Rote Teaching of Piano - A First Lesson


by Joan S. Burrows
Acton, MA USA


ote teaching was introduced to me some 40 years ago, after fifteen years of my own piano study, and before I began teaching piano. Dr. Raymond Burrows, professor of music at Columbia University, and Ella Mason Ahearn, teacher of class piano in Westfield, N.J., researched this method together, and wrote some piano books using it. I tried it with my five year old and a few of the neighborhood children, and became very enthusiastic about it. The simple process of getting familiar with the piano keyboard, using singing and one’s ear to learn to play, and simply having fun playing familiar and new pieces with harmony – all before reading from the printed page – was quite new to me. I watched my students thrive on this way of teaching, and found that I was learning a lot myself. As a result, I have used this way of teaching both children and adults for over 40 years.



A Rote Teaching Lesson

On an afternoon in August, a bright eyed, eager eight-year-old girl arrives at my home for our first meeting. Her Mother had previously called to ask about piano lessons.

We chat a little first. It is important to put the child at ease as well as to get to know her personally. Who she is will play a big part in how she learns and how I teach her.

After she looks at the keyboard, as if it were a mysterious puzzle, I show her how the piano has a pattern of black and white keys. She quickly finds all the pairs of black keys that are close together, and then all the groups of three. While playing them up and down the keyboard, she is listening to the high and low sounds, and is beginning to feel more comfortable.

Next I tell her about the story of the song “Hot Cross Buns”, and sing it to her. She then sings it with me and hears that the melody goes down first. I play it, beginning on E, and then she plays it with her right hand. Then I suggest trying it with her left hand. Finding the right note to start and remembering that the melody goes down is a little tricky, as the fingers have changed. But, rather than just finding the notes for her, I ask her to play the right hand again and to watch and listen to the melody; this encourages her to think and to use her ear.

Now she tries it on the three black keys, still using right and then left hands. Next, she begins on other notes of her choice, listening for the correct sounds. And discovering that she must use some white and some black keys. By now, she is feeling proud of herself and the strange keyboard is becoming familiar.

We go on to another folk song, using all five fingers. Again, I sing it for her and we sing it together, and go on to play it as with the first song. As I play, I point out the melody as it moves up, down, or stays the same; then discuss steps and skips. This piece is called ”Autumn Leaves” and has one skip up. (123433 54321). Both hands play it in the key of C and then we go on to other keys again, always with carefully listening.

This young lady is ready and eager, so I talk to her about harmony and show her how to build a chord - starting on the root of the home key and adding a skip up and then another skip up, playing all together. She tries it a few times, getting used to the feeling of playing a full chord. Then she adds it with the new piece, using her left hand, and listening for the strong beats where the chord sounds best.

The interview ends with a little more chatting with the student. Nothing is written down and I have already asked the parent to discuss lessons with her child after leaving and then call and let me know whether they wish to continue. I need parents to be aware of how I teach, and this parent has been reading about the rote method of teaching from two articles that I gave her. I feel it is important for the student to want to take lessons and to feel comfortable with the teacher.

Advantages of Rote Teaching

The rote way of teaching opens up many creative paths for students and teachers; I learn something new every single year. My students really enjoy playing the piano, and that is one reason I like this way of teaching. Furthermore it offers learning that goes well beyond the notes on the page. The students become composers, and they develop an understanding and appreciation of compositions and how they are written. They are at ease in any key with any chord and harmony, and soon are able to improvise music that they hear. When reading, they read by intervals, learn by phrases, and listen! They are allowed – encouraged – to “fool around” at the piano…to make it their own…to feel comfortable. Try it – you’ll love it.

Page created: 10/11/06
Last updated: 01/30/15
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Reprinting from the Piano Education Page The Piano Education Page, Op. 10, No. 1,
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