This week I have been thinking a lot about the place of rote teaching in my pedagogical life. These are not new thoughts. A year ago last May, Repertoire by Rote, the book that Dennis Alexander and I had been working on forever (or so it seemed!), was published by Alfred Publishing Company. I teach rote pieces almost every day to my beginning, or near beginning, students. Last month a composer and pianist out in San Francisco sent me copies of the two collections of rote pieces she had self-published. Indeed, teaching by rote is always in the air around here.
But it has been one of those weeks, heavy on rote thinking (if there is “rote teaching” surely there is rote “thinking.”). I have a new five-year-old student who told me “Yellow Truck” was his favorite song ever. (“Yellow Truck” only being a clever reworking of “Purple Sage” found in Repertoire by Rote. Yep, super clever.)
A review of Repertoire by Rote was in the latest issue of Clavier Companion (a good review! Woo-hoo!).
And then two days ago I got an email from a colleague asking for advice about teaching group piano. “Uh. Rote pieces,” I answered.
The following was first posted on May 17, 2015.
A few years ago (or maybe five or six? Who knows now?) Dennis Alexander and I were having lunch. Dennis Alexander is a big deal in my piano world. He is a well-respected pedagogical composer, known the world over in piano circles. I have been teaching his music, almost daily, for twenty years now.
About eight years ago, Dennis moved to Albuquerque. I remember the exact moment I learned this information. A friend and colleague was standing in my kitchen. “Guess who just moved to Albuquerque,” Anne said. “Who?” “Dennis Alexander.” “Well, it can’t be that Dennis Alexander,” I replied.
Well. Happily, it was. In the years since, Dennis has become a valuable and generous mentor, giving me loads of music, attending my studio recitals, teaching master classes and lessons for my students. More than that, he has become a dear friend.
Having lunch together is something Dennis and I intend to do once a month, but the reality is that it only happens about every three or four months. Lunch is our chance to get together and solve all the problems in the piano teaching profession over burgers and sweet potato fries. I look forward to every one of these conversations.
This particular day I offered one of my many infamous suggestions to Dennis. “You know what you should do,” I said. “You should write a book of music that is intended to be taught to students by rote.”
He looked at me like I was crazy. Which, in retrospect, maybe I was.
“You know,” I continued, “those kinds of pieces that are so helpful for beginner students. Pieces that sound a lot more difficult than they are to play. Pieces that are really patterned and easy to remember. Flashy pieces that kids want to practice ad nauseam. You know, rote pieces.”
I was (and am) passionate about rote pieces. We have all witnessed children, who otherwise cannot play the piano at all, patiently teach one another the different parts to “Chopsticks,” a classic example of rote teaching. But in spite of the clear evidence of its appeal for students (who doesn’t love playing “Chopsticks?”), teaching by rote has a rather dirty reputation in our profession. At competitions, teachers whisper suspiciously about winners whom we suspect were taught their show pieces by rote and may not be able to read music much at all. This is bad. No question about it.
Unwilling to face the scorn of my colleagues, for years I stayed in the closet about my rote teaching, until one day I was sitting in a graduate pedagogy course taught by Jean Stackhouse at New England Conservatory. “You should teach beginners rote pieces,” she told us. “Students like to play pieces they can’t read.” Well hell, I thought, if someone as esteemed as Jean Stackhouse is willing to go public with this, so can I.
For twenty-some years, I have been collecting rote pieces that I have swiped from various sources: method books, Suzuki Piano school volumes, solo collections, and so on. I have been forced to build my own collection of rote pieces because such resources don’t exist. One cannot go to the local music store and find anything labeled under “Rote Materials.” This represents a huge hole in our profession on many levels, the most obvious problem being it keeps good rote teaching in the closet. It does nothing to train thoughtful teachers in how to take an intentional and pedagogically sound approach to rote teaching. Any teacher interested in rote music would have had to create their own collection of materials, much like I have, my rote notebook being the most valuable teaching tool I possess. Indeed, in a fire, I would first grab my trusty notebook of rote pieces, then get the cats, and then wake up Matt.
