Tips for Rote Teaching: Special Guest Q&A with Expert E.L. Lancaster

Last year we invited our followers to submit questions for E.L. Lancaster about rote teaching to celebrate he and Kevin Olson’s new publication, From Rote to Note: Elementary Piano Pieces That Reinforce Theory and Technique. We are pleased to give these newly updated answers a permanent home on our Discovery page. We invite you to join us on social media for the opportunity to have your questions on a variety of interesting topics answered by additional experts in the coming weeks. Finally, we’d like to extend our gratitude to E.L. for his valuable contributions. Click here to learn more about From Rote to Note and to purchase your own copy!

E.L. Lancaster

How did you first become interested in rote teaching?

I was introduced to rote teaching as a master’s student at the University of Illinois. I immediately saw its benefits in terms of technical development, musical understanding, and motivation. Consequently, I started using it with both my young students in private lessons and with my college piano classes.

Is rote teaching just for beginning students?

Rote teaching is NOT just for beginning students. It can be used with any level depending on what the teaching goal is for the student. For example, developing a rote musical map for an advanced student who is having difficulty memorizing a section of repertoire is one example of using rote learning with a student beyond the beginning level. It can also be used to reinforce theoretical concepts or to allow students to focus on motions required for technique (as opposed to just reading a piece to develop technique).

Is your recent publication From Rote to Note primarily for pre-reading students, or can it also be used with students who are fluent in music reading?

From Rote to Note can be used with students who are fluent in music reading. The musical maps for many of the pieces require students to recognize and apply theoretical concepts to the keyboard. It also lays the foundation for analyzing music form.

What are some tips on helping students remember the piece when teaching by rote?

The best way to help students remember a rote piece is to supply a musical map whether it is one from From Rote to Note, one that you create for the student, or one that you and the student create together.

Do you have a favorite counting system to use when teaching rote pieces?

I do not have a favorite counting system to use when teaching rote pieces. Teachers should use the same counting system that is used with pieces learned from musical notation. I use the note value system for counting (1 1 1 1 for four quarter notes) before students learn time signatures. After they learn time signatures, I use the measure system for counting (1 2 3 4 for four quarter in 4/4 time).

I have a student who loves learning by rote/ear so much they don’t want to read music. Help!

Continue to use rote learning with the student, but not to teach them reading pieces—only to help them with identifying patterns, technical development, and memorization. For those types of students, I develop a true system of learning to read music that includes flashcards (and apps that function as flashcards), note spellers, assigning a very short reading piece for each day of practice, and incorporating a reading activity in every lesson. If lack of reading skills decreases motivation, alternate teaching a new repertoire piece by rote with teaching a new repertoire piece from reading.

What would you say to a teacher who is totally new to rote teaching?

Explore the various types of rote teaching by looking online for videos of rote teaching. Some rote teaching is only done through the ear (with no visual reinforcement). Other types of rote teaching (like From Rote to Note) supports rote teaching with a visual aid (musical map). In private lessons, approach rote teaching based on the student’s needs relating to note reading, technical development, and musical understanding. Determine the exact purpose of each rote piece before teaching it. Is it a replacement for learning a piece by reading (motivation)? Is it for developing the ear? Is it to improve technical skills? Is it to aid with analysis and musical understanding? Is it a way to introduce a new concept? Is it a way to encourage creativity (having students compose an original piece and writing it as a musical map instead of notation is a good example of this)?

What are the benefits of rote teaching?

In addition to the benefits listed in the previous question (technical development, musical understanding, and motivation), rote teaching helps with ear training, memory, pattern recognition, and creative exploration. It also allows students to experience musical ideas before encountering the symbols for these concepts (sound to symbol) and helps them apply listening skills to focus on artistically bringing out musical character.

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