Advice: playing by ear vs sight reading
To be clear, I'm not asking which is better :)
I AM working with my teacher on this, he tells me that playing by ear comes so naturally to me that it's impacting my actual reading skills. So much so that I didn't realize that I am still depending on my ear and memory as much as I do, until he brought it to my attention last night & then proved it. This is carry over from when I played 40 years ago. I got away with it 40 years ago quite well, but for me to eventually be able to play the pieces I want to play, this needs addressed.
Obviously I will work with my teacher on this. I've a a week before my next lesson, and have been trying to think of anything I might be able to do during my daily practice sessions to intentionally focus on the actual music. I thought I was... As many of you are teachers, I'm curious to hear any thoughts on this. I'm sure this is a common problem.
Sight reading involves playing music you have never played before and may never have heard. I would think that finding some music that meets those criteria and trying to read through it and then work on it would be helpful. One grows to hear the relationships from the printed music to the ear (rather than the other way) so that one can actually hear the music on the printed page as you are reading through it, but before you actually play the upcoming notes.
Are you really talking about sight-reading -- reading a work that you've never seen before -- or about music-reading in general, i.e. accurately learning a work based on the printed notes?
Thanks Andrew, that's helpful. I don't actively memorize, but the music does enter my memory quite quickly.
It will indeed take time and dedicated focus in reading the notes. As for the reason for sight reading, it is one thing to memorize a 6min folk tune, it's another to memorize a 14 pages, 45 min long second violin symphony part. I said 2nd violin because it often has not much of a melody and sight reading is simply a must. I actually envy those who like you can play by ear and so easily memorize music, I often wish I could, but that is not for me, I can hardly memorize 2 bars so reading the music is my only option. At the other end of the spectrum, there are those musicians who record movie sound tracks, where the music, is recorded as the musicians see and play the score for the first and last time, on the spot.
Everyone does that, actually. We all will trust our ear more than the notes on the printed page, and if the printed notes contradict what's already in our brain, it's hard to self-correct.
Roger - that's exactly why I need to address this. There are some lovely classical pieces I would like to learn someday, and my current approach would fail me, for sure.
To deal with this issue, because I have the same thing, my teacher is making me do rep that i don’t have in my ear at all, ideally that I’ve never heard. I’m forbidden from looking it up on YouTube. We had to back into much easier stuff than I could technically play, because that’s my actual reading level. In the end, no one is going to play a concerto for me measure by measure so I can learn it by ear... much as I wish for that, lol. My teacher in fact won’t play any section of the piece until I’ve played it at least once. Anyway, I am definitely improving. Working at my actual level means it’s not frustrating, I don’t get stuck, rather can work through it. I don’t even mind the rep being “easy.” As to that, we are putting a lot of thought into phrasing, cohesion of character and voices and narrative, understanding the piece structurally. Always plenty to do...
Thanks for your feedback Leslie, and I've the same agreement with my teacher as well. He is also my choir director so we both knew coming into this that finally learning to read music properly would be a challenge.
Both is the ideal. Transcription is the bridge between both - ear players get better at relating what they are hearing to notes and readers get better at using their ears.
I was also very good at playing by ear, so much so that my sight reading was lacking. I would end up when faced with a new piece of music, going through each piece very slowly reading it and learning the notes and rhythms, more memorizing it than reading it.
Sadly, having the music in front of me is no guarantee that I'm actually reading it as my teacher proved to me at my last lesson. I've been experimenting with a few things this week that, hopefully, will help. Part of it is not knowing when I make that switch, it's totally unconscious at this point. My goal is to make it more conscious so I can choose which is the best for the moment.
One way to ensure you are reading the music is to mentally think of every individual notes, whether naming it in your head (DEFGABC) or visualizing its fingering position.
Just an idea.
I have somewhat of the same problem. My teacher occasionally points out when I’m “composing”, not reading. Lydia mentioned Doflein - Doflein uses many short pieces with different key signatures and meters. There are so many that it is difficult to memorize them and play by ear. By randomly skipping around in a given chapter or chapters, I find that it is improving my sight reading. The other advice I’d offer is to always have a metronome ticking, and play however slowly is needed to “play the ink”, not the “tune”.
