Rote Learning...
Is This How to Teach Music to Piano Students?

Rote learning - is this how to teach music? Only sometimes, but it can be fun for you and your student!  It is frequently the way I will start a student on a famous theme with a short motif, such as Bach's Toccata in Dm, or Hark How the Bells.

Last week a young student asked me if I had any music by Rossini. Yes, this is an unusual request from a little girl! Turns out, she and her classmates in school have been watching " Rossini's Ghost " a family-friendly movie that introduces viewers to Rossini, his music and his times through an engaging story. 



I told my student I would look into it this week. I had a pretty good feeling that I wasn't going to be able to find anything like what she wanted that was written for her level of reading (at least, that would still be interesting enough for her to play).

Besides, so often kids just want a taste of something they are interested in, and they turn reluctant when you try to push a new book at them that they know their folks will have to pay for. The solution? A little teaching by rote, or "rote learning", as it is known!

So of course I went to Youtube and typed in "Barber of Seville." Lots there! I ended up listening to one version of the overture several times over (plus several videos of Bugs Bunny and Elmer Fudd set to Rossini's music), and decided that the exciting fast minor tune would please my student. That's the tune that goes:

eeefe (LONG REST) eeefe (LONG REST)

eeefe (REST) ddc (REST) bbaa

And that is just how I showed it to her. Instead of writing it out on staffs as sheet music, I just plunked out the tune on the piano (one hand at a time - actually, just one finger, my index finger!), and then wrote "eeefe" etc. on her lesson sheet to help her remember. This is a stress-free, no-pressure approach to learning the song that I call rote learning for the piano.

I chose the key of Am because there are few or no black notes to worry about. After I played that bit of the theme from the Barber of Seville, I showed her that an easy left hand part was possible too, in which two notes, A and C, are played together:

c   c   c   c   c   c   c
a  a   a   a  a   a   a

Listen to the first 10 - 15 seconds of this video of excerpts from the 2011 Seattle Opera presentation of the Barber of Seville -- the tune I gave my student is barely there before the actor begins with "Figaro, Figaro, Figaro..." 



My student will probably want to add to this piece bit by bit, very slowly with one new change or addition each week over the next couple of months until she is satisfied. I have found that this is a pleasant way for my students to learn new music they desire that I either do not have, or that I know is too difficult for their reading level. Just a little bit goes a long way.

The same student is playing Pachelbel's Canon, (by rote learning!) which she also requested -- I would not have thought of it for her, as she is still in the Piano Adventures Primer Lesson Book.  As with The Barber of Seville, it is with rote learning that she is absorbing this piece.

Showing her how to play the "canon" was fun; first I explained to her that a canon is not related to cannon balls or explosives, but that it is a pattern that repeats over and over again. Then I showed her the pattern (in the key of C instead of D, the original): C, G, A, E, F, C, F, G, start over.

But what I also showed her, to help her memory, is that there is a pattern, at least to my mind... here is how I say it to myself, in rhythm with the music:

"C -- down 4, up 1, down 4, up 1, down 4, turn around (up 4 to F), up 1, start over (and you should be back at C)"...

Once she had memorized that pattern and could play it one note at a time with her left hand (one week), I suggested that she add chords in the right hand to go with the left hand notes. She can already play broken chords well, so she got it right away:

Left hand: C           then:       Right hand: c, e, g

LH: G                      then:       RH: g, b, d

LH: A                      then:       RH: a, c, e

and so forth. Of course if you wish to identify the chords by their correct names, Am and Em are what you must call the chords when the LH goes for A & E.

This kind of rote learning is good practice for the ear, is immediately engaging for young students and new students who don't read a single note yet, and it even makes a nice break in routine for older piano students! 




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