Playing by ear is less frequently encouraged in traditional music lessons, which is surprising given that most musicians would love to develop this skill. Why is the ability to play without music considered second rate to sight-reading? For many students the lack of this ability creates deep reservations about their musical skills. Furthermore students who can play in aural-based and creative ways—such as playing by ear, playing without music, and improvising—are more likely to continue to participate in musical activity in post-school life. Educators in Finland are acting on this research. Music schools now require classical piano instruction to include non-classical elements such as ‘comping’ (a chord-based accompaniment style) and improvisation. This is based on the idea that classical music skills and understandings are not necessarily transferable to other types of music. The government provides training and assistance to help teachers adapt to these new techniques.
Some teachers equate playing by ear with fixed genetic ability and believe it cannot be taught; however, it can be learned. Through sustained practice everyone can improve his or her aural acuity and learn to play by ear. Also, teachers might not encourage playing by ear because of how they were taught. There is an old saying: “Teachers teach how they themselves were taught”. Avoiding this requires vigilance to prevent perpetuating dated practices of the past.
If you always do what you’ve always done, you’ll always get what you’ve always got. – anonymous
Jazz pianist Oscar Peterson had an astonishing ability to reproduce sounds in his head. As he put it, all musical ideas originate in the brain. To develop his remarkable facility he sang a melodic phrase then attempted to copy it on the piano. He then extended the challenge by playing two hands one octave, then two octaves, apart. This is an excellent way to train the ear and develop hand-ear coordination. Louis Armstrong, Errol Garner, Chet Baker, Paul McCartney, and Bono could not read music, but they could all play by ear.
During my work as a pianist on Hayman Island, I met Dick Rudolph, who wrote the number-one hit ‘Loving You’ for his wife, Minnie Ripperton, in 1975. Dick and I spent some time together playing piano and sharing ideas. Dick told me that what we were doing was similar to how he went about writing songs. His method was informal. Notation was not part of his creative process, but he loved playing with musical ideas and was able to vary and extend his simple ideas in a musically satisfying way.
New ideas come to people through play and experimentation. How much time and encouragement do we give students to play with their musical ideas? Play allows for an adventure into the unknown.
Play is the serious business of childhood. – Jean Piaget (1896–1980), Swiss biologist and psychologist.
from ‘Learning Strategies for Musical Success’ by Michael Griffin
“A must read for all music educators” – Robert Adams, Music Educator, New Haven, USA.
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Bumblebee! is more than just a collection of 84 choir exercises and rounds. The author shares timeless wisdom to help you get your choir – primary or secondary – into shape.
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