I’m blessed to have a facebook timeline full of music educators expanding across state lines in all directions. This big mixture of personalities and musical experiences is invaluable and has supplemented my education in many ways. I’ve been privy to many discussions on facebook about music education that would have likely not occurred if not for my timeline, a colleague’s timeline, or a group we all belong to. Recently there was a discussion about how rote teaching has ruined the quality of students coming out of a particular area of the country. I must admit that I had no idea directors were teaching band this way. I, like many of my colleagues, have been drilled in traditional music teaching methods and have lived by The Standards Based Classroom model the past 10 or so years, ignorant to the fact that there were people out there doing something different.
The thread was created by Dr. Hilliard L. Lackey, Associate Professor of Urban Higher Education at Jackson State University:
“According to former Jackson State University Sonic Boom band director ************, very few small town Mississippi Delta students can read music. At JSU, only students who read music can even try out for the band.
Four years ago I brought five band students from Lexington, Mississippi to JSU. None could read music. Therefore none could go out for the Boom. Three went to Hinds and the other two gave up on band membership. One joined a dance troupe. The other four have distanced themselves from band and musical performances. Why? They can’t read music.
If small town Delta students are not being taught to read music, we ought to protest and demand that they are taught! Scholarships are being lost. Livelihoods are being squandered. Satisfied lives are forfeited. Is it true or untrue that in South Delta, Simmons, West Tallahatchie, Palmer, Shaw, JFK, Broadstreet, LeFlore County, Humphrey County, Gentry, Ruleville, Rosedale, etc., students can’t read music?”
As you could imagine, this post ignited a firestorm of responses. There were 159 shares! Former students of the mentioned programs, music educators, administrators, and band fans from around the nation all chimed in. Some denied the accusation, while others confirmed it. Here are a few posts that summed up the way most responders felt:
“Good Article/Post. From my recruiting experience, there are very few programs that teaches students to read in that area. Lot of floor shows happening in that area, but the bands performing are not up to par fundamentally.”
“I’m not sure this is true. As a member of the Quitman County Marching Dragons “Pride of the Delta”, our band director ****** made sure everyone could read music. The percussionists could read music as well. She also ensured members of the auxiliary (flag, rifle, majorettes) were members of the concert band as well. I hope the caliber of teaching has not changed.”
“Yes, it’s true and sad. Band directors are rote teaching and concerned only with putting a show on the field. Regardless of who’s to blame, administration or the directors themselves, marching band is not a lifelong career and pop tunes in the stands is not quality literature. You are stifling our young musicians, not enabling them.”
“Maybe that’s how it is now but when I was at JFK in 98 my uncle was the director and he definitely made sure that we could read and play various styles of music from pop and jazz to concert pieces..”
“It’s a standard that needs to be implemented by the band director…The school admin needs to provide the classes to teach the skill… All too often, directors only have time for band after school. Therefore time is limited they have to cram music skills into kids….and reading and notation gets neglected… Or the director is just a lazy terd… Lol
Though not directly mentioned in the original post, discussion in the comments quickly identified the cause of the musical illiteracy as rote teaching. This peaked my interest greatly and I was left wanting to know more about rote teaching and alternative teaching methods in general. First, I wanted to know what exactly are the positive benefits of rote teaching. There has to be some benefit to this method of teaching or no one would be trying it, right? Then, I wanted to know if rote teaching is actually a valid teaching method recognized amongst reputable music educators. Finally, I wanted to know if rote teaching was truly ruining the lives of students.
During my quest for information on the benefits of rote teaching I came upon an interesting article by Dr. Julie Knerr and Ms. Katherine Fisher entitled, oddly enough; The Benefits Of Rote Teaching. In this article, the two authors suggest that traditional music teaching does not teach children how to play their instruments. Instead, the main goal is to teach them how to read music notation, while playing the instrument is secondary. They compare it to a book intended to teach an ancient language. The student will be taught how to read and write in that language but their lessons will not be useful for learning how to speak the language the way it was spoken in ancient times. For that, they will need to hear the language spoken and practice speaking it. Their article states that the major benefits to teaching by rote are; A) Motivation; Students are able to play aurally satisfying music from the beginning of study. B) Musical Understanding; Students who are taught by rote come to an early realization that music is composed of patterns and a logical structure.
