Sunday, January 29, 2006

Playing by Ear

Part of my piano lessons and practice involves playing by ear. This is something I can't quite get used to; all through my childhood, piano teachers always discouraged my desire to play by ear. I fought them tooth and nail; I always found it necessary to listen to pieces in order to "know how they're supposed to sound." Whenever I was learning a piece, I'd find a recording and listen to it a million times, using the recording rather than the written music as my primary guide to playing the piece.

This was not necesarily a good thing. As a result of my dependence on recordings (rather than the written music), I managed to play classical piano for many years and never really learn how to differentiate a written half-rest from a whole rest.

That's a big reason that I found a private music theory teacher last year. I hated that I couldn't sight-read a piece unless it was in 4/4 time and had no dotted notes.

I'm a quick learner. Everything came easily, and my ability to sight-read has increased a million-fold (maybe not that much ...) in the last year. I definitely don't have to hear a piece in order to be able to play it.

Strangely enough, after a lifetime of being told I shouldn't use the "sound" of a piece as my primary guide, my current piano teacher is big on playing by ear (in addition to playing by the written music). Part of the whole Suzuki mentality is for kids to learn their instrument by picking things out by ear.

Playing by ear isn't hard for me. I can pretty much play a melody for you after only hearing it once, and I know enough of music to be able to pick out the chords as well, if not the exact notes of the harmony.

I'm supposed to be learning the Liszt transcription of the Schubert song "Standchen (Serenade)" once the music comes in (we ordered it last week). It's not supposed to be a particularly difficult piece, but it's beautiful and I've always wanted to learn it. (Deborah is so cool. I can say, "Hm, I've always wanted to learn _____. Can we work on that next? And she'll usually say, "Sure, sounds good to me!")

I was tired of waiting for the sheet music to "Standchen", so I downloaded several versions onto my iPod and started trying to play it by ear. I have the entire melody and all of the chords. All I have left is to figure out the exact notes that are being played in the left hand. It was surprisingly simple. The piece itself is surprisingly simple--more so than I thought it would be.

So I'm having fun with that.

I do love playing by ear. I can understand why my teachers discouraged me from it--they wanted me to learn to read music and not merely be dependent on my ear. But still, I wish I'd been "granted permission" to work on things by ear. I've avoided it for many years because I always thought that it was somehow "wrong."

What silly ideas we can get into our muddled little heads.

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