Friday, July 24, 2009

About Playing by Ear

Some things can't be taught. You're born with an ability, or you're not. They say perfect pitch is one of those things. Can you hear a musical tone and instantly identify the note? Only a very small percentage of our population can do it. They can't explain how they do it, they can't teach it. They can
can only do it.

Playing music by ear was once thought to be unteachable
(or unlearnable depending on your reference point). In
fact many people are still convinced that playing by
ear is an inherant trait. Ask an "ear" player how they
do it, and they're likely to tell you, "I don't know, I
just do it."

Well I'm here to tell you that not only can anyone
learn to play by ear, it's actually quite easy once you
know a basic thing or two about chord playing. And most
of it is intuitive. Let me show you.

Start with the note C on the piano, and try to play
"Row, Row, Row Your Boat." Just experiment. Trial and
error. Make a mistake, hear it, and correct it. That's
all it is. Start on an E note and play "Mary Had a
Little Lamb." Start on C and play "Frere Jacques."

Some melodies are more challenging than others, so if
you're doing this exercise on your own, be prepared for
inconsistent results. But any melody is ultimately
learnable, using this trial and error method.

This little exercise is exactly what I try to do in the
first few minutes of my How to Play Piano by Ear
workshop. I will choose a student, put him/her at the
piano, give them a starting note, name a tune, and ask
them to do the rest.

And in the course of 25 plus years, I've only had a
handful of students (about three, actually) who could
not pass this simple test. It was easier for some
people than it was for others. But virtually everybody
got it.

Interesting side note. Guess who struggled the most.
Total beginners? No. It was those with years of
traditional classical piano studies that seemed to have
the hardest time with this.

Why? I don't know. But most of them, when I asked,
revealed to me that during their years of study they
were never encouraged by their teachers to play any
music that wasn't actually written down in music
notation format. They never tried to play by ear. They
were never allowed to.

The story does have a happy ending, however. Once they
were given "permission" to touch the piano on their
own, the classical veterans got comfortable with the
idea, and started to pick things up very quickly.

So that's a start to playing by ear. Chances are you've
done it already to some extent. If not, you should give
it a try. The next faze of the process is learning to
add the correct chords to the melodies you play.

Some people believe there is some magic formula that
has the song's melody dictate what the chords should
be. But that's not how it works at all. There is a
method for learning to add chords to a melody, and it's
not that difficult. But perhaps we'll leave that for
another time.

In the meantime, why not give the musical side of your
brain a challenge, and try learning a few tunes on your
own by ear. Here's a help. I can't tell you what the
starting note is for every song. But it's likely to be
either C, E, or G, and that will make it so that the
rest of the notes will be primarily white keys on your
piano. Go ahead, and give it a try.

[photo credit midiman]

Monday, July 6, 2009

Spilling the Beans, Part Two - More on Music Reading

Last time we talked a bit about some of the secrets
that go into our Instant Piano seminars, and why the
method is effective. One such secret is the fact that
our method reduces the emphasis on note reading. And
that, I believe, requires some further clarification.

1) There is nothing wrong with knowing how to read
2) Knowing how to read music will enhance your
musicianship at almost every level.
3) Reading music can be a shortcut to learning.
4) But there is a steep learning curve.
5) And it can also be a crutch.

I believe that for popular music of all kinds, learning
to play by ear is superior to note reading. And the
worst part is that using your note reading skills, if
you have them, can suppress the development of your

Look at it this way. As a piano player (or as a
potential piano player) what's more important to you?
Creating beautiful music? Or demonstrating your reading
skills? They aren't the same skill, especially the
farther you get away from classical music.

With a lot of classical veterans, reading the music
notation quickly, accurately, skillfully seems to be a
larger concern than making the piano sound good. I
remember being caught in the trap in my younger days.
Then I learned I could listen to a piece of music and
start to recreate it. I began to rely on listening more
and more.

I found that when I came back from a piano lesson,
having the lesson recorded on a cassette tape was much
more valuable than what the teacher wrote down on a
piece of music paper. And that's one of the major
points I try to get across at my workshops.

Maybe we'll revisit this subject at a later time, but
in the mean time, if you have a question, comment or an
observation about reading versus listening, please
click on "comments" below.

Wednesday, July 1, 2009

Spilling the Beans

Here's a question I get all the time. How can you teach
classrooms full of people how to play piano in just one
afternoon? Learning to play an instrument is supposed
to take years.

I don't often reveal the answer to that question. Until
how the answer has remained a secret that I only reveal
when students take my workshops. Actually there are
several secrets involved here. But a lot of people
never get a chance to take the three and a half hour
workshop from me, so I've decided to reveal some of
these secrets here. If you're curious, read on. It's
time, finally, to spill the beans.

The first secret concerns learning to read music
notation. I avoid it as much as possible. It's learning
to read music that takes a huge amount of time and
dedication. If we take that out of the equation, we can
go directly to "playing the piano."

"But isn't it necessary to read music before you can
play an instrument?"


I can read music somewhat, but I seldom do when I play
piano. And I know a fair amount of good piano players
who do not read music at all. Not a single note.

Note reading does have its place. There have been times
that I've found it helpful. But it's not essential. You
don't learn to read before you talk, do you? For the
same reason, you don't need to master note reading
before you play an instrument.

Why do most piano teachers insist on teaching reading
from the very beginning? Maybe it's because that's how
they were taught.

Now let's clarify a couple of points. What I've just
said about reading music is not be true for learning to
play classical music. Since "classical" is the genre
that is generally taught by typical music teachers, I
guess that's why reading music in general is emphasized
so much.

But we want to be able to read somewhat, don't we? Yes
we do. And all the important parts of music reading are
covered in the first three pages of our basic book,
Popular Chord Style Piano.

And you can get roughly the same information by
downloading a pamphlet from our web site, no charge.
You may have already done this. The pamphlet gives you
all the essentials, but none of the fluff. And you can
get through it in under 30 minutes. Pamphlet download.

So are there other secrets? Yes. Maybe we'll talk about
them later. In the mean time, it's play time for me.