At the start of my teaching career I taught a number of child beginners who I soon discovered were capable of playing more difficult and interesting pieces than they were able to read from conventional staff notation. In addition to giving them a thorough grounding in theory and note reading, I developed a system of teaching them certain pieces where the score assumed secondary significance. Not only did this keep them motivated, it helped them build coordination and listening skills that accelerated their technical and musical development so that they could make very quick progress without missing out any important steps.
If you think about the stages involved in learning other skills, such as language, the reading part comes quite a long way down the road. The child learns to speak by hearing and imitating, the reading following later (the study of grammar later still). How many youngsters keen to explore the exciting journey of learning to play the piano have had their enthusiasm dampened or completely killed off by boring pieces using a few notes in the middle of the keyboard, and an over-insistence on theory? Using this approach exclusively they would need to wait quite a while before they could play pieces that capture their imagination, and they don’t need to.
Patterned pieces, such as Kabalevksy’s 24 Little Pieces, op 39, are ideal for the sort of learning I am describing. But I am going to jump ahead a little, and show how we might present Bach’s Musette in D, BWV Anh. 126 from the Anna Magdalene Notebook to an elementary level student who already has a bit of background and experience with piano lessons.
I don’t like the term “rote learning” because it doesn’t really describe what I am talking about here. Traditionally, rote learning means the student copies the teacher. This usually mean lots of mechanical repetition without involving the mind or the ear, or attending to good technique. The process I am suggesting in the following video is a way of absorbing the music without being glued to the score that absolutely relies on listening and thinking. In fact, it sharpens listening skills and encourages the student to discover the patterns in the music as they see them. It can be tailored to the individual.
Transposition by ear is one of the best tools to sharpen aural awareness and memory skills, as well as to develop keyboard geography. Once a piece is known and memorised, trying sections of it out in different keys is an excellent practice and lesson activity. I strongly believe that this skill should be encouraged from the earliest stages of piano lessons.
For more on transposition, see my post Feeling Comfortable in All Keys