Learning through Rote – Does it work in music, or is it wasting time?

I was recently asked to write a letter of recommendation for a professor I had during my masters degree at Ithaca College. I can’t tell you just how honored I was! It’s these sort of things that make me feel like, to some degree, I’m making a positive change! I was also pretty excited to write the letter because that professor has (and continues to be) been a major influence on my life and career. He inspired me to reach for the stars!

Of course I’ve composed numerous recommendation letters before, but for some reason this one really caused some serious writers block. No doubt a result of the pressure I was putting on myself to make sure it was a great letter, showing the teachers quality of character, educational examples and direct influence on me, as well as showing the teachers unequivocal loyalty and dedication to his art, students, and education.

Needless to say, it took me quite a few days, many cups of coffee, tons of turmoil (mostly because I kept yelling at myself for not making any sense), and maybe a few tears (maybe).

Nonetheless, during that adventure, I spent a lot of time researching various philosophical methods related to teaching. One that I came across that made me stop and think, and ask a lot of questions, was the idea of “rote teaching.”

As I’m sure many of you know, rote teaching is the act of repetition as a means to memorization. Though that sounds just fine, it actually bypasses essential criteria around the learning and educational process; repetition doesn’t teach you the over-all purpose of something, or the cause and effect theory. In actuality it’s just a glorified word for cramming. There’s a huge movement (I’m PROBABLY blowing that slightly out of proportion, as far as a huge movement) in the U.S. to push “rote” teaching out of the classroom, particularly in mathematics.

I agree, rote learning is just ridiculous if it can’t be used as a way to support over-all concepts and more broad ideas.

While I was trying to fall asleep last night, and failing, this concept of rote learning kept popping into my head and its relation to the clarinet. But you could apply it to music in general.

I’ve got quite a few ideas that I’m working over now and trying to decide whether or not rote teaching in music is either positive or negative. Of course, I want to lean toward the negative, but I’m hesitant because that’s how I learned the material for years. Maybe because I don’t want to accept that I could have potentially learned material twice as fast as I did….

But whose fault is that? Mine? But I was a young kid, I only do what you tell me to do! (to some degree)

Now, given today my practicing is quite a bit different from what it was – I’m more conscientious, thorough, and take more of an analytical approach to what I’m doing.

But, what about our teachers or their teachers? Could we change the mindless repetition that we teach our students to practice, maybe on how we teach scales? I don’t know how many times I’ve gotten a new student, in private lessons, that can play all their scales but has no clue how to: a. construct them, b. know their origin and relationship to other scales, c. know their key signatures, or d. know any systematic approach to figure out the scales on their own without the aid of a teacher or scales sheet.

Hmm. Does anyone know some good theoretical methods? Something out of the traditional pedagogy books, as I’ve most likely read and marked them up to death. This has really sparked a lot of interest for me. I need to do some research.


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