Hear It and Play It: Singing with Your Instrument

March 7, 2017, 11:13 PM · A while ago I had a student, let's call her Jane, who was struggling with some school orchestra music.

A beginner, she was struggling to learn "When the Saints Go Marching In." She had learned the notes quite well, but she wasn't feeling the rhythm. She said she'd been trying to use a metronome to help her figure it out. I was happy she was making such a strong effort, and yet I felt there was something very obvious missing from this picture.

"Jane, do you know this song? Have you heard it before? Can you sing it?"

Blank look.

I backed up a bit to explain: "It's a song, actually..."

I called up a few versions on Youtube: Louis Armstrong singing and playing it, a version from an Andre Rieu concert, a few more. We listened for a good five minutes. She has a good ear, and this is a catchy song. After hearing it a half-dozen times, I said, "Try playing it again."

Sure enough, the rhythm was correct this time. Of course, it would take more than listening to the song a half-dozen times to fully solve the problem, but listening was one important element. "Knowing" the song would be even better.

My point is that it's easy for a violinist at any level to get bogged down in the complexities and forget to "learn the song." This is music! It helps to listen to music and to internalize it. If you can sing it, whistle it, or carry it around as an ear worm, all the better.

sing

One can argue that if a student is learning to read music, then it's cheating to listen to the music. I completely disagree in most cases. Take the example of a child learning to read words: If a child is reading out loud, and he stumbles over the word "Renaissance," is it cheating to tell him how it's pronounced? Will it compromise his future ability to read words by sounding out syllables? No! As long as he keeps reading, his vocabulary will continue to expand and his fluency will grow.

More mature musicians also need to keep that connection between the music we hear and the music we play. I loved learning about Norwegian violinist Henning Kraggerud's practice routine: he starts his daily practicing with 20 minutes of improvisation. He just plays what is in his head. He said he wants to constantly cultivate that ability to play any music that comes into his mind, to make the connection so strong that it just flows, kind of like speaking.

A long while ago, when I was doing a lot of orchestra playing, I felt like I was losing that connection. I resolved to learn something completely by listening to it. No sheet music allowed. I wanted something fairly simple and doable, so I chose Kreisler's "Liebesleid." Using a recording of the piece by Nadja Salerno Sonnenberg, I listened, with my violin in hand. I'd already internalized the music long before, but there were still plenty of details to work out. (Not having perfect pitch, the actual key of the piece and first note was the first step!) I enjoyed the process, then when I felt I'd completely learned the music, I bought the sheet music (no IMSLP in those days!). I checked myself, but I've pretty much never used that sheet music again!

After all, the sheet music is just the messenger; the music is the message.

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Replies

March 8, 2017 at 03:00 PM · I am an adult violin learner and I do not have perfect pitch. I always want the ability to play by ear. May I ask how do you obtain the ability to play what is inside your head?

March 8, 2017 at 05:41 PM · Perfect pitch is not necessary to play by ear. Being able to remember a song is the only real requirement. Start with something very, very simple. What is a short song that you know extremely well? Something that you can sing to yourself works best, like a childhood tune, a popular song or a church hymn. Then match the pitches, through trial and error. Start with the first phrase, the first few notes. Sing it to yourself, and try to find those notes on the violin. Make a lot of mistakes, this is fine. The more you do it, the fewer errors you will get, but as with everything, playing well by ear takes practice. I can remember doing this in my first few years of violin-playing. Fortunately I was a clueless kid and didn't care how bad it sounded! My parents would give me a "request" and then I'd fumble all over the place trying to play it! So if it's pretty ugly at first, don't be discouraged. Start with about five notes of a very simple song, and after you figure it out, repeat it a lot before you move on.

March 8, 2017 at 06:07 PM · Thank you, Laurie, everything you say is so true!

Unfortunately, most of the time, as learners, we are conditioned to play exactly what's on the page, or else it is classed as "wrong". Whilst this traditional method of learning may develop the technique fast, or gets a student through an exam fast, it does take away the natural ability that most people have to enjoy singing or playing anything that's in their heads.

I can remember when I learned to play the violin, certain passages in the music would sound similar to something else, and I would often carry on playing the something else instead of what was written in the music. My teacher would always remind me that this was not what was expected, and I always felt disappointed!

Being able to play what's in your head is a lovely skill to have and in my mind should be cultivated more. I do an improvisation project with my year 1 students (age 5/6) every year. They love it and I have never come across any child who can't improvise. At that age, children are always willing to try, and once given the opportunity to improvise every lesson for several weeks, I find that their improvisations get longer and longer each week. They are a huge confidence booster. Young people and adults generally have more inhibitions, but with a little encouragement, most will have a go.

