rote learning

How to Teach a Song or Anthem by Rote

How to Teach a Song or Anthem by Rote

Working with young singers can be such a fun and rewarding experience, but it can be challenging to teach a new song or anthem to children who aren't yet reading (words, let alone music!). What do you do? How do you teach something new, quickly and effectively?

For children who are not quite reading, teaching by rote is the way to go.

What is Rote Learning?

Rote learning is based on imitation and repetition (source). This is how young children learn best! Hearing, seeing, and experiencing things over and over again.

If you've spent some time around young children, you know one of their favorite words is "again" - "do it again," "read it again," "sing it again," etc. This is how we learn.

When teaching music (an aural art form), it's important to help children develop their listening skills and auditory memory from the beginning. Teaching by rote is a great way to do this.

Call Me Maybe

Confession: I dance to this song when it comes on the radio. Carly Rae Jepsen's "Call Me Maybe" is catchy, easy to learn, and upbeat.  What I learned about the hit single this week is that kids love it.

Hey, I just met you and this is crazy, But here's my number, So call me maybe.

I took on a new student for my summer term this year (despite that fact that I'm moving) mostly because the parent's wanted their 9-year-old daughter to have a few trial lessons to see if she would be interested in pursuing the piano sometime in the future.  In planning a course of action, we decided a combined approach of learning a few familiar pieces by rote and reinforcing her rhythm and tonal reading skills would be best.  In four short lessons, we were able to work through a few chapters of The Music Tree: Part I and learn a few pieces solely by ear.

Yesterday was her last lesson.  She came in smiling and her mom said she had been picking out several new songs by ear this week and was loving really learning how to play the piano.  I used this as a jumping off point for our lesson.  "What songs have you been teaching yourself this week?" I asked.  She named a few songs I didn't recognize and then, nonchalantly, "Call Me Maybe."  "You know 'Call Me Maybe'?  Let's hear it," I said.

She hesitated at first with where to begin but with a little help, by repeating after me line-by-line, she could play the entire chorus within minutes.  A big grin flashed across her face as she began to connect what she was playing to what she knew in her head.

This is meeting a student at his/her level.  This is connecting musical study with their everyday music.  This is their familiar music.

I think sometimes I get so caught up in "teaching from the book" that I forget to draw connections to music of the everyday.  Ask your students what kind of music they listen to and you'll hear everything from "Lady Gaga" and "Justin Bieber" to "Aerosmith" and "Chicago" to "country."  Everyone comes from a different background and it is so important to teach the relevancy of music.  Music is all around us in all styles and forms.  Draw connections.  Give relevant examples.  Don't just teach songs from a book.  Teach music.


One of the most exciting things about being a teacher is improvising. I’m sure I already have some disagreement out there.  Now, I admit I am the “planning-type.”  I arrive 15 minutes before my first lesson so that I have enough time to plan activities for particular students and to make sure my materials are in order.  This week was no different.  I arrived at 3:00 p.m. for a 3:15 p.m. lesson.  I had a rhythm activity planned for a later lesson making use of that stress ball I got last semester.  3:15 p.m. came and went with no sign of my student.

About 15 minutes later, a frazzled mother and a bright-eyed, grinning five-year-old girl appeared.  “I’m so sorry we’re late – and I forgot her book bag – you have copies of her books, right?” Normally, yes.  This particular day, no.  I took the first few volumes home the night before for some lesson preparation.  “How about we just play some games today?  How does that sound?”  “Yeah!” Alison responded eagerly as she jumped up on the bench.

We began with a familiar song.  Alison’s choice was “Alouette” from earlier in her lesson book.  To make this into a “game,” I challenged her to transposition.  She of course doesn’t know the formal term yet but she has responded well to this concept in the past and proceeded to play the piece in G major, F major and Gb major.  Next, I pulled out the stress ball.  “Now let’s play the song with this ball.”

Poor choice of words as I soon discovered.  Alison followed my directions literally and played – finger by finger – the melody of “Alouette” on the ball.  Playing along (“I meant to do that…”), I commended her effort. (Note: It’s quite challenging to play a legato melody on the surface of a ball!  Try it!)  I suggested next we use the ball for the rhythm of the piece (while singing the melody).  I set a steady beat and we began passing the ball back and forth in time.  After about two measures of nice rhythm: pass-pass-pass-pass, the pattern began to morph into pass-toss-pass-toss, each toss leading me to chase the ball as it escaped across the floor.  Next game.

“Can you sing “Alouette” and bounce this ball on your shoulder?”  I challenged.  “Yes,” came the confident reply.  And she did.  “Can you sing, bounce the ball on your head and march in place?”  “Yes.”  And she did.  Though multi-tasking, Alison was able to sing the song tunefully and keep a steady beat marching.  And though my intention with the ball was to keep a steady beat, Alison often bounced the ball in the rhythm of the song while marching to steady quarter notes (even more impressive!)

We repeated this series of rhythm and movement activities with another familiar piece, “Mary Had a Little Lamb.”  Not a former lesson book song, Alison wanted to play this piece before anything else.  After demonstrating a few times through, she played it successfully on her own (while singing).  The last activity of the lesson was with crayons – excuse me, markers and highlighters (Alison’s selection from the box of coloring utensils).  I drew a 2×2 grid on a blank sheet of paper and we sang through “Mary Had a Little Lamb” again.  As we sang, I pointed to each empty block:

1 – “Mary had a little lamb” 2 – “Little lamb, little lamb” 3 – “Mary had a little lamb (it’s)” 4 – “Fleece was white as snow”

The project was to write something in each block that represented that part of the song.  I expected a picture of a sheep or possibly some quarter notes.  Alison drew “E-D-C” in the first block and “D-D-D, E-E-E” in the second block (after some negotiations with the piano).  Next week when we finish filling in the blocks I’ll ask if any parts are repeated (i.e. the music/words in blocks 1 and 3) – a beginning lesson on form!

Drastic times call for drastic measures.  Lessons learned today: be resourceful, think like a five-year-old, and keep up the change of pace!