Teaching by Rote

A piano student of any age faces numerous challenges in the early stages of learning. Many piano method books appear to be more focused on teaching how to read notation than on how to play the instrument. The student ends up with eyes glued to the page, trying to decode the many layers of the notation (pitch, rhythm, volume, tempo, which hand to use, which finger and more), so that little or no attention is paid to the physical process of producing the sound. Since the pieces tend to be written in five finger positions, the students glue their fingers to the five notes, resulting in stretching, even in an adult hand. Immediately the hand is prevented from being able to produce a good sound, as the fingers are forced to isolate and the hand is disconnected from the arm.

This is where the rote pieces in the Piano Safari series (written by Katherine Fisher and Julie Knerr) come to the rescue. These pieces fill an important niche in my teaching, particularly in establishing a healthy technique in my beginner and transfer students. Allow me to share with you how I have incorporated the material into my teaching and the resulting benefits.

The first pieces in Book One are all rote pieces, which sound much harder than they are, and which would be impossible for students to learn in their first weeks of lessons if they had to read them from a traditionally notated score. Students leave their first lesson playing exciting, impressive pieces and can't wait to come back for more. These pieces are so much more engaging than the first pieces in more traditional methods books with their limited range of pitch and rhythm. Rote pieces are an integral part of the Piano Safari method and are included throughout the first two books, alongside the development of reading skills.

Learning by rote allows students to learn to navigate up and down the keyboard, understand the geography of the keys, discover patterns, form and structure in the pieces and develop the ability to memorise by organising the sections in their minds. They soon begin improvising their own pieces based on the patterns they have learned and, once notation is introduced, sometimes want to begin to write down their compositions.

"Most importantly for me, students are able to look at their hands while they are playing."

This allows me to draw their attention to hand shape and wrist height, ensuring that knuckles and bridge are not collapsed, that the arm is aligned behind the playing finger, and that the fingers are not stretched out over surrounding keys.

The teaching of healthy technique continues when reading is introduced (intervallically via the landmark notes G above middle C and C below middle C). The pieces are located comfortably away from middle C, allowing students to develop a good sense of alignment of finger, hand and forearm.

Transfer students who come using different method books don't have to miss out on the fun and the benefits. The technique and rote pieces in books one and two have been published independently of the course material in a book entitled Technique Exercises and Rote Pieces with an accompanying CD, which can be used alongside any other method series. I use these pieces with students of all ages and stages when I need them to focus on specific aspects of healthy technique.

To be honest, I don't make use of the technical instructions or the video demonstrations as they do not exactly accord with the teaching methods of the Taubman Approach. But this isn't any different to my approach to the technical advice/suggestions in other method books. If the student needs, I will make a reminder video in the lesson, which I upload to a private link for the student to view at home. (More on this in a future post).

There is so much to like about Piano Safari. The method seems to move quite slowly with regard to reading, as each interval is thoroughly consolidated before proceeding, but this is balanced by the wide variety of experiences in the rote pieces. Sight reading cards (which the students love, and which can also be used alongside other methods) accompany each level and further consolidate reading skills and can be used to teach many elements of theory.

Have you used rote teaching in your studio? Please tell us about your experiences in the comments!

Previous post: Tension, pain, injury, limitation: When things go wrong at the piano.

Next post: Using video in teaching and learning: Equipment (part 2)

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