How can you get started then, if you want to try this for yourself?

Pick a tune you know well and that you can play, starting on an open string. Frere Jacques is a suitable tune, starting on the open D string. Can you work out how to play it?

Next, find the half way point -in my Frere Jacques example this is after 'dormez vous'- and instead of carrying on with the tune, which goes down the scale, try playing some higher notes, towards the E-string and play anything that happens, without judging what it sounds like. Remember, improvising is a skill that you cultivate, so initially, you may find yourself playing only a few sounds, not even a tune at all. But if you keep this going every day for a week or two, you will find that it gets easier and the flow will come. Remember though, we are our own worst critics sometimes, so try to be as open minded as you can; even if you only play 1 note, it is an improvisation, so you have made a start exploring a new avenue...

March 8, 2017 at 06:10 PM · "the sheet music is just the messenger; the music is the message" - love that!

It's so true that if one can sing the piece, they can learn to play it as well. I had a student that was playing a piece slightly different than their reference recording. I asked them to sing the piece and sure enough, they sang it exactly as they had played it. To me, that was a great example of how we will play what we sing or hear in our head, correctly or incorrectly.

March 8, 2017 at 08:07 PM · I don't have perfect pitch and I play by ear just fine. I also play jazz piano and very often one is picking up riffs from other players as a tune is proceeding. Perfect pitch might be useful for other things but it's not needed for that. Perfect pitch can also be a curse -- what happens if you get to rehearsal and your conductor decides to tune the orchestra at 445? Do you adjust, or do your ears fall off?

March 8, 2017 at 08:59 PM · I love to play random notes on my mind and could spend a whole hour doing it.

March 8, 2017 at 09:21 PM · I listen to music whenever I can and I always listen to as many versions of a piece that I'm working on to get a different takes. I used to get influenced by listening so much that my playing could sound comical because there would be a bit of this player and a bit of the other, but overall there's no consistency. I'm better now in that I try to find my own voice. I know people who intentionally don't listen to the music they are working on. I don't find them to be particularly musical any way even though presumably the idea behind such approach is more to do with musicality than technique. I also find it's funny that in most other areas, you are encouraged to research and read around the subject that you are working on so that you'll get a more robust understanding of the subject matter. Why learning a piece of music should be so different?

I don't play non-classical music much but recently I've been playing with some Jewish folk musicians. Even though I didn't know the songs, I could quickly figure out the tunes after a few listening and started to improvise. I ended up having a few solo moments that were very well received. Amazing experience! It seems all I needed was figuring out the key and harmonic progression, then the world just opens up. There's no mistaken notes, just make a turn when something unexpected happens.

March 9, 2017 at 04:49 AM · Kato Havas has written and spoken prolifically on this theme of singing as a guide fo playing.

As a former student of hers, I can testify that her thinking is well worth considering.

Singing and violin playing go together!

March 9, 2017 at 11:46 AM · Hi Laurie,

I love your article. I think that to really know a piece you have to imprint it so firmly in your mind that you can play it, sing it, dance it, think it and dream it! I find multi tasking whilst playing sort of like a form of yoga. Here's some pathway building multi tasking I've been doing: http://www.boredpanda.com/i-can-play-the-violin-and-piano-at-the-same-time/

Hope you enjoy it!

Sarah

The String Family

March 9, 2017 at 02:32 PM · Is it cheating to listen to music??? Well, you can turn it around: Is it cheating to read music???

If you have set up a certain challenge you can say it is cheating to break the rules of that challenge, because then the challenge has disappeared. So if the challenge is to try out playing by listening then looking at the sheet music is cheating and vice versa.

But if you are concerned about being able to play a piece of music the best way you possibly can, then anything goes; whatever helps you playing music is what counts.

March 11, 2017 at 06:26 PM · Hi Laurie, Great article. I often get together with friends to play "Jam Music". No printed music at all. We play for fun...a lot of fun :) It took me a while to reach that comfort level, but now I feel unshackled. This comfort level is so far only on bass guitar, but my goal is to reach that same level on "fiddle" as well. I know to many here that fiddling is tantamount to nails on a chalkboard, but to a beginner playing jam music, it is a noble enough goal. That said, I have the highest respect for the masters of the violin that most certainly got there through printed music. I do notice that regardless of the level of difficulty, they play without music, typically with their eyes closed, with the music just flowing out of them. Go Hilary Hahn!!! I can look at a piece of music with no emotion at all, I hear someone like Hilary play, and weep. The musician creates the magic. The printed music is a short cut to get there in my opinion. Thanks, Tim

March 12, 2017 at 09:16 PM · Interesting that no folkies have replied here 'cause quite a few people have refernced bluegrass or irish sessions elsewhere.

