lesson and Performance Level 1B books in Alfred’s Premier Piano Course. A few weeks ago he earned a “Superior +” rating at a local piano festival. It goes without saying that Jake is a kid I love to teach.
Jake is happy and good-natured about whatever I assign, but what he really loves are the “songs,” or what I call “rote pieces.” This is the music that I teach him by rote—note by note, phrase by phrase—without him ever laying eyes on a written score. Every week I take a few minutes of lesson time to teach him at least a portion of a rote piece, music that is beyond his rhythmic and note reading skills, but well within his technical grasp.
During his very first lesson I taught him “Desert Rose,” a simple pentatonic piece. “What is a desert rose anyway?” was the question that Jake asked as I broke down the phrases and demonstrated each musical gesture. At that first lesson, he didn’t know his finger numbers and he couldn’t identify a single note on the piano. He had no idea what a quarter or half note was. But he could learn “Desert Rose.”
As the weeks went by, his repertoire of rote pieces grew. At the same time, he was learning all the traditional concepts taught in beginning piano lessons: note reading, rhythms, technical exercises, and finger numbers. But from the start, he also had “real songs” to play – music that sounded interesting and sophisticated. This music used more than the few octaves in the middle of the piano and had imaginative titles that asked him to play creatively and dramatically.
I knew that these rote pieces were helping Jake build skills related to pattern recognition and memorization. He was developing his listening skills and his musical ear. He was not only improving his physical coordination, but gaining a tactile sense of keyboard geography as well. All Jake knew was he was learning “songs.”
I reach for my trusty notebook of rote pieces not just during the first few years of lessons when students are still trying to acquire basic skills. But, I also use rote pieces when a student’s motivation might be flagging and in need of a musical pick-me-up. I have used rote pieces to help students struggling with memorization. I have turned to rote pieces when I felt students were too tied to the written page. I have relied on rote pieces to inspire improvisation and compositional assignments. A well-chosen rote piece has saved many lessons.
Until recently, there has not been an easy source of rote music for the inquiring teacher. Although easy-to-teach rote pieces can be found in method books and solo collections, teachers searching for rote music at their local music stores would have been hard pressed to find anything at all. Often when giving workshops, I would mention in passing the concept of “rote music.” Inevitably, questions such as “Where can I find rote music?” or “How do you teach rote music?” would follow.
Repertoire for Rote, a book that I wrote with Dennis Alexander, is the answer to both questions. Dennis wrote seven pieces that can easily be taught by rote and I developed steps for introducing them along with a musical map for students to take home after learning them in the lesson. Unlike other collections that are purchased by the student, in the true spirit of rote teaching, this book is designed for the teacher. Remember that students are learning this music without using a written score. Pieces range from the simple “Desert Rose,” which could be taught on a first lesson, to slightly more technical pieces like “Roadrunner” or “Bells are Ringing,” which might better suit a student after several months of lessons. While one could wait until students have developed the rhythm and note reading skills to play any piece in the collection, there is no reason for the delay. By definition a good rote piece is tricky to read, but easy to play. Pieces like “Green Frogs” (Key of F# Major) fit the description precisely.
Admittedly, rote teaching is different than teaching done primarily by referencing written notation. For each of the seven pieces in the collection, there are step by step instructions for breaking down the music into small teachable units, followed by a reproducible “memory map” (in non-musical notation, of course) for students to help with both learning and memorizing. Ideally, the memory maps printed in the book would only serve as a reference for the map students might design for themselves. Teachers who purchase the book are granted permission to copy the memory maps for students.
For example, the music for “Desert Rose” follows:
Even with a simple piece like this one, detailed steps are provided for teachers:
The memory map suggested for the piece is intended to help the student organize the musical gestures in a visual format.
Just as thoughtful rote teaching is only a piece of the pedagogical puzzle, this book is just a beginning. Dennis Alexander and I hope that after working with the seven pieces in this book, teachers will make rote teaching an integral part of their pedagogical approach, much like incorporating technic work or theory into lessons. Soon, teachers will begin to recognize previously undiscovered “rote” pieces in the music they already teach regularly. After all, a good rote piece is quite simply a piece that sounds more difficult than it is.
Last week was my spring studio recital. As always, I asked students to practice performing their recital pieces for the students whose lessons were before or after their lessons. Little Jake proudly showed off his recital “song” (“Green Frogs”) for fifteen-year-old Richelle, who had been busy preparing Rachmaninoff’s “Prelude in C-sharp Minor” for the program. After Jake left, Richelle shook her head, “You know, it wasn’t that long ago when I was playing those frogs.”
She was right. Blink, and “Songs” turn into “Preludes.” “Desert Rose” becomes a Chopin nocturne, and “Green Frogs” morphs into Rachmaninoff right before our eyes.
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I have been teaching by rote as well, it has a different format, it was a pleasure to compare. Thanks,
I am glad to see the place of some rote teaching. I had tried it with one of my pupils and will now introduce it to others. Thanks for the idea to extend it to each student, no matter what level.
I appreciated your article on line SO much! I have among my students at least eight who are in advanced programs at school. Many of them thrive on traditional method books, zip right through them, and become skilled pianists. But lately I’ve had several who need something different to spark their interest. Otherwise they find regular practice boring.
So I’ve been doing more composing and improvising. That’s been helping a lot. But if the kids don’t practice a lot, their finger coordination doesn’t grow much, especially with the little kids.
I have just ordered your book, because I think they’ll love the big sounds they can make right away. — Jeanette Gould