Being the youngest of three girls in my family, I was dropped off one afternoon at a family friend’s house when I was about four years old while my sisters went to their important activities. Our friends had five children, but Natalie was only a few years older that I was. She amused me with dolls and games, but during the last hour of my visit was when I was captivated.
Natalie wondered over to the piano and invited me to join. She pulled out her method books and sheet music that just looked like ancient hieroglyphs to me. Attempting to explain the symbols and letters to me, Natalie eventually got frustrated and closed the books. Instead of abandoning her pedagogical endeavors, Natalie attempted a different strategy. She guided my chubby hands to pointer fingers and showed me little patterns. It sounded amazing and it was so easy to remember. Patiently, she taught me the ups and downs and jumps until I could play the melody of Heart and Soul and she added the accompaniment. I was enthralled! Next, she showed me Chopsticks and then performed for me one of her pieces, Malaguena. Even before she was finished with her performance it was time for me to go. We enthusiastically showed off to my family and were warmly applauded.
Although I did not know it then, it was the beginning of a love for rote pieces. Rote pieces, or pattern pieces as they are frequently referred to, allow the student to play music that is closer to what their sophisticated ear is used to hearing even before they can understand all of the musical and theoretical concepts of piano. Our world is filled with music and even before birth babies are inundated with elaborate music. When they arrive at their first piano lesson and work so hard at getting their fingers just right and listening and sitting still but leave with only being able to to make elementary sounds, it is discouraging. Even if the student is willing to persist in their musical endeavors if the music sounds less than thrilling for an extended period of time, the student is likely to give up. After three weeks of lessons students (or student parents) often approach me asking it I can teach their child or themselves how to play Fur Elise. I used to get frustrated, but now understand that they are asking to play complex sounding familiar and crowd pleasing music.
Rote pieces provide this opportunity. Learning by watching and then doing is the most fundamental method that babies and children become accustom to the world around them. Language is first developed through the reproduction of sounds that form the first few basic words. Likewise, demonstrating how to play a five finger pattern and then allowing the student to dabble to recreate that pattern helps them form the first few basic pieces. In tribal music and musical systems all around the world, the primary musical expression is through call-and-response. It is a fun and memorable way to understand something new and to express musicality without getting lost in the technicalities. It seems easy to copy patterns and it is rewarding when those patterns become fun songs.
Because mimicking patterns is so natural, it allows the student to focus on how their hand feels and looks and what is the most efficient way to play the piano. Through taking the focus off of interpreting symbols on the page, students are free to absorb the keyboard’s topography, the hand and body’s technique, and the subtle musical elements such as dynamics and articulation. Once the student is used to how the piano makes sounds they can focus on how to read and interpret those sounds. After the student has been playing repeated patterns up and down the keyboard and are accustom to me saying “move up an octave”, which they know means move to the next pattern, it is easy to teach them to look at the music and see 8va and move to the next octave. I don’t have to go in to lengthy explanations about the Latin origin or how to find the next octave because they already know from experience that when you are done with one pattern you move up to the next and that is called an octave higher. When adding names and symbols to things the student is already familiar with, it makes teaching note reading so natural.
Learning a new skill takes time, patiences, and careful nurturing. If playing the piano is approached in a fun, rewarding, and natural manner, students are more likely to continue their love for music through the study of the piano. Teaching by rote allows the student to gradually expand their musical comprehension with limited frustrating since they are simply copying patterns. Shinichi Suzuki is known as being the founder of teaching music by rote, and today his ideas have expanded across the world. Teaching Twinkle Twinkle Little Star by rote specifically on a violin for months at a time was Suzuki’s way of introducing students to rote playing. Because of the repetitiveness, teaching by rote was sometimes seen as mindless and boring. Katherine Fisher and Julie Knerr have developed a new system where it encourages student to engage, recognize patterns, develop creativity, and express healthy technique. Using their cleverly thought out pieces to present new concepts to my students, I have seen tremendous progress as my students first master a concept and then learn to recognize it. With every pattern piece I teach, I am transported back to our friend Natalie’s house when I was a little girl poking at the keys and feeling so accomplished that I could play amazing sounding music on the piano.