Wednesday, September 2, 2009

Learning to Play by Ear

Photo by Gibsonclaire
Is playing by ear a talent you're born with, or a skill you can learn? Can anyone do it?

I have a sad lack of musical training; I play pretty much everything by ear. Although I think some people will have an easier time with it than others, I think anyone with a good grasp of tone can do this.

I suspect playing by ear and being able to do freestyle improv music are quite related. When I'm freestyling, often I can hear what I should be playing next ahead of playing it; then it's a case of translating the phrase in my head in to fingering on the keyboard. That's roughly the same skill as being able to reproduce a song after having heard it. The key is to be able to hear that melody or chord progression in your head, take it apart, convert it to fingering, and drop it on the keyboard.

Now and again I have the opportunity to try and teach someone the basics of playing by ear. Usually it goes pretty well, to my surprise and delight. There are a few exercises I use, and I'm going to describe some of them here. (These are all very skewed to using a piano or keyboard, my natural music habitat. I'm sure one could adapt them to other instruments. I'm a rotten guitar player so I wouldn't want to try).

Tone hands

The first thing I ask people to do when they're trying this is to stick one hand out in front of them, hand open, palm down, elbows bent. Now take a melody, hum or 'la' or sing it, and move your hand up or down as the melody moves up or down. I'll sing or hum, and do hand movements too, so there might be a bit of mirroring going on.

At first, I'm only concerned with making sure people are moving their hand in the right direction. If the next note in a melody moves up, the hand should move up. Doesn't matter how far, just as long as its in the right direction. Usually this isn't too much of a struggle. (If it is - the rest of it is going to really be a struggle.)

Next we focus on showing how far the note moves through the melody. For example, in Mary Had A Little Lamb, your hand movements would go:

start, down, down, up, up, stay, stay
down, stay, stay
up, up more, stay
down more, down, down, up, up, stay stay stay
down, stay, up, down, down

There aren't any really massive movements in this one. Twinkle Twinkle Little Star has a few changes that are bigger, so they're good for testing out big jumps vs little jumps.

First playing

The next step is to actually get playing. I try to keep it pretty simple at first.

Mary Had A Little Lamb is good for another reason - someone relatively new to playing the piano can just plop their right hand on the keyboard, thumb on C, one finger per white key, and not shift for the duration.

I tend to think in C. It's certainly easier for someone new to the piano to use C, and play songs in purely major keys. Let's leave B minor for a little while. (I used to hate playing in B. I love it now. Something about the way your right hand curves around a B-major. I dunno.)

Now, instead of doing the hand movements, you get them to play keys while they are humming/'la'ing/singing. If the note moves down a little bit, just go one finger down. If it moves more than that, go 2 fingers. That's as complex as Mary Had A Little Lamb gets.

I don't know why, but at this point when people make a mistake (which is inevitable), they say "Wait" before halting and trying again. Why that word? Why not "Hang on" or "Oops" or something else? I don't know. I'm nearly positive I said "wait" as a kid in the same situation. (Is this related to the rampant overuse of "But Waaaait!" in an Opera? Hmm.)

I think it's very important to have someone sing/hum/la while they're doing this. Perhaps it's so they can keep the melody at the front of their brain and not get confused with their fingers. Or perhaps somewhere in their mind they are already doing muscular control of their throat and other singy-bits, so they're already doing that hand-height exercise, just in a different way.

Don't watch!

The next part is important to me. I can't say why exactly, it just seems like an element that helps to make you at home on the keyboard. I ask the person to play that song, but hold eye contact with me and not look at the keyboard. If it's Mary Had a Little Lamb, they don't need to move their hand anyway. They just need to fire off the right fingers at the right time. This sounds awfully hard, but in practice most people can do this pretty well.


These exercises are each pretty simple. They're all about melody, and not at all about the left hand or chords or harmonies. For the most part I've done this with kids, and there's a point where I don't quite have the words to explain what chords are, or how you coordinate two hands together. If I figure out the next lesson on that, I'll let you know.

1 comment:

Dan said...

Nope. I didn't say 'Wait!'.

My sister taught me the piano and my lexicon involved 'ARG!', 'ARSE!', 'GAH!' and a host of substantially bluer material.

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