I woke up early with a sore throat (I hope this doesn’t bode ill for Christmas, as 15 people, several of them elderly and somewhat frail, are arriving the morning of Christmas Eve for me to feed and entertain them, and I can’t give them strep or a cold or something!) and wrote this post to reply to a question on a piano list. It turned into a kind of amusing little entry, so I thought I’d bring it over here. They may not appreciate all that reminiscing on the piano list, but you’d darn well better appreciate it here. **GRIN**
At 03:10 AM 12/19/2005, *PianoPerson* wrote:
>Do you think the skill of hearing a song on a record and sitting
>down and playing it can be taught?
To a child–yes. My daddy taught it to me, I am pretty sure, when he got that Hammond electronic organ when I was three or four and let me climb up on the bench and watch him picking out songs. I imitated him and then I was allowed to play the organ by myself fairly soon (because he had tired of the new toy and was off to flying light planes . . .not that my parents had a lot of money, but that a lot of his money he earned went to his various hobbies, including amateur radio, flying, etc. *grin*) We have home movies of this, with me pounding out “Tennessee Waltz” (his favorite song, or near to it) on the black keys and grinning. However, there’s no sound. And now all the film is ruined from age and heat in Mama’s house fire. (sob . . . wail)
By the time I was six, people were saying, “Can you play this?” and putting on a record. Since the big hi-fi (the stereo my dad had built, of course, in a prior phase of electronics set construction; this was, after all, the early 1960s) was in the living room where the organ was, I learned to play along with the records. I’m talking Herman’s Hermits, Chad and Jeremy, Nancy Sinatra, the Monkees, the early Beatles, & Peter, Paul, and Mary–not Bach. “The Twist” was really big, and I could play “Twist and Shout” after a fashion. My babysitters (teenagers) and their friends loved that!
Now, I think that at least part of this ability was “taught” in school when we had singing classes. Every few days, probably twice a week, the traveling music teacher would come to the elementary school and would gather the first and second grade classes in the cafeteria and pass out music books containing American folk songs and the like. She stood up there on the stage and played the piano or her Autoharp and had us sing. She’d have us do vocal exercises with “Do-Re-Mi” (“The Sound of Music” had JUST come out when I entered first grade, which betrays my age fairly accurately–I started school a year early, though, so maybe I’m a TAD younger than you’d think). She then drilled us on the intervals of “Re-So-Fa” and so forth, and then applied that to the sight-singing of “Old Joe Clark” or “The Erie Canal” or “Swing Low.” We also sang “Do-Re-Mi” itself and other “Sound of Music” songs, but those were lyrics only from dittoed sheets and we sang them by ear with her leading. Did this teach me about the intervals and how to “hear” them and then apply them and imitate when I wanted to play a pop song on the organ (later the piano)? I think it did.
So you might try something like that with your students who are children. Or even with adults who don’t seem able to pick out a tune, if they’ll tolerate it. Vocalists sight-sing intervals quite often. It’s a short leap from there to the piano keyboard and those intervals, which I learned to count out because the music teacher would stand up there and say, “Do-re-me-fa . . . fa. . . fa” as she hit the piano keys and then have us sing them. (I don’t know if school districts still have people like this. Our teacher was silver-haired by the time I was experiencing this, and by sixth grade, all music classes ended unless you got into band/choir.)
I made lots of mistakes. Sometimes I would just be hitting keys until I found a sonority. Eventually I started seeing the patterns.
By the time I was in fourth grade, I was picking out most simple pop tunes fluently and had figured out how to accompany with an arpeggiated chord. Don’t know how to describe this except by example. Let’s say you’re going to play Vangelis’ “Hymne” by ear. You’d start with the first couple of notes in the RH (D, E above middle C) and then start an arpeggiated D chord in the LH when you hit the F above middle C. Every few notes the harmony changes, so you’d play an A chord next, etc. This is like playing from a lead sheet. Except when you’re a kid playing by ear, you don’t have any note letters or names in your head. You just “know” that “around here somewhere” there is the tone that harmonizes and makes it sound like the record (somewhat). So you play that note and maybe the note an octave above it. Eventually you figure out that there’s a note in between them that sounds good, so you play those. It’s all very hand-waving from this point for me, as when I play by ear, I don’t think that deeply about note names and so forth, but reach for the proper chord. If you stopped me I could name the chords and intervals, but that would stop me for a moment, because it’s the other part of the brain.
I’m not telling you that I play something that sounds like an “arrangement” you’d find in a sheet music section of Brook Mays, mind. But then it’s not a one-note rendition, either; there are chords in the right hand and chords or a pattern in the left hand, with phrasing and musicality (I hope). I don’t play a lot of cocktail-piano riffs and glissandos or what-have-you. But people generally recognize the song! When I’ve been practicing a lot, I develop riffs and bits to add to various songs I’ve figured out, but not when I’m doing it off the cuff. I haven’t had that kind of time to practice lately.
>How much is student practice, trial and error, and time spent
>developing the ear?
At first there’s much trial-and-error, but you begin internalizing the concepts (of music theory, if you will) and realizing which chords go together. If you start or end a tune on F, you discover that B is flat in your tonality, and you find that a Bb-D-F chord goes with your F chord song. The ear is being developed any time you listen to music on the radio or live, IMHO, if you can sing back a song after hearing it a couple of times. Again, this ability is easy to develop in a child, and I can’t speak for doing it to adults. Rap and hip-hop will NOT develop melody, IMHO, so if that is what they listen to all day on the radio, they will not get what I’m talking about. The oldies station–not classic rock, but “The Music of Your Life” such as 1940-1970s ballads stations–would be the place to turn. No one sings folk songs now, but they are a fundamental building block for the American idiom.
