Last week, Amy Chaplin, of Piano Pantry, asked piano teachers in various Facebook groups what they thought the big trends in piano teaching in 2018 had turned out to be.
SPOILER : Piano teaching is a profession that is almost completely impervious to “trends”. Piano teachers, along with other instrumental teachers, do more that is the same as teachers did 150 years ago, than maybe any other single group of educators: lessons are still had at the instrument, in a one-on-one teaching/learning context, with students learning to play music written by European men in the 19th century, or learning to play music that is hot off the press. And scales are still totally a thing.
But it’s not completely true, either, to say that piano teaching is immune to change: Ballade pour Adeline isn’t the must-play solo it was in the 1980s; Clocks now seems like a retro repertoire choice; and not every piano student learns pieces in their first lesson with their thumbs playing repetitions of middle C.
So, what was going on in 2018? Did the world of piano teaching have a clear shift in some way or another? A sudden coalescing of professional opinion and practice in some area? Some flavour of the month repertoire or strategy or system?
2018 is the year a critical mass of the piano pedagogy community embraced rote teaching/learning as an essential strategy for healthy musical learning.
Rote? No, not mindless repetition without understanding! Rote, as in, learning by observing someone else playing, and then copying what they do (their actions, their sounds), and bringing in the score as a memory aid after that.
Whereas, only a few years ago, rote learning was often portrayed as out-and-out dumbing-down, these days this approach not only has passionate advocates, such as:
– the author of Music Moves for Piano, Marilyn White Lowe,
– the authors of the Piano Safari method, Julie Knerr and Katherine Fisher, and
– Little Gems composer, Paula Dreyer Ganiaris,
but has been embraced by:
– mainstream publisher, Alfred Music, with their publication of Dennis Alexander and Amy Greer’s rote pieces,
and endorsed by:
– piano teacher educators, The Curious Piano Teachers (Sally Cathcart and Sharon Mark-Teggart),
– Australian sight-reading specialist, Samantha Coates (Blitzbooks), who has come out with her own Rote Repertoire series, and will be conducting professional development, on rote teaching/learning, around Australia next month, with Taubman instructor, Brenda Hunting.
This is not to say that you won’t still find teachers all over the world who cock an eyebrow at the idea of teaching a student a piece without reference to the score right from the get-go; this isn’t a global flipping of the score-centric nature of the piano lesson! It’s just that it’s no longer considered out-and-out heresy (or “cheating”) to prioritise physical experience of the instrument and physical knowledge of the music in piano lessons.
What’s easy to play is very often hard to read, and what’s easy to read can so often be frustratingly hard to play. As a composer, I always choose to write for the hand and for the body as my first priority; fluid, joyous, natural connection with the instrument is the start of a life-long relationship with the instrument, and I want my music to contribute to the possibility of physically engaged musical relationship between human beings and their keyboard, its dampers, its hammers, its pedals, its strings.
My Little Peppers pieces, first published in Australia in 1999, and widely included in piano exam syllabuses around the world in the intervening years, were written with rote strategies implicit in their conception. It’s a delight to see, some 19 years later, a global shift in the value piano teachers as a cohort have come to see in teaching with the physical first and foremost in the process.