I'm not sure where the adult learner in the first reply is based, but there's likely to be a folk sesiion of some description sonewhere near you - google things like "bluegrass irish scottish old time etc + session". People will be happy for you to sit at the back and listen and make infinite mistakes provided you're not loud (I use an orchestral mute and the tip of my bow if there's just guitars and soft instruments).

If you're in the US there is almost definitely an old time session nearby. I suggest this as the most accessible genre because melodies seem simple and repetitive and are often based on songs (ie you can learn to sing them first)

My strategy (as someone with very little natural "ear" has been to

1. Find the key/tonic and come in correctly on the last note

2. Pick up the end of each phrase

Add in the beginnings of phrases - or the first few notes after a long note

3. Look for repetitive phrases or notes that stand out (the high notes of string crossings in irish or scottish)

4. Pick up a skeleton of main beats and start to flesh it out

Someone who teaches by ear can probably give you better tips though.

March 12, 2017 at 09:16 PM · Interesting that no folkies have replied here 'cause quite a few people have refernced bluegrass or irish sessions elsewhere.

I'm not sure where the adult learner in the first reply is based, but there's likely to be a folk sesiion of some description sonewhere near you - google things like "bluegrass irish scottish old time etc + session". People will be happy for you to sit at the back and listen and make infinite mistakes provided you're not loud (I use an orchestral mute and the tip of my bow if there's just guitars and soft instruments).

If you're in the US there is almost definitely an old time session nearby. I suggest this as the most accessible genre because melodies seem simple and repetitive and are often based on songs (ie you can learn to sing them first)

My strategy (as someone with very little natural "ear" has been to

1. Find the key/tonic and come in correctly on the last note

2. Pick up the end of each phrase

Add in the beginnings of phrases - or the first few notes after a long note

3. Look for repetitive phrases or notes that stand out (the high notes of string crossings in irish or scottish)

4. Pick up a skeleton of main beats and start to flesh it out

Someone who teaches by ear can probably give you better tips though.

March 12, 2017 at 09:16 PM · Interesting that no folkies have replied here 'cause quite a few people have refernced bluegrass or irish sessions elsewhere.

I'm not sure where the adult learner in the first reply is based, but there's likely to be a folk sesiion of some description sonewhere near you - google things like "bluegrass irish scottish old time etc + session". People will be happy for you to sit at the back and listen and make infinite mistakes provided you're not loud (I use an orchestral mute and the tip of my bow if there's just guitars and soft instruments).

If you're in the US there is almost definitely an old time session nearby. I suggest this as the most accessible genre because melodies seem simple and repetitive and are often based on songs (ie you can learn to sing them first)

My strategy (as someone with very little natural "ear" has been to

1. Find the key/tonic and come in correctly on the last note

2. Pick up the end of each phrase

3. Add in the beginnings of phrases - or the first few notes after a long note

4. Look for repetitive phrases or notes that stand out (the high notes of string crossings in irish or scottish)

5. Pick up a skeleton of main beats and start to flesh it out

Someone who teaches by ear can probably give you better tips though.

March 14, 2017 at 07:29 PM · I'll add my vote for folk/bluegrass/Irish jams. I play bluegrass fiddle regularly - sometimes immediately after a classical viola lesson - and it's hard to find a friendlier musical environment. If you want to hang back in the shadows and quietly play a note here and there, that's OK. On the other hand, there's room for you to jump in and solo if you feel up to it. And not only is there no sheet music, there are some amazing players who can't read a note. All this and singing too - imagine what it's like to not only get into the instrumental groove but to nail a three-part harmony at the same time.

Here in Vancouver we're lucky enough to have a

March 14, 2017 at 07:41 PM · Oops! My last message broke things so badly I can't even use the "edit" button to fix it. Let's try again...

I'll add my vote for folk/bluegrass/Irish jams. I play bluegrass fiddle regularly - sometimes immediately after a classical viola lesson - and it's hard to find a friendlier musical environment. If you want to hang back in the shadows and quietly play a note here and there, that's OK. On the other hand, there's room for you to jump in and solo if you feel up to it. And not only is there no sheet music, there are some amazing players who can't read a note. All this and singing too - imagine what it's like to not only get into the instrumental groove but to nail a three-part harmony at the same time.

Here in Vancouver we're lucky enough to have a "slow pitch jam" once a month. (See http://slowpitchjam.com/) This is aimed specifically at beginners; tunes are kept simple, the tempo slow, and the emphasis is on learning to play by ear and fit into the chord structure. It's a wonderful way to get your feet wet and start building a repertoire.

Now it's time to find an Irish session - we're planning a trip to Ireland and I'd like to take a fiddle along...

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