The term “rote” implies that you learn something through repetition and mechanically. It is a methodology you can find in reference to parrots, which repeat everything they are being taught without inquiring about its meaning. Many people wonder if it is possible for a person to play piano without reading music.
Teaching and learning by rote are much more than copying a teacher’s gestures mainly because it has more terms and implications. Teaching with this methodology implies that as a teacher you are teaching and incorporating rhythmic, melodic, and tonal components that form a piece while at the same time the student learns how to play it. This teaching style offers the possibility of adding more elements such as improvisation, transposition, and even composition of a brand-new piece.
So, is it possible to teach piano without reading music? Although there may be teachers who have a negative attitude towards this methodology, let me tell you more about this teaching and learning strategy since it can make the learning process more effective and dynamic. It can also help you and your students better understand music and its inner workings.
What is rote teaching in music?
Before further exploring the question about being able to teach piano by rote, you cannot leave aside the basic term, which could be the perfect introductory tool in your teaching strategies. Rote teaching and rote learning are some of the most long-lived educational models in the history of humankind.
You can find this type of teaching in both animals and human beings alike from the way we learn how to eat all the way up to communication and the use of language. We also find it in actions that you can teach by imitating. However, teaching young people by imitation is very important since they will not only learn important actions in their development but also habits and customs, both negative and positive, that will be with them throughout their lives. In music, we can find rote teaching applied to the piano and other instruments.
What are the pros and cons of rote teaching in general?
You may be asking yourself about the pros and cons of teaching by rote in general terms. This topic is worthy of debate among music teachers and parents since it can be viewed either as a viable strategy or as a hindrance.
- As a skill, it is easier and dynamic.
- The actual content of what is being taught is in constant change or motion, which makes learning an activity that never ends.
- The amount of time spent teaching by rote makes the learning process shorter and more efficient for any student.
- It allows the student to apply all the acquired knowledge and skills faster.
- It increases the student’s potential and creativity, which in turn can be used to further develop new skills.
- If not done correctly, especially in young students, it can create bad habits.
- It requires constant reinforcement and supervision.
- The student must put the repetitions regularly. This applies not only to the study of music but to any activity such as the development of a habit or behavior, or even when a child is learning a language.
- I will repeat myself. If you don’t maintain consistency, the student could become disoriented and learn things incorrectly.
Why are piano teachers afraid of teaching by rote?
Some teachers are very hesitant or completely against rote teaching, but what is the reason for that attitude? This is a hot topic. When I hear other teachers that are against rote teaching, I always sense a lack of knowledge about what to do with this teaching strategy. Some teachers are afraid that the student will not know how to take the information without looking at the music score. Others are afraid that their students will never learn how to read music.
What are the main concerns when it comes to teaching and playing piano by rote?
There are two main concerns I have identified when I talk to other teachers. I certainly have also experienced these myself with my own students.
- Teaching piano by rote requires constant repetition, and this can be tiring to the teacher and the student. Even parents get tired of hearing the same passages or pieces every week. I’m sorry to say this, but I often hear Suzuki parents complain about the constant repetition of pieces that their children learned months earlier. There is a purpose to this repetition that must be shared with the parents often. The more we remind and explain to the parents why we work like this, the easier it will be to have them on our side while they supervise our students’ practice sessions at home.
- Students might not be able to complete a goal. Sometimes we assign a piece to a student to be learned by rote, or we get a student who heard a piece and asks us to teach the piece even if the student cannot read the music. I think as teachers we all dread this situation, but I think it is because we are afraid that the student will not be able to complete the piece and will feel disappointment and frustration.
What are the benefits of teaching piano by rote?
Teaching pieces entirely by rote can give you and your students a lot of benefits. These include:
- Motivation: you and your student can gain a lot of motivation from the very start, and it can become a faster and more satisfying teaching and learning process.
- Musical comprehension: students who learn by rote can comprehend music faster and easier than those who learn by looking at abstract concepts written on a printed page. We can see the same process in a child that is learning a language for the first time. The ear comes first. Then imitation and repetition. We eventually send the child to school to learn how to read and write. We never force a child to read and write their native language before learning how to speak it. Why should we force children to read and write music before making or playing music first?
- Memory: when a student learns by imitation, he will have better use of his memory and his musical ear in order to combine everything that has been learned.
- Concentration: learning by rote increases concentration since students must learn to pay attention to multiple senses while they learn small chunks at a time. Oftentimes we hear people who say they play “by ear”, but nobody plays or sings “by ear”. Making music is a multisensory experience. When students play the piano they use, at least, their ears, eyes, hands, and arms. Even blind pianists must use their ears, hands, and arms. Nobody uses only their ears to play the piano.
- Creativity: students who learn by rote are more creative when it comes to improvisation or composition since they have been exposed to a variety of rhythmic patterns and melodic motives in their pieces without getting distracted by reading concepts on a printed page.
- Reading: it seems like a contradiction, but many students increase their reading skills by combining rote learning and traditional learning from a music book since they can better assimilate intervals along with rhythmic and melodic patterns.
So, is it possible to teach and play piano without reading music?
The answer is yes. It is highly possible to teach piano without having to read music. It is important to clarify that reading music does not imply a superior ability compared to other teaching and learning styles, but it simply is a different skill. Teaching and learning piano by rote does not require any special kind of talent, and it can be implemented with any student, from a complete beginner in the very first piano lesson to highly advanced students at the college level. There are so many professional and non-professional pianists that have learned through imitation and repetition with great success, and without having to read music.
- The most important point needed to make this teaching strategy work is consistency.
- Rote teaching and learning are some of the oldest educational strategies in humankind.
- Teaching by rote allows you to incorporate rhythmic, melodic, and tonal components from the very beginning.
- Benefits include
- Dynamic learning
- More efficient use of time
- Students learn faster
- Increase of students’ potential and creativity
- Increased motivation and musical comprehension
- Better memorization and concentration skills
- Better reading skills since students can associate the sound with rhythmic and melodic patterns
- Disadvantages include
- It can create bad habits if not done correctly
- It requires reinforcement and supervision
- It can require regular repetition, which is not always a bad thing
- Teachers are often hesitant to use rote teaching because they have little knowledge about what to do during lessons.
- The main concerns about this approach are:
- Getting tired of constant repetition
- Not being able to complete a goal
Read this blog post if you want ideas for preparing yourself for the first piano lesson with a new student.
I invite you to read Edwin E. Gordon’s works on this topic.
How Children Learn When they Learn Music by Edwin Gordon.
Learning Sequences in Music: A Contemporary Music Learning Theory by Edwin Gordon.
Space Audiation by Edwin Gordon.
Preparatory Audiation, Audiation, and Music Learning Theory by Edwin Gordon.
Discovering Music from the Insite Out: An Autobiography by Edwin Gordon.
Essential Preparation for Beginning Instrumental Music Instruction by Edwin Gordon.
A Music Learning Theory for Newborn and Young Children by Edwin Gordon.
Rhythm: Contrasting the Implications of Audiation and Notation by Edwin Gordon.
The Aural/Visual Experience of Music Literacy by Edwin Gordon.
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