An Introduction to Rote Teaching of Piano


by Joan S. Burrows
Acton, MA USA


 have been using rote teaching for over 40 years. I was not taught that way, but I have found that it is an exciting way to teach. Parents have said that they would not have stopped piano as a child, if they had begun this way. Rote teaching involves initially presenting music without notation; listening to what is being played without the distraction of notation. Singing, thinking in tones, is of primary importance for musicianship. It was advocated, in particular, by Dr. Raymond Burrows, the late professor of music at Columbia University. He wrote books entitled, The Young Explorer at the Piano and Young American at the Piano, among others, which put forth many of the important principles of rote teaching. Several of the Burrows books are available from online sellers. Interestingly, some of Dr. Burrows' method books are also available in Braille for the visually impaired from the Library of Congress. When our oldest child was 5, his wife showed me his books. I have been hooked ever since. In this article, I'll try to introduce you to some of the precepts and practices of rote teaching, using lots of real examples from my teaching.


Ed. Note: This article has appeared on the site in the past and has been reincorporated in the interest of teachers of piano.


About Rote Teaching

Rote to Note - “A song approach, which combines a natural, joyous, musical experience for the child with a systematic program for the development of reading.”

Dr. Raymond Burrows and Ella Ahearn

With rote teaching, the student becomes familiar with the keyboard before reading from the staff and that brings many benefits. Hearing, thinking, seeing intervals and harmony on the keyboard and noting phrasing gives the student an easier and better start. Trying to have a child learn the keyboard and read from the music is harder and slower; the listening component can be put aside or lost. Concentrating on the keyboard opens up more opportunities for improvising and composing, and, ultimately, easier sight reading with a better understanding of music.

Teaching and Leaning Piano by Rote

Rote learning is presented as a musical experience - the teacher sings a simple song first and then the student sings it, following the melody as it moves up and down. Then the teacher shows the student how to follow the melody with his fingers on the piano in the same direction as the melody. As he tries it on different notes, he uses his ear to hear where black notes are needed. This approach encourages ear-training.

Note that we have not mentioned music or method materials yet. No music is used in the beginning! The student plays by fingering after singing the simple song - 5 notes at first. You help him hear and see the
melody stepping up or skipping down, etc. as "Rain and Sun" in 12, 123, 12345 3 1. Students may begin on C and then go on to other keys G, F, D, A, etc. For example, in Beethoven's "Ode to Joy", or Bach's "Musette", the first themes are good for beginning some classics. Once several pieces are learned in several keys and chords are added, one of the pieces is shown written on the staff (in a book). Now the student can see the up and down, steps and skips they already have played on the piano, and begin reading from there. The also continue with rote, finding songs by ear, composing, and improvising. This way the student has started off with songs he/she can sing and enjoy.

This allows, indeed, encourages students to play melodies right away, instead of CDE for weeks. Songs are learned after notes on the keyboard are secure. First lesson may be C D and E, and Hot Cross Buns is sung and played by the fingers 321 and then with the left hand, noting that the fingers are 345. Then the student plays it beginning on D and listens to see if any 'black' notes are needed to make it sound right. Songs are learned by fingers so they can be easily transposed. Chords are played to add harmony and chords and inversions are learned as the I and V7 and IV chords are played. Five finger songs are best at first - including many folk songs and even "Jingle Bells"! Five year olds and up also can play some favorites using their ear and with notes written in their lesson book - "Star Wars" first theme is a favorite, "Do Re Mi" another and now, the "Harry Potter theme".

Learning to Read Music

According to the child's age and readiness, they move into reading fairly soon. The first pieces they read are ones they are already familiar with on the piano, and the reading may start with skips and steps (intervals) while learning the names of the notes on the staff. As I encourage composing, some students have already been exposed to notes on the staff and time signatures as we write out their songs. The 5 year olds are still playing rote, learning to listen for key changes and to play with chords. The 7 and 8 year olds are 'reading' now, mostly treble clef with familiar chords in the bass. I continue encouraging the finding of familiar songs by ear and putting in varying chordal harmonies. These may be songs that are at a higher level, but they often choose them, are eager to play them.

My second year and up students are playing from music and reading well. I find learning intervals helps the reading and the theory learned along the way helps the rhythm and harmony. Key signatures do not 'throw' them. They can find and name any chord from any inversion (even 9th, 11th, and 13th!). They hear major and minor with ease (many Halloween songs have the minor sounds). The value of what they have learned on the keyboard, using their ears, and eyes and hands, far outweighs any delay in learning the notes on the printed page. Their sight reading goes more smoothly. They continue to play some rote.

Fooling Around

Just "fooling around" at the piano is great. I try having students play the piece beginning on a different note and listen for any 'black' notes (sharps and flats, if they are there yet). One 7 year old student last week played one of his pieces in every key - yes even f# - he just kept going up the scale and then began on the 'black keys'. Also this week, an 8 year old played his jazz piece (CEGABbBbAGE) in F and G and then on to D and A with chords. It does take up lesson time, but all worth it, I believe.

It is often valuable to ask your children to make up stories to "accompany" the music. They could begin with familiar ones like The Three Bears. Papa can be the low notes, etc. and each can have his own melody ( 3 -5 or so notes). Then, you can tell the story and follow each bear with his theme. I used to teach a group of 4 and 5 year olds and we did this a lot, as it gave several people a turn at the piano at once. Storms is another one to use all the keyboard...thunder, lightening, rain. A glissando is fun to show for some of these. Minor sounds and much more can be learned - without a formal practice session. Poems offer another opportunity for composing music. Seasons and favorite activities are good motivators too.

For the Young ... and Young at Heart!

Rote teaching does not have to be just for the young or for the beginner, either. Finding pieces by ear, composing, and teaching to listen for major and minor and I and V7 chords and intervals can be done at all ages and levels.  I began teaching a mother in November. She wants to play some songs for her first grade class, but has been having a very hard time reading the notes, finding them on the keyboard and playing the correct rhythm, although the pieces were 'easy'. Two weeks ago, I suggested we try some pieces the her boys played last year, written out by finger-number. She is flying through pieces now and her confidence is up. When she is ready, we will move on. She asked for "White Christmas" for the holidays. Maybe we will start with "Jingle Bells".

Piano Lessons Can Be Fun!

Music should be a fun part of a child's and adult's life. If a student wishes to continue lessons the next year, I consider my job well done. It does not matter if one has completed one book and is on page 20 in another book, or has ledger lines learned!  I could go on, as I am enthusiastic and have seen the musical results for over 40 years. Rote teaching can help both the teacher and the student bring an appreciation for music into their lives.

Page created: 2/1/07
Last updated: 01/30/15
Site Policies Credits About Feedback Reprinting

Reprinting from the Piano Education Page The Piano Education Page, Op. 10, No. 1,
Copyright 1995-2016 John M. Zeigler. All rights reserved.