If you play the piano, or if you’re a teacher, you’ve likely been taught in the classical tradition. You predominantly learned to read music. By reading music, you translate the notes on the page into music on the piano. That’s the only way that I was taught to play the piano. I was never taught to improvise or play by ear.
It’s a different skill set. Most often these skills are not found in classical pianists. Does that mean they can’t be applied in classical music?
look into a different way of learning that can be extremely effective.
Learning by Rote
Students learn the piano by rote when they copy what their teachers play for them. Technically, the word rote means to learn something by mechanical repetition. Many piano teachers avoid teaching by rote because they think that it may prevent their students from learning to read music. The teacher likely only learned by reading, so they expect that their students learn the same way.
Just because a student is taught some pieces of music by rote does not mean they cannot be taught how to read music at the same time.
I Can Learn That on YouTube…
You’ve probably heard a potential student tell you that they learned a few things on YouTube. As a piano teacher I used to cringe when I heard this. What kind of YouTube videos are the students referring to? Videos like this one,. These types of videos simply teach by rote. In each video, someone is playing the music, and the student who wants to learn, watches and copies what they do.
There’s a reason that these videos have hundreds of thousands, sometimes millions, of views. They work. Students do learn to play music. Is there anything wrong with that? Of course not. Plenty of people learn to play plenty of pieces this way. It’s a great way to learn.
There are limits to it of course. If the student wanted to learn a different piece their only option is to find another video. If the student can’t find a video to teach them, they’re out of luck. This is why it’s important to not only learn by rote, but to learn to read as well.
Learn to Speak First
In the mid 20th century a Japanese violinist, named Shinichi Suzuki, came up with a method to teach young children how to play the violin. Today we call this the Suzuki method.
He noticed that young children are able to learn languages very quickly. He theorized that children could learn music in the same way.
With language, we are only taught to read and write after we learn to speak. Suzuki structured his approach by teaching children to copy sounds and demonstrations from their instructors instead of reading. The students learned to speak first. Eventually students would learn to read music, but learning by rote and ear came first.
Although Suzuki was a violinist, eventually this method was used on the piano as well. It is a more prominent teaching method today for string instruments, but there are still plenty of piano teachers that use the Suzuki method.
The prime argument against using the Suzuki method is how long it takes to get to written notation. I believe a combination of Suzuki’s approach and our classical approach of only teaching reading, needs to be taught in tandem for maximum effectiveness.
Notation is a Barrier to Entry
When most students start piano lessons, they are bombarded with words, ideas, and symbols that are completely foreign to them. It’s hard. It really is. Eventually notation becomes easy, but for new students it’s rough.
Reading music is so challenging that there have been many alternative music notation systems created to fix it. Although they may solve the problem by creating a better way to notate music, they create a new problem. No one uses them. The vast majority of music isn’t written in these alternative systems, and they likely never will be.
Teachers won’t be able to reliably teach any serious students using alternative notation, so the difficulty of learning standard notation is still there.
Because it’s so difficult, the pieces that are written for early beginners are absolutely boring. They stink. Even the 5 year olds don’t like them. Playing horrible music for months on end is not the best introduction to piano lessons.
Music Can be MUCH Harder (and more fun!)
Even little beginner hands can learn some really fun pieces. They are capable of playing much harder music than the music that teachers normally give them. Kids need validation. They need to feel like they are good at something.
Pieces that students learn by rote can be much more difficult and showy than pieces where the student has to read music. Pieces learned by rote also must be memorized. Because the music is memorized, the student is able to play it for their friends and family whenever a piano is around. An excited child will end up playing the piece non stop. This gives them reassurance that they are good at something, which encourages them to stick to music for the long run.
It Promotes Correct Playing
Teachers tend to focus so much on reading, that sometimes other areas of piano performance suffer. As a teacher you know that students should be phrasing better, or playing with more dynamics, or strong articulations, but you feel that you have to pick your battles. If music becomes too difficult and frustrating for the student, they may end up stopping altogether. We want our students to make music a lifelong passion.
