Rote Learning: a waste of time?

Supporting Educators • Promoting Learning

“Very young beginners, of five years or under, sometimes appear to make remarkable progress at first, and can be taught up to a point by imitation or ‘rote’. A large part of their lesson is taken up with rhythmic training and singing.
In actual piano-playing they progress a certain way and then they appear to stand still and, very often, to lose interest.”

Joan Last
The Young Pianist (Oxford University Press, 1954, 1972)

Rote learning seems to be very much back in vogue, and the remarkable progress which Joan Last writes of is something many teachers will be familiar with. Indeed, it is perhaps because of this ‘quick win’ progress that a number of prominent writers and trainers recommend teaching “by imitation or rote”.

The benefits would seem to include:

  • Building pupil confidence and ongoing enthusiasm;
  • Playing more advanced, expressive, interesting and impressive music than the pupil can presently read;
  • Exploring keyboard geography and developing physical freedom;
  • Developing musical memorisation ability;
  • Providing an inclusive option for students who struggle with reading;
  • Focussing more on technique and ear training;
  • Delivering quick results that impress parents and encourage students.

With such wonderful benefits, shouldn’t we all embrace rote learning as a core element of our teaching practice?

Certainly there are many who would answer that question with a resounding “yes”, but Joan Last points to a significant fly in the ointment: after progressing a certain way, players “appear to stand still and, very often, to lose interest”.

Martha Beth Lewis, a US pedagogue with more than 50 years experience teaching children, puts it far more bluntly on her advice page for teachers:

“Position playing and rote learning are mostly wastes of time. I think such methods are used by teachers to convince the parents that the teacher is doing a good job because the child can “play a tune” very soon. Such systems do NOT serve the student.”

So let’s take a deeper look at the subject, and consider why such esteemed writers and experienced teachers have spoken out against this approach…

What do we mean by ‘rote learning’?

Rote learning is, as Joan Last hints, being taught to copy by imitation.

In today’s world, this approach persists in piano education as it did back in the 1950’s, but has become still more prevalent through the plethora of online videos, YouTube clips, iPad apps, and keyboards that light up like Christmas tree decorations. And as always, ‘imitation and rote’ are the basis for much of what we might properly call ‘informal learning’ (for example, when children ‘teach each other’ to play chopsticks).

Webster’s Dictionary identifies the following two ingredients in its definition of the word “rote”:

  1. The use of memory – usually with little intelligence (“learn by rote”)
  2. Mechanical or unthinking routine or repetition

This definition certainly goes straight to the heart of the concern: that rote learning is “usually with little intelligence”. It is essentially “mechanical or unthinking”.

That’s the basic definition.

As this YouTube video demonstrates, even chickens can play this way:

Sound Before Symbol?

‘Rote learning’ is sometimes confused with teaching and learning ‘sound before symbol‘. In fact rote learning is something very different, fundamentally visual, rather than aural.

While the crucial connection which must be made by players is that between sound and symbol, simply copying a teacher or video can make little reference to either. Many children can easily copy the pattern of their teacher’s playing without listening to the musical result, and without any notation.

Teaching music sound before symbol differs from teaching by rote in that the focus of the former is on aural development and understanding.

As such, it differs decisively from Webster’s definition of rote learning, in which the student usually has “little understanding”.

What about Demonstration?

’Rote learning’ is also sometimes confused with demonstration. The difference here is a more subtle one, but again has to do with focus.

Demonstration is generally about modelling sounds and techniques; used properly and in balance with other learning strategies, demonstration will enhance and support the use of notation and aural learning, rather than replacing it.

Demonstration is, in my view, a vital element of teaching piano at every level, from beginner to diploma and beyond. The teacher is, among many things, a model.

However, the careful and attentive teacher must always be alert to the pupil’s response to demonstration.

I have found that by gauging their response it is possible to assess whether students are learning from the aural model, or simply imitating and copying visually (so long as you understand the difference, it is really very easy to spot).

