Rote is how I learned to play piano – I had a “knuckle-rapper” teacher to start with.
“It goes like this, dear” she would say, playing the first phrase. If I copied it right, all was well and good. If not, she’d do it again. I’d normally manage to learn it after a few goes, depending on how complex it was – but how on earth could you practice it during the week? So, back to square one, next lesson… and the one after, and the one after, which is where the knuckle rapping would probably start.
I could just about read treble clef, but bass clef was a mystery for several years, until I started learning the cello. And changed piano teacher. The ne piano teacher was NOT a knuckle rapper, but none-the-less fairly scary.
So, I have been a rigid advocate of learning to read music. On the whole, unless there is a definite reason (dyslexia, learning difficulties), reading music isn’t that heard – no worse than learning spellings or times tables. It’s just not very interesting – like spellings and times tables.
However, in the case of the piano Prep Test, I have radically changed my approach. I now tend to teach the five-finger exercises as “telephone numbers”, written into their practice notebooks. From the new test, “Dreaming”
5 4 3 2 1234545 right hand, and then left hand.
without bothering on start notes. “Just play it wherever you like” I say. I make sure the rhythm is correct, and I make sure they DON’T see the printed copy yet. Once the fingers and rhythm are secure, I then show them where on the piano to place their hands;
“Right Hand starts on A, the first letter of the alphabet. Left starts on D, DOWN there”. I write those instructions into their practice notebooks. Later on, when that is secure, I show them the printed copy. “That’s what you have been playing” I say, in admiration, and they glow with pride. I show them how the notes move step by step, finger to finger, and we look at the dynamics. Next week, they can play from the copy, following the notes and the dynamics, and also “by heart” because they’ve been doing that for weeks now. “Reading” the music holds no worries – they are “reading” what they already know.
I’ve used this approach with a tense and timid Grade 1 pupil as well – teaching her the first part of “La Donna e Mobile” with a mixture of finger numbers and rote instructions;
3 3 3 5 42; 2 2 2 4 31; 3 2 1 “hoppity-skip-jump-32”; 4 3 1 “hoppity-skip-jump-32”;
If I had shown her the printed music, she would have stopped practising in fright. Now she’s playing confidently, and I can relate the next part of the piece to what she already knows. I call that a success, and can build upon these very first steps in gaining confidence.