The Lost Art of Teaching By Rote


The music came first, then the theory. Long before the rules of notation, composition and harmony were thought of, people were singing and making music. They were teaching others to chant and sing or play and pick out these melodies on primitive instruments. They passed the hymns and rhythms to generations with very little loss or change in the integrity of the songs that were created so long before . The eyes were used to replicate finger and hand positions or shape of the mouth and lips just as a child does when learning to speak.

The mind, a goal seeking organism, began organizing a system to notate for documentation. Later, explanations were made how to recreate the music or create new music. Symbols and dots were penned on parchment much like the holes in a piano roll of a player piano. Explanations were needed to decode the dots and dashes. The eyes became a predominant factor in the process of interpreting the written music.

How many students are discouraged before their interest is stimulated because of teaching systems that are dry and technical? They seem to lack spirit which is inherant in the music itself. The very reason it is called "playing" music is because of enjoyment involved in doing it. One such teaching system might be employed like this. (1.) Auditions to determine level of a student (2.) demonstration of how music should sound at the beginning of a lesson is followed by verbal instructions (3) paper handouts with lists of terms to memorize (4.) a performing period with verbal corrections and (5.) a homework assignment.

Whether lessons are in a classroom or private, where's the fun when the only involvement of the teacher is almost exclusively verbal or with a piece of chalk on the blackboard and a workbook? When I was 12 year old, I started playing trumpet in the school band. My first experiences were difficult because I could not read music. I soon found out that I could quickly play the songs that I had heard on the radio, at a party, at church , a movie or a recording. It wasn't long before I had heard the marches that were played at school and was able to imitate those also. While some of the fingerings were questionable and the sound quality somewhat blatty, the pitch and sense of time developed quickly along with a new found enthuiasm for the instrument and music. As the teacher introduced new pieces to the band, such as Victor Herbert Favorites, which were medleys of songs with many rests and counting to be done, I began using my eyes more. In fact, my eyes were glued to the page to the point where I missed the teachers cutoffs, downbeats and tempo sets.

When I was secure enough to play the melody , I found that I could now think about the notes on the page. I could (1.)watch them as I played them, (2.) name them as I played them and finally (3.) count them as I played them. Soon, my father dusted off his old cornet that was tucked away in storage and we began playing duets from a crumbling, yellowed old edition of The Arban Method book for Cornet. His way of teaching was mostly by rote. He would play, I would play, (timidly at first) and repitiously we would work our way through a piece. Then, play it together in a bold and bravado mood. It seemed reinforce my progress. Little by little, I was absorbing the sound, articulation, vibrato,and general characteristics of my fathers playing in a short period of time. It was great fun!

It wasn't long before I discovered jazz. I started listening to recordings of jazz masters such as Louis Armstrong, Harry James, Coleman Hawkins, Stan Getz, Chet Baker, Dizzy Gillespie,Charlie Parker and so on. It didn't take long before I was deeply moved by the beauty of an improvised solo. It happened to be Chet Baker's solo on "Funny Valentine" that was recorded with Gerry Mulligan. I satbeside a RCA 45 RPM record player with very low fidelity and learned and played with Chet until I wore out the record. I proceeded to learn more solos from saxophone, piano or whatever appealed to my taste. No one told me to do this. It was a natural source of music and a natural way to learn it. The fun and excitement was unbelievably great. I was teaching myself by learning by rote.

The most natural way to communicate the music to a pupil is to sing / play a phrase or section of the song and have it imitated immediately. It is more like a game than an excercise. The corrections are made by listening and responding immediately by repeating the phrase . The interaction involves both teacher and student in an internalized point of focus. First , the teacher sings/plays the phrase then, the student listens to the phrase and trys to manifest it in sound. When the two match, a natural cycle is fulfilled and satisfaction is felt. A rhythm should develope. A sense of pacing will allow the student to develope ear to finger/vocal response and the physical coodination neccessary, within personal limits. This method allows the pupil to concentrate on the doing the music without wasting time on negative thoughts.

The mind is a goal seeking organism and the corrections will be made subconsciously. During the course of the exchange, all the nuances of inflection, articulation, and pitch are copied to an amazing high percentage in a short period of time. If a section of music is either too long or difficult, it can be divided into shorter note groupings or fragments. Further sub divisions can be reduced to intervals. This is a logical point to name these intervals to give the student a frame of reference. For example; the first two notes of Days of Wine and Roses ,in the key of F, are C up to A . Name the interval a major 6th. When the student hears the same interval in a different context,the pupil simply refers to the first two notes of Days of Wine and Roses to confirm the interval.

The student also gets a feeling that the teacher giving more of themself to the student ; a feeling of working together. It also gives the student a greater feeling of success which leads to confidence. During the corrections process the student learns that a mistake may be overcome without much self chastizing. Especially, if the teacher can find the natural pace at which the student becomes acutely focused.The point is to get the student to play and sing because that's what the student wants to do. Once the student is playing some tunes, he will have the confidence or ambition to want to know what is being done. This is the time to incorporate the eye skills.

An extension of Teaching BY Rote is Learning by Rote, that is: playing along with records. Guiding a student to material that can be comfortably copied is a big plus for the pupil. The student will seek out favorites that can be played with the recording. This transcription by playing will give the student an extroadinary boost in ear training. The benefits out weigh the negatives by overwhelming odds. The enjoyment and satisfaction along with increase of attention span and motivation are invaluable to a student of music at any level.

  Al Molina

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