Those are all good ideas - while I'm certainly not ready for Doflein (just returned to the violin 2 months ago after many years), I get the idea and will remember Lydia's suggestion for the future.
Catherine, haha, sounds like our teachers are on the same page!
I always tell my students that from an early age we learn everything from mimicry and approximation. While this is a natural gift we must not put our trust in it. If you have a good ear it should be there to support good technique and not be the foundation of it. Music is more of a science than an art and everything has to be in the right place at the right time. Basic logistics tend to be an easier said than done and it is really easy to become complacent in counting or tuning chords in fast passages because up to tempo it sounds right.
intentionally focus on the actual music
Has to be said though: playing by ear is a good skill to have. Teachers shouldn't portray it as something negative. I think students get that message all too often. A lot of music making, especially outside of classical music, absolutely depends upon playing by ear. Always shocks me when a highly skilled player cannot play anything without the music in front of them.
I am just curious. How did your teacher prove that you were playing by ear and not from muscle memory. As I understand it 'to play by ear' is to play a piece of music after only hearing it, not after reading it and practicing it a few times.
“playing by ear is a good skill to have. Teachers shouldn't portray it as something negative”
"Playing by ear is a very good skill to have". I agree wholeheartedly. The ideal way to learn would be to learn
My earliest memories, I had a knack for playing by ear. I've always been commended for having a good ear. When I was in choir I learned solfege, solfege hand signs too. This further helped to train and and sharpen my ear which came in handy when I had no sheet music to read. Fortunately I had teachers who worked with me to develop good reading (later writing) habits too! They helped me to understand that both are tools and though discipline, and allot of patients, I learned to keep both in balance and acquired the maturity to correct myself when need be. Good friends will point out if I begin to lose my balance between the two. Each has it's place. My two cents worth. Royce
As a classical violinist from India, we only refer to notations after the violin lesson when we practice at home as a cross reference . Our training is predominantly that of playing by ear. An aural tradition. As a teacher of this art form also I find that students are more focused on playing when they are not asked to read notes and play.
I have been thinking about this issue as I learn a new piece (Rieding Op. 21 in Hungarian style). It seems that I approach a new piece in "layers". The first is the metronome-intensive, literal realization of the basic notation in pitch and rhythm. As I "get it" from a musical perspective, and with much repetition, the notation becomes more of a prompt than a script, bowings make more sense, and informed playing by ear, with action patterns rather than individual notes, starts to emerge. Further layers include more attention to dynamics, phrasing (that I mark in large parentheses), and addition of my primordial vibrato on sustained notes. I can now play some sections of this without any reference to the notation, as a mix of playing my memory and by ear. In short, there seems to be a gradual progression from sight reading to a memorized performance, with many layers of development in between. I'd be interested to hear thoughts on this, and preferences for recital playing from the score, vs completely from memory.
I agree with Violin Padma Shankar. My first introduction to playing the violin was through Irish folk fiddle music, and there the learning is predominantly by ear, sheet music only being used as a backup aid when practising at home.
I don't disagree, but try playing by ear a 45min long Beethoven Symphony. Surely some people can, but I don't see how when you have maybe less than 6 hrs in rehersal and 20hrs of personal practice.
The ideal is to have both the skills of reading and playing by ear and hopefully improvisation and memorization too. Mostly, only reading is taught because it's the only thing the teacher learned themselves.
As a side note, Doflein is a violin method, so its book 1 is intended for brand new beginners. In general, though, what you sight-read should be somewhat behind what you can actually play. I believe I started sight-reading Doflein when I was a Suzuki book 2 student.
I have always believed that having young children start playing by ear does them a terrible disservice. I have them start reading almost immediately. If they fail to develop the reading scan very early on, they have difficulty tracking the music. It's a very specific skill.
Sight-reading is of course essential for 99% of working professional musicians, but it dramatically enhances the fun of being an amateur.
It's very interesting to read of your different experiences and perspectives on this. Much food for thought, thank you!
If you are purely an orchestral player then you probably feel that reading is all you will ever need to do. Outside of classical music it's essential to play by ear.
Hi Christopher, some comments on your comments:
Scott. I agree you shouldn't and in most cases can't learn orchestral parts by ear! If you are playing in a professional orchestra then you had better be a good reader!
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