There is a tendency among music educators to push concepts aside as concerts approach. This happens because of a perceived dichotomy between teaching concepts and preparing repertoire for performance. The later emphasizes building skills, while the former emphasizes building understanding and transferable knowledge. This dichotomy appears when skills and concepts are taught separately; that is, when skills are rote taught and concepts are taught for understanding. Most music teachers I know sense that giving up teaching for understanding is a compromise of good teaching practice, but they see no other way to be prepared for the concert in time. So the it comes down to this question: is it possible to teach skills without resorting exclusively to rote instruction? Secondly, is it possible to teach skills, even by rote, without abandoning teaching concepts and without lengthening the time it takes to prepare repertoire for performance?
Rote learning is having the learner duplicate what the teacher does until the learner can produce an accurate duplication of the model. As I have written elsewhere, rote learning is a valuable and necessary step in learning, and should never be entirely abandoned. But it has its place, and should not be over utilized. Let us look at some examples of how rote learning can be combined with conceptual learning in a way that actually saves, rather than extends, rehearsal time. We will use performing legato for our example.
Playing or singing legato is a skill, while legato is a concept. The concept is a noun, while the skill is the verb that represents the action performed on the noun. In other words, the concept legato becomes tangible when music is performed with the necessary skill to demonstrate or evidence the concept. Let us then suppose that we want to teach the folk song “Rocky Mountain” to a 2nd grade class. The second half of the song is sung legato. We begin with vocal warm-ups that have the children sing both staccato and legato patterns. Once the voices are warmed up, we introduce “Rocky Mountain.” We initially teach the song by rote, singing the first half staccato and the second half legato. The children imitate us in order to learn the song. We continue to sing the song to the children, and then have the children sing it to us, together, in small groups, and individually, until they have learned to sing the first half the song staccato and the second half of the song legato. So far, the teacher has taught by rote, but has taught the concepts of pitch, rhythm, staccato, and legato, without mentioning them. The students have experienced the concepts without formally acknowledging them.
It is at this point that teaching should favor concepts, whereas it often favors skills. Looking at our National Core Arts Standards, we find that 2nd graders will “demonstrate understanding of expressive qualities (such as dynamics and tempo) and how creators use them to convey expressive intent.” To dynamics and tempo, we can certainly add articulation. Whereas a rote based approach would have the teacher deciding and telling the children how to sing, (sing louder, sing softer, sing smoother, sing bumpy, etc.), a concept based approach will guide the children into making those decisions with questions such as “how does singing the second half smoother change the way the music causes you to feel?” Collect responses, and save them for transferral to other situations. If the children find that legato performance relaxes them and staccato performance excites them, then when they are preparing another song in which the composer is intending to convey a relaxed or an excited response, the children will know what to do–they will be able to demonstrate understanding by transferring previous learning to a new situation.
We could also ask, “why is staccato better for singing about a rocky mountain than legato?” “How is staccato like a rocky mountain?” Questions like these teach children why they are performing a given song in a particular way. Telling them how to perform teaches children what to do, but that knowledge is song specific; it cannot be transferred to other songs. Even learning to read articulation marks does not completely transfer to other works. Composers have different expressive intents in different works, so that all staccatos or legatos are not equal from one to the other. One of the surest ways to recognize an ensemble that has been over taught by rote is when their staccato sounds identical regardless of the music being performed. Because of this, students who have only been taught by rote must be told anew how to perform each song, which takes more time than having them prepared by means of conceptual learning to know how to perform unfamiliar repertoire using transferred knowledge and understanding. Students need to learn what the composer’s intent was in writing a musical work, how that composer has used musical elements to convey that intent, and how they, the performers, are to interpret the use of those musical elements to realize the composer’s intent. These things cannot be taught by rote, but they do develop musicianship which leads to more self-sufficient student musicians and more efficient rehearsals.
Children also need to be taught to be constantly listening to themselves as they rehearse, to evaluate what they have just done, and to do something to improve their performance. Again according to our standards, students are to “apply established criteria to judge the accuracy, expressiveness, and effectiveness of performances.” Rote learning will improve accuracy, but not expressiveness and only to a limited extent effectiveness. Students can ask themselves, and answer for themselves, “did I start on the right pitch?” Many times, how a child starts makes or breaks how they play everything that follows. A bad start causes them to stumble along, never quite catching up, or getting lost. “Did I keep a steady pulse, or did I get off by rushing or dragging the tempo?” Playing or singing faster or slower than others can also confuse a child until they have lost their place because what they are playing or singing doesn’t fit what others are performing. “Am I producing a characteristic sound?” Am I playing my instrument or singing the way I was taught, or in a way that causes me to sound good?” Students who can self-monitor what they are doing and can correct on the fly will save a tremendous amount of rehearsal time, and will be more actively involved in the rehearsal compared to students who play or sing in a more careless way and then wait for the teacher to tell them what they need to do differently. This is also addressed in the standards. MU:Pr5.1.2b is, “Rehearse, identify and apply strategies to address interpretive, performance, and technical challenges of music.” This is something directors are used to doing for their students, but it is really something we ought to be teaching and in fact empowering our students to do for themselves.
Teaching conceptually adds rigor, relevance, interest, and above all true understanding to students’ learning. If you find yourself teaching the same things over and over with each new musical work you do with your students, you are probably relying too much on rote teaching, and would find better results starting to teach more conceptually. Start using more conceptual teaching now, and it will pay dividends as concert time approaches, and at assessment time as well.