I teach rote pieces to students at their very first piano lessons. I teach them during interview lessons as a way of assessing potential students’ musical and cognitive skills, not to mention their attention span. I teach rote pieces when a kid might be struggling in some way—motivationally, musically, technically, whatever—and in need of some kind of feel-good piece that gets them away from the written score. I use them to help students with pattern recognition and to assist with memorizing. I turn to rote pieces to give students interesting, colorful recital pieces when their rhythm and note reading skills don’t allow for very “fancy” (their word, not mine) pieces in their method books. In a nutshell, I use rote pieces every single day.
All this rote teaching, however, does not substitute for the task of learning to read music traditionally. My students drill note flashcards. My kids work through method books and solo collections like any other piano student around the country. And after the first year or so of piano lessons, students have the weekly assignment of checking out sight-reading books from my music library and working through them during their daily practices at home. (A kid once counted and there are some 500 books in my sight-reading library! He was quite dismayed to calculate that there was little chance he would ever complete all of them.) Starting in middle school, students have the regular assignments cleverly called “One-week Pieces,” which is simply a piece they must learn to their version of “performance level” with only a single week of practicing. In other words, no worries, my students both read music and learn music independently just fine.
But nevertheless, we all LOVE rote pieces. Just last week a 7th grader came in to her lesson and announced, “Miss Amy, I want a rote piece.” This child has been taking lessons with me since she was four years old. Playing music like “Solfeggieto” and “Für Elise,” she is WAY past needing me to teach her any music by rote. But I knew what she meant: she wanted a fast, super showy piece that she could learn and memorize quickly. It needed to be very patterned. It needed to use a LOT of notes and zip up and down the keyboard. You know, a rote piece.
Back to that now memorable and significant lunch. Upon hearing that he should write a book of music specifically intended to be taught by rote, Dennis just grunted. We returned to the conversation about how we would fix the absurdity in our profession if only we were in charge. I forgot all about my suggestion.
Some time passed (six months? A year? Two years? Dunno). Then one day at a lunch, apropos of nothing, Dennis said, “Amy, Alfred [Publishing] has agreed to publish your book of rote pieces, but you have to write it with me.”
This was not the answer I was looking for. I do not pretend to be a composer. I have enough outlets already for my somewhat questionable creativity: gardening, writing, performing, teaching, painting the walls of my home. There are limits, after all.
But did I mention I was passionate about rote teaching?
So in spite of myself, I went home that day and starting improvising rote pieces. Luckily, I had plenty of students to try them out on. And it goes without saying, they had plenty of opinions.
“Miss Amy, I think this one should be called “Roadrunner” because it is fast.”
“Miss Amy, I think you should play this song with pedal.” (For whatever reason, many students insist on calling “rote pieces” “songs.”)
“Miss Amy, I don’t like this song. It’s stupid. And it doesn’t sound like “Seahorses” at all. Seahorses don’t make any sound.”
That’s what I get for encouraging free thought in the studio.
For the last few years lunch with Dennis has been all about rote pieces. I’d write a piece that earned the approval of my students and Dennis would add a duet part for the teacher. Dennis would write a piece, and my kids and I would tweak the ending. Students would help design “memory maps” that could be used as learning devices. I’d pass rote pieces off to my colleagues who would add their own feedback. In the true spirit of rote teaching, this has been a community project for sure.
The first proof arrived from Alfred Publishing Co. during a freak New Mexico Blizzard. I spent March and April editing the last two rounds of the “rote book.” (Forever now, we have simply been referring to this as our “rote book.” Matt asks if this is our ship. Yeah, if our ship is a small plastic boat like our four-year-old nephew Felix plays with in the bathtub.)
Last week our book went “live.” Search our names on the Alfred’s website and lo and behold! There it is! One can order our collection of rote pieces from your favorite on-line music retailer. One can buy Repertoire by Rote at your local music store. One can even find it on Amazon.
Somewhere along this long, long process someone asked me what my aspirations were for this book. They are simple, really. I want to introduce rote teaching to piano teachers who may have never considered the musical and motivational benefits thereof. In a world where we are blessed (or drowning, depending upon how you look at it) with resources, I want to offer something new, something that until now has been mostly non-existent. I want rote teaching to someday be as commonplace as teaching scales or theory. Basically, I want to start a conversation within my profession.
At lunch, and over burgers and sweet potato fries whenever possible.