Organizing Rote Repertoire for Piano

Many years ago I taught a young boy who loved music, but struggled learning to read it at even a basic level and often didn’t practice much during the week. I came across the piece Poet’s Lament by Jon George (in Kaleidoscope Solos, Book 3) and played it for him at one of his lessons. He was mesmerized. I taught him the first part by rote and we continued week after week with him eagerly anticipating learning each section. He was more motivated than I’d ever seen him, and he practiced and practiced until he could play the whole thing hands together with all the right notes and the pedal.

I think he learned more determination and focus and coordination from that one piece than from a year’s worth of playing from a book! This is one of the reasons I’m a firm believer in teaching piano music by rote as a part of many students’ music education. I am especially indebted to Katherine Fisher and Julie Knerr for developing the Piano Safari method so that I have a more systematic way of incorporating rote teaching right off the bat with beginning piano students!

Over the years, however, I’ve also come to appreciate how incredibly helpful rote teaching is when working with transfer piano students. When a student has already had some piano lessons before coming to me, I always conduct an interview and assessment to ascertain where they are at with various skills. It’s not uncommon for them to lack basic reading skills and/or have music assigned to them that is beyond their reading or technical ability. They are eager to play interesting music, but also clearly need to fill in some gaps in fundamental skills. Enter: rote teaching.

While I am forthright in communicating their gaps and the work we will need to do from the beginning to build up weak areas, I also am “armed and ready” with an array of wonderfully musical and engaging piano music that I know they will enjoy playing! In the past I’ve just tried to keep various pieces in mind for this purpose, but now I’m finally getting organized and putting together a “Favorite Rote Repertoire” notebook that I can flip through as a handy reference guide for selecting just the right piece for each student.

The notebook is arranged alphabetically with pieces I’ve gathered from a variety of sources. If it’s from a book of printed music (rather than a digital download), I just note the title and composer of the book from which it came so that I can pull the book from my files if necessary.

I’m simultaneously updating the Repertoire section in Evernote, adding tags to delineate the level, composer, musical era, key, etc. and including any helpful comments that would bring it up in a search. Maybe someday (probably by the time I’m done teaching!) I’ll be perfectly organized and quickly able to search and find all my favorite repertoire!

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