It is especially important to combine any demonstration with ample questioning, so as to check that the pupil is developing a full understanding of what they hear and see, rather than simply copying, as Webster puts it, in a  “mechanical or unthinking” way.

There’s no point in demonstrating something unless the pupil understands what that “something” is.

“Rote learning” and Kodály

In 1954 – the same year that Joan Last wrote her book The Young Pianist from which I quoted above – the great composer and teacher Zoltán Kodály was also voicing concern. Kodály explained that there are four characteristics of a good musician as follows:

1.  A well-trained ear
2.  A well-trained intelligence
3.  A well-trained heart
4.  A well-trained hand

As we have seen, rote learning especially pertains to Point 4 on Kodály’s list: a “well-trained hand”. Indeed, in modern tutor books which encourage rote learning, it is often directly linked to the development of a healthy playing technique in the earliest stages of learning piano. And Webster’s Dictionary definition likewise links rote learning with mechanical repetition, ie. physical technique.

But having a “well-trained hand” (or in the case of the chicken above, a well-trained beak) must, as one element of a good musical education, be balanced with the other three. As Kodály explained:

“All four must develop together, in constant equilibrium.  As soon as one lags behind or rushes ahead, there is something wrong. So far most of you have met only the requirement of the fourth point: the training of your fingers has left the rest far behind. You would have achieved the same results more quickly and easily, however, if your training in the other three had kept pace.”

Zoltán Kodály, 1954
Selected Writings of Zoltan Kodály, Boosey & Hawkes, 1974

In other words, rote learning and finger training aren’t wrong in themselves, so long as other elements of learning (and crucially, the “intelligence”) are developed at the same speed, right from the start. 

And as Kodály also famously observed,

“To teach a child an instrument without first giving him preparatory training, and without developing singing, reading and dictating to the highest level along with the playing is to build upon sand.”

“Rote learning” and “transfer students”

Sadly, I have found over many years that a significant number of students who transfer to me for lessons have been inadequately taught music reading. Their learning has been, as Kodály put it, “built on sand”. Many struggle even with basic note recognition: presented with an old set of Chester’s flashcards, they cannot quickly identify, name and play the notes.

There comes a point when the pupil simply can’t cope with the reading requirements necessary to progress with their goals – and any need to go back to easier pieces in order to learn the notation properly is a huge discouragement.

Some resort to writing in the letter names of notes, excessive finger numbers (in reality, used for note identification) and other notation-avoidance strategies. Some of course will have already been doing so from the start, perhaps even encouraged by a well-meaning teacher or parent. The experienced teacher will understand how damaging this all becomes to the player’s progress.

Learning to read music may not be the most thrilling aspect of a beginner’s journey at the piano, but it provides the foundation necessary to reach intermediate level and beyond without losing heart.

I can understand, of course, why some teachers and players will be excited by the rapid progress of rote learning at first. My concern is that a few years hence, we will be even more swamped with students who missed out on foundational literacy. The elements of learning must be effectively combined.

If a piano student’s ability to play is far more advanced than their ability to read, notation quickly becomes a barrier to progress rather than the tremendously enabling and powerful blessing that it should be.

Intelligent Teaching is Empowering

Yes! The ability to read music fluently is incredibly empowering, enabling the independent learning of new music.

And most children actually find proper learning, including literacy, exciting. We teachers need to inspire interest, curiosity and the excitement that is intrinsic to genuine discovery.

To quote from Kodály again:

“Let us take our children seriously! Everything else follows from this … only the best is good enough for a child”

Zoltán Kodály, 1941, ibid

Withholding knowledge and understanding from children is surely not the best.

However much short-term confidence it might build, rote learning that isn’t balanced, right from the start, with the development of the ear, the intelligence and the heart, simply isn’t good enough.

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Published by

Andrew Eales

Andrew Eales is a widely respected piano educator, writer and composer based in Milton Keynes UK. His book HOW TO PRACTISE MUSIC is published by Hal Leonard.