By Katherine Fisher

During the summer, when life is quieter and the hustle of the school year is on pause, I try to catch up on my reading and take time to think more deeply about education and some of the issues we face as teachers. I recently came across an article by Dorthy Sayers entitled “The Lost Tools of Learning” and am inspired to share a quote here:

“Is not the great defect of our education today—a defect traceable through all the disquieting symptoms of trouble I have mentioned— that although we often succeed in teaching our pupils ‘subjects,’ we fail lamentably on the whole in teaching them how to think: they learn everything, except the art of learning.”

This point struck me and caused me to reflect on the methods piano teachers use to teach young beginners. How do we guide students to develop into independent learners and musicians?

The full answer to this question is surely far too complex for the scope of this blog post, but I do believe the beginning of the process for students is to develop the discipline to concentrate and  store information in a logical way. In the realm of piano pedagogy, I believe this translates to teachers encouraging students to learn and memorize a large amount of music. This should not be done in a “blind” sort of way in which there is no understanding of how the music is constructed. On the contrary, students should understand from the beginning that music is composed of patterns and a logical form. For musicians, this is an essential element of the art of learning.

During the earliest lessons, teachers may present rote pieces away from the score so the patterns become quickly apparent. Of course, it will be vitally important that students are able to find these patterns in notation as well, but this comes at a later stage of study when reading skill is further developed. View the reading piece below and consider for a moment how many things a student must know before understanding the basics of notation:


While a student is acquiring the ability to understand notation, the teacher may enhance the early lessons with patterned Rote Pieces such as the six variation work “I Love Coffee” (arranged by Bernard and Carolyn Shaak). This piece is much longer than the average early level piece and it is often quite a feat for a young child to play all the variations in the correct order without a pause. Although the child is not reading the notation at this point, just think of the benefits of learning this piece! Students are able to develop their concentration, memory, and technique, all while having a great deal of fun. This piece is available in Repertoire Book 1 and also as a sheet. The video below is of a group class ensemble, but as I indicated above, students learn the entire piece individually as well.

Another early Rote Piece I love to teach is “Martians Come to Town” by Julie Knerr. The focus of this piece is to find patterns and memorize the form. This is not done in a dry way, however! The students learn that a specific martian matches each line of the piece. The same martian returns when the line is repeated. The video below is of a 4-year-old beginner who has just had a few weeks of lessons.

It is easy to take this idea of pictures illustrating form into a student’s reading pieces as well. I often ask them to find the lines that are the same and we mark them in a specific way that corresponds with the theme of the piece. We find the lines that are different and mark them using another picture or symbol. In this way, I try to draw on the understanding they gained from their rote piece and connect it to notation in a meaningful way.

As the summer progresses, I would love to hear from you about reading you have done that has inspired you to think about your teaching in a new way! Please share your thoughts.