Another *whoosh* back into the past: My mother had planned to take organ lessons herself, so she had a teacher from the University of Houston who would come to the house Tuesday nights (!) and try to teach her. She loves music but has a tin ear (I get this stuff from my Irish grandpa and Daddy). So he would hit her knuckles with a ruler when she made mistakes! She soon quit. She had “The Pointer System” series of books. I read the diagrams and later the words (I can’t remember a time when I couldn’t read–I was a lonely only child) and did chords that way. You point your index finger at the key that names the chord and then put your thumb and pinky on the other keys–it’s a second-inversion chord. That would be another good way to teach students–have them memorize that way of forming the second inversion chord, rather than having to do all that thinkin’. *grin* Those books had turn-of-the-century songs. I mean turn-of-the-PREVIOUS century, as in 1890s. “Man on the Flying Trapeze,” “Bicycle Built for Two,” “Humoresque” on black keys.
When I was in junior high, I decided I was going to play classical music as written and become a concert artist. I’d taught myself to read music and could play simple stuff and method-book stuff. By then I had some baby-sitting money and started scouring the classified ads for a practice piano, because what I wanted to play was the PIANO. I hated the electronic organ (and really don’t care for it much now) and had always wanted a piano. I used to play on pianos I encounterd in others’ houses and would get in trouble for it. My parents had no interest in getting a piano (Daddy was neutral; Mama was anti-piano and dislikes the sound of it even now), but I had saved my baby-sitting money for a year ($3 an hour!) and could afford a $150 practice piano. It belonged to a family in the neighborhood and was an old upright grand. It sounded like a honky-tonk piano and smelled musty, but it had no dead keys, could be tuned to hold a tune for a while, and was a REAL PIANO. I believe the keyboard was ivory! And of course it weighed a ton. The owner had refinished it a Chinese red with one of those antiquing kits you could get in the 1970s (by now it was 1970-71 or so.) I went to the owner and told them that $150 was all I had. I believe they originally were asking $175, but here’s this poor kid crying because she can’t afford it. . . . They felt sorry for me, I am sure, because they called my parents to verify this was OK and Mama yelled that she wouldn’t have an old piano in the house, but Daddy got on the other line and told them that if I could get it over to the house, I could have it in the sunporch (he knew my heart’s desire at that moment.) The owner and his two sons somehow got that behemoth onto a pickup and delivered it several blocks to our house. I think they wanted it out of the house as badly as I wanted it in mine!
That piano had a duet bench that I later (when Mama was giving that piano away, after I had married and had bought a used Schumann baby grand for $650 from a piano teacher getting divorced and moving out of state) was told by an antique dealer *was not original* to the honky-tonk piano and was probably valuable. I didn’t want to give away the bench (or the piano, truthfully) in the first place and thus immediately rescued it before the neighbor who was to be the next beneficiary of Nellybell the Red Piano got hold of it. I still have that duet bench. It’s at the foot of our bed and it’s as red as ever, but I love it. It’s almost as wide as a queen bed!
The bench was full of Fingerpower and exercises and theory books and method books. John Thompson’s red book and the book II in his series, a very worn Hanon, a folio of Big Note Mancini movie themes, a big “blockbusters of the 1970s” book, etc. I went crazy and practiced a couple of hours a day, including 15 mins before school on the first Hanon exercise. You may well imagine how that went over with the family!! They would not HEAR of my wasting $15 an hour on lessons! After all, I could play by ear, couldn’t I? And I was doing fine plinking out those tunes, as far as they were concerned. They used to yell that I had to stop because they couldn’t hear that TV or they were going insane hearing “Morning Has Broken” or “Moon River” yet again. Once I found “The Music House,” the small shop in downtown Richardson that sold sheet music, they were in for a butchered Beethoven set or two. Poor family.
Tell that to your reluctant students whose parents are wild to have them learn the piano and let ’em marvel at it. I would have done anything if my parents had been supportive. Or at least not so negative. My dad and grandmother were a bit proud, though not crazy about piano, but Mama still does not like the piano and now she lives with US (hubby and me). She has to put up with it, because *now I am the woman of the house.* *GRIN*
Um, I got a little off the point there, didn’t I?
I dunno if you wanted that much about ME PERSONALLY and it’s not supposed to be ALL ABOUT ME, but that’s how I can tell you anything about playing by ear, so that’s what you get. (grin) Maybe there are parallels you can apply elsewhere.
>how much of learning this is what the teacher teaches, and
It’s a gift. *shrug* I have a cousin who can do it, too, but then he was given piano lessons from a real teacher (one like y’all, who went to a conservatory) from age five and my aunt had a good piano. Yet he liked jazz and plays a mean “Flight of the Bumblebee” on the piano rather than being a whiz at the Chopin preludes. But he can’t play with a record. *I* can only play with a record if the piano is in tune and the “record” is at the proper speed, too . . .otherwise, you end up needing to play quarter tones. I can listen to the record and then come up with an arrangement of it. But I hate having to try to notate it. As Mozart says in one of his letters, “writing out all those dratted little note heads!!” (GRIN)
The more horrifying this world becomes, the more art becomes abstract.
–Paul Klee, 1879-1940