C) Memory; Students are comfortable with playing pieces by memory because this is the way they learn their Rote Pieces. D) Concentration; Students can learn pieces that are much longer than they would have the stamina or ability to play if they were required to read the notation. E) Creativity; Students are creative while improvising and composing because they have been exposed to a variety of sounds and patterns presented in Rote Pieces. F) Technique; Students are free to focus on playing with proper technique when they are not simultaneously reading notation. G) Reading; Although it may seem counterintuitive, playing Rote Pieces actually aids in the development of reading notation.
I was shocked to find that traditionally trained musicians would become advocates for rote learning and then provide, arguably valid reasons why this teaching method should be considered. This article forced me to somewhat re-evaluate my preconceived views on rote teaching and learning. The authors focused their article, primarily, on piano playing which left room for me to warrantlessly dismiss sections of their findings as incomparable to my field of band. However, I found myself asking why is it ok to learn piano by rote but not trumpet? Are we missing something here?
It may surprise you that rote teaching is actually a valid teaching method recommended for music educators up through third grade. Most elementary music teachers teach majority rote lessons, before transitioning to note teaching in the later elementary school years just as the students are preparing for middle school band and chorus. Most state standards in music utilize a “sound” before “sight” approach with “sound” being rote learning and “sight” being note learning. Rote learning had a positive correlation with higher level ear-playing and improvisation skills as well, lending an argument for learning by rote beyond the elementary school years. Most studies I found on the matter suggest that a holistic approach of traditional and rote teaching may be the most ideal learning environment for successful music students.
The final question I wanted answered was, “Is rote teaching ruining the lives of students?” The facebook thread stated that students’ lives are being ruined because they can’t read music and rote teaching is the cause. In my research and personal experience, I believe that there are many reasons why a student gets to their senior year and they can’t properly conduct an audition for a scholarship, but I wouldn’t blame it all on rote teaching. Rote teaching when used properly (At the introduction of music into a student’s education and at the most advanced musical stage of a student’s education) can be a good thing. Rote teaching when used improperly, like described in the thread above, can be devastating. I believe the critical problem and main reason why students are not prepared for collegiate ensembles is that directors are simply not teaching the standards. The National Music Standards For Ensembles are adopted in some form by every state. They are broken down by level of learning so that directors can choose the correct standards for their group. The final standard, the last one covered before a child graduates out of a high school music program in this country, states:
Demonstrate an understanding and mastery of the technical demands and expressive qualities of the music through prepared and improvised performances of a varied repertoire representing diverse cultures, styles, genres, and historical periods in multiple types of ensembles.
If a child can not satisfy this standard and have not had those musical experiences then they are not prepared for the collegiate level ensembles. Period. Many students graduating are never exposed to their state standards in music education. Their band director did not develop adequate weekly lesson plans that were standards based and he/she was not held accountable by their Administrators and Academic Coaches. The standards do not suggest that a student should be taught music entirely through rote teaching methods. It’s obvious those band directors are not being formally and/or informally evaluated by their building administrators or these problems would be addressed long before a student’s senior year. Parents, who could care less about what their child is being taught in the band class as long as they are “jammin” on friday night, are also to blame. How does a child matriculate through a music education program from 6th to 12th grade and the parent never actually witnessed the child reading music independently? On school-wide parent/teacher conference days those parents skip the band room, but expect a band scholarship at the conclusion of the child’s senior year. Those parents, band directors, and administrators are all contributing factors to the systematic failure of those students.
In conclusion, there has to be some teaching going on in the band room. No need to re-invent the wheel. All teachers are following the same roadmap to success; teach the standards, prepare for each class, teach from bell to bell, don’t have excessive absences, and be on time. If directors follow these professional non-negotiables, and are held accountable by involved parents and supportive administrators, they will be successful and their students will benefit.