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Learning by Osmosis Using Rote Pieces

In a previous post I discussed how much I enjoy using the rote pieces in Piano Safari, and how useful I find them for teaching technique and good hand position. Because the student doesn't need to refer to the written notation in order to play the piece they can therefore focus on looking at their hands. Piano Safari mixes rote pieces with reading pieces, giving the student a well rounded experience. The authors of Piano Safari frequently make mention of how much notation can also be learnt through rote pieces, as the students pick up a lot of information about notation almost by osmosis. I'd like to share with you an excellent example of that learning from a lesson last week.

One of my young students, whom I shall refer to as Andrea (not her real name) and who has just turned seven, is working on Piano Safari Level One and demonstrated fabulously just how much 'learning by osmosis' has been happening. Andrea has recently moved from off staff notation to reading single staff pieces, and has so far only learnt one short piece in the treble and one in the bass. The next piece in the book is another rote piece, entitled Swans on the Lake, so I started to introduce it. Here's the opening:

As usual, I had the book open on the music rack but did not refer to it at all in my demonstration; I simply played the piece for her. Instead of watching my hands as she usually does when I teach her a rote piece, she had her eyes glued to the page.

When I finished playing, Andrea immediately announced her observation that I had not played what she had expected! She suddenly changed into what I can best describe as 'teacher mode,' pointing to the page as she told me that she thought I would just play the top line (and traced her finger along the treble stave) and then I would play the second line (pointing to the bass stave). Then she announced, almost accusingly and looking me straight in the eye, that I didn't do that at all. She traced with her finger the flow of the notation from the treble in bar one into the bass on the fourth beat and into bar two, back to the treble in bar three and so on and told me exactly where I played with which hand. With that observation she taught herself to read the grand staff. I grasped the opportunity with both hands and reinforced this new reading concept for her. By the end of the lesson she understood that the upper stave was for the right hand, the lower stave for the left, that we read both staves at once and so on. She was very excited about all that she had learnt in that lesson.

This week when Andrea returned for her lesson, she could play Swans on the Lake from memory as a rote piece, but she really enjoyed also playing it for me with the book open in front of her. I could see that she was following the information in the score about which hand needed to play and when she needed to move to a different register, even though she can't yet read the actual pitches of the notes.

It's exciting when students take ownership of their learning and take in new information when they are ready for it. I would not have thought of introducing the grand staff quite so soon after having only just started single staff reading, but Andrea showed me that she was ready for the new information. When we do get to reading pieces on the grand staff, the ground work has already been done.

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