When learning music by rote, the most confusing aspect, reading, is taken out. Because of this, technique, musicality, rhythm, posture, everything else that is important for a pianist can be focused on more than when reading music. When written music is introduced, the student has already created good habits. These habits then easily move over to reading music.
It’s How it Used to Be Taught!
I’m not one to say just because the cavemen did it means we should do it. It is interesting nonetheless to understand that music is an aural tradition. Before the invention of musical notation, music was passed down by hearing and repeating music. In classical music we’ve lost a lot of that early tradition.
Mozart, Beethoven, Chopin, and Liszt were expert improvisers. No, they weren’t improvising jazz, they were improvising their own styles of music. This improvising tradition is all but gone in classical music. Learning by rote is not improvising, but it is a step in that direction. A lot of the freedom for classical musicians is lost when we focus 100% on what is written on a page of music.
When we only learn written music, we listen less. We play what’s written. We don’t have to worry about how it sounds, if we’re playing the note that is written down, it will sound right. It’s pretty simple. When students learn by rote, they must use their ears more. These students start to listen more to intervals, and the sound of each note. It’s a great way to introduce playing by ear.
It Promotes Reading!
Wait… How does it promote reading? Written music is confusing. Kids are thinking, “Why are there hashtags all over the place!”
Young children may even have difficulty understanding that written music is going up and down so the pitch is going up and down. If the student learns a piece by rote, and is shown the music while they are learning, they start to recognize patterns in the written music when compared to what they are playing.
The music makes more sense, and they are able to quickly understand why things are written the way they are.
The Written Page is Not Music
We call it music, but it’s just the system of notation that has evolved over the centuries to represent sounds. That’s really what it comes down to. Learning the piano is all essentially learning by rote, even reading music.
When you read music you’re just learning by rote without a teacher. By reading, you are translating ink on the page into music that can be played on the piano. Once the music is translated you repeat those notes over and over until the part is memorized (if you’re memorizing of course).
In academia this is called learning by rote. Did you memorize your multiplication tables? You learned by rote. You likely memorized them by looking at numbers written on the page, then you translated those written numbers into words and repeated them endlessly.
Sound familiar? All musicians learn by rote. When we teach by rote the only difference is we’re giving the student the information instead of them reading it themselves. We’re giving them a head start by basically making them perfect readers for each piece that they are learning by rote.
Students Still Need to Learn to Read
It may sound like I’m bashing a lot on written notation and that no one should learn it. That’s not my intention at all. Every serious classical musician must learn to read music. It’s just the way the world works. Although our standard notation may not be the most effective way of writing music down, it’s what everyone uses and it can’t be avoided.
Learning by rote should only be one part of lessons. At first it may take up a large portion of the lesson. As the student progresses you can progressively add more note reading. Some amount of learning notation should be a part of just about every lesson.
How to Do it?
Just do it! You can start today with music that is a little harder than what your student is currently working on. If you’re working in a method book, just turn to later pages in the book and start with a fun piece there. Don’t be afraid to try.
There are some amazing method books out there that already incorporate teaching by rote. My favorite is Piano Safari. Beyond method books, you can definitely buy individual pieces to teach each one of your students by rote. It’s ok if these pieces take a few weeks for them to learn. They’ll come out with a piece that they are proud to play for everyone.
Record Yourself for Practice
If you are teaching by rote, how do they practice on their own? Video! Most of us have amazing cameras on our phones now. It shouldn’t be difficult to record yourself playing what the student is working on. Send that video to your student and they can practice all week long.
Piano Safari, the method book I mentioned above, already does this for you. All of the pieces that are to be taught by rote are recorded as videos that the students can watch at home.
If you haven’t taught by rote yet, you should start. It’s exciting for the students, it’s fun for the teacher, and the parents love hearing their kids play fun music. You’ll find that your students stay with piano longer. They’ll actually enjoy lessons. If your student enjoys lessons, you will enjoy lessons