‘Rote Learning’ – a waste of time?

Pathways in Teaching

“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…

Continue reading ‘Rote Learning’ – a waste of time?

Musical Focus is Paramount

The Fermata Series

Musical focus is paramount.
So many pupils are concerned with technical problems divorced from their musical raison d’être. Their focus is solely on the hurdle and it’s insurmountability.
But the problems virtually disappear and the road opens when they are seen within a musical context. Even the most difficult passages, given musical motivation become not only approachable but achievable.”

Norma Fisher
International Piano, Sept/Oct 2010

So often as a teacher I come across players who “learn the notes” first, only later considering the expressive intentions of the music they are studying.

“For next week, why not try to add the dynamics…”

It’s certainly an easy trap to fall into – reading the notation, working out finger patterns, discovering the music with a systematic, segregated scheme in mind, rather than trying to “run before you can walk”.

And yet I always recommend that players try to pay attention to the dynamics, articulation and other expressive details as early as possible in the learning process. Adding these as an after-thought has always seemed to me a slightly odd way to do things.

More important still, surely we benefit from seeing the “big picture” when starting any musical endeavour or project. Best, where possible, to first discover any piece of music sound before symbol – it is in the hearing of a piece that its content is most powerfully and memorably communicated, and unless we have some aural concept, it can prove difficulty to muster sufficient motivation to commit to learning, absorbing and mastering the detail.

Learning becomes uninspiring.

Looking at the photo at the top of this post, we so could easily, finding ourselves in this scene, study the detail of the plant and insect life, without noticing the golden sun which illuminates it all.

In the same way, I believe that the expressive intention of a piece of music is the very thing which brings light to it, giving it meaning.

As Norma Fisher so eloquently puts it,

“…the problems virtually disappear and the road opens when they are seen within a musical context. Even the most difficult passages, given musical motivation become not only approachable but achievable.”

Fermata Series

“Sound before symbol”: lessons from history

Pathways for Teaching

Musicians and teachers often debate the relative merits of aural-based learning versus a notation-driven approach. Seeing the topic wheeled out for discussion again this week, I was reminded of this brilliant quote by the legendary concert pianist Andor Földes, taken from his book “Keys to the Keyboard” written back in 1950 :

“There is no such thing as a proper age for a child to start playing the piano. I avoid saying ‘to start his musical education’ because I believe that an education in music should start very early, perhaps years before the child ever actually learns how to read notes, or can find his way among the black and white keys.”

Földes’ basic point – made some four decades before “The Sounding Symbol” by George Odam re-popularised the phrase “sound before symbol” – is that music is essentially an aural language, and that playing and reading must build on that foundation.

Continue reading “Sound before symbol”: lessons from history