Post by the Husband
It is now 4 years since he first laid his little toddler fingers on those Yamaha keyboards, with the first songs being about monkeys, elephants or rabbits.
I can’t even remember the details.
But I do remember the proud look on his face when he got his first certificate in Yamaha Piano. Then we’d learn the same songs every single week. Yes, every single 1 hour lesson per week – it’d be the same 15 or so songs, songs to clap, or sing, or play to – but they are all the same songs.
Once we moved him over to private lessons, and started working towards piano exams, I started doubting our decision about starting him so early. In those early years he’d sit for 1 or so minute, and soon enough, he’d start to jiggle and wiggle his little feet and arms while I was desperately trying to point to the Middle C on the page, crying out “Look! Look! It’s the middle C!”, seemingly to no avail. His eyes would dart back and forth, and before I knew it, he’d sneak his body down the ground before I could say, ” this is the Bass Clef”.
He seemed such a far cry from my older daughter who’d dutifully march herself to the piano everyday of the week and systematically practise her scales: C, D, Em, Am, G, and then over to List A, B and C. She would correct her mistakes on her own by repeating the same lines over and over until she got it right, then pack her bag, go to her next task, and finish her chores.
This dear boy of ours however, required constant encouragement, repetitive correction, and more recently, those yummy jelly snakes! We made an entire reward system that involved him earning points he could accumulate towards a video game of his liking, but it was hard to get the boy to love practicing the same thing over and over again.
Now, 2 days before his second exam, he is finally focused. Phew!
Usually he’d brush over his mistakes with a big grin. He’d rush over the scales, stumble here, stumble there, gets bored of the same old, same old, and then say “that’s okay” with a smile whenever I tried to correct him.
Now he plays with a determined look on his face. He knows it’s time to put the pedal to the medal, the rubber to the road.
It reminded me of the time I saw his tiny little body hanging up on the wall of a rock climbing centre using every ounce of energy he had to reach the peak of that station.
His muscles flexing to the point of him shuddering, and when I called out, “Are you okay? Do you want me to take you down?“, and he’d say, “no“. He finally did make it, although I have to admit, I did yank that cord a little bit to get him over the edge.
Now back to piano exams, there is no cord to yank. There is only hard work and determination. And a lot of repetition.
If you’re a parent of a child doing piano exams, you’d know the agony I’m talking about. Hearing the same song played over and over and over again.
Often with the same mistakes again and again and again – for a whole year, or whenever it is that they pass the exam and move onto the next level, where you’d begin to repetitively listen another round of 4-5 songs for just another year or two!
Rote learning seems out of favour in our education system now. We are taught to think critically, to learn how to learn, and to be flexible in our thinking and to research content instead of memorising them. But I believe rote learning still has its place.
Rote learning is repeating something until you’ve mastered it. And, for almost every skill there is to master, rote learning is required.
As I watch my boy “rote learn”, I can see that his character is being formed. He’s learning at this young age, that to be good at something you have to do it again, and again, and again. To be excellent at something you do all that… AGAIN! And to be a master at something you do it repetitively until you can literally do it with your eyes closed.
Basketball player Steph Curry’s deep three pointers happen at such an incredible percentage because that boy has shot THOUSANDS of threes from deep. Olympic gold medallists win because they’ve perfected their sport by repetition. Great speakers have practised their speeches over and over. I daresay even philosophers probably use rote — how they’d think the same concepts over and again and so would entrepreneurs with their start-ups.
So it’s not a bad thing to teach your kids to do the same things repetitively until they have mastered it. Even if that particular skill isn’t necessarily going to be important for their future career, what you’re essentially teaching them is that perseverance and repetition matters for excellence.