How NOT to play by ear....

September 24, 2019, 5:08 AM · My teacher spoke with me on this last night on something that I wanted to ask the experienced teachers here. There has been improvement but I need to find another way to work on this as my current approach appears to have taken me as far as it can. I really hope that the following is clear, it's challenging to describe this in such a way that makes the problem clear.

I am blessed with a quite good ear. I pick up melodies very fast, and remember them. I DO read music. The problem is that once I know the basic melody, my ear takes over and without realizing it I am no longer actually reading music. This is less of a problem if I don't already know a similar melody/piece...until I've worked with it a bit.

The real problem here is that when this transition happens I am not actually aware of doing this and I don't realize I am no longer reading the music. The consequence is that this prevents me from learning a piece really well. Is this a problem in Suzuki 2? No. However, we won't be stopping there, and my teacher and I have goals that this will definitely impact. This WILL bite me as there will come a time when the piece will be too complex and too long to memorize. Indeed, my teacher has told me to try my best to NOT memorize for now.

Sorry for the lengthy post - hopefully the above shows why this is an issue. Any thoughts or advice would be greatly appreciated. Obviously this is not a playing by ear vs reading music choice - this is about being able to actively use both in proper context.

Replies (30)

Edited: September 24, 2019, 6:58 AM · Keep looking at the music even if you are s playing it from memory.

If you keep studying violin you will finally get to the point where the notes go by so fast or the patterns become so complex that you will have to be playing some of them from memory.

I consider that I never really memorized anything, yet the opening pages of the concertos I studied 70 years ago stuck in my memory for about 50 years well enough that I could play through them (without music in front of me) well enough for part of my warmup or to think I was showing off. I consider it no blessing that I can no longer do that, but I still rely on some memory in ensemble playing when the music finally gets up to tempo (z.b., for performance) and the notes are moving past my eyes too fast to play only what my mind learns from my eyes.

When I was teaching, I found that most of my students did what you are doing, but those who went far enough relied on reading the music when they needed to. Children, especially, often seemed to "fake reading" at the beginning - certainly through Book 2 and many quite far beyond that.

Edited: September 24, 2019, 6:07 AM · Hi Catherine - I read in an earlier post that you are a restarter from youth, coincidentally about the same as me. I too started 7-13, and restarted many years later. I also had this problem earlier in my recent study but I am please to say it eventually resolved as reading improved, and ultimately promises to be an asset. In the Suzuki books, I could not play a piece until I heard it, and my teacher occasionally would point out “you are composing, not reading”. To read better, I listened to music above my level while following the score (usually as a pastime on airplane trips), but with this, time and practice, reading generally improved. I also would strongly suggest the Doflein books, in which there are many short pieces that compel one to sight reading. You won’t find a YouTube for most of them, and it’s very gratifying to begin to “get” the piece from the ink, not the memory. It seems that having a good ear is a valuable asset that should ultimately help memorization, which will be great for more nuanced playing of longer pieces e.g. for recitals etc. you don’t see elite soloists flipping pages...
September 24, 2019, 6:11 AM · Thanks Andrew, that is helpful. I can read music I've no context for - so that indicates I actually can read music. I think it's about that conscious awareness about which mode I'm using? Obviously memory is a good thing, I wasn't saying that at all.

For now my teacher wants me to practice pieces backwards. Start with the last 2 measures, add the 2 before those when I'm comfortable, so forth. We've done this from time to time at my lesson, and it does force me to actually read.

Edited: September 24, 2019, 6:22 AM · Charles, thanks for your thoughts on this. I can play things I've not heard before, but it's a bit slower. I like your idea of listening to music above my level with the score.

My teacher wasn't saying that playing by memory is a bad thing, but that my current unconscious approach of playing by ear after practicing a couple times will eventually prevent me from learning more complex pieces really well before reaching the point that memorization becomes appropriate.

My teacher calls it "making it up" when he calls it to my attention :)

September 24, 2019, 6:24 AM · That our teachers each have a name for it sure makes it seem like a common issue. Hopefully it’s just a phase we go through, and we will eventually learn to memorize what’s actually on the page.
September 24, 2019, 8:28 AM · Catherine could you try to give a concrete example of your current problem? It seems as if you are describing a *possible future* problem, which I find, pardon the expression, problematic ;-)
September 24, 2019, 8:35 AM · I was at the late intermediate/early advanced level (Lalo SE) when I quit about 30 years ago. When I restarted about 18 months ago, I had what I think was a similar problem for about 5 months. I thought it might have something to do with the decline of my vision over the past 30 years, and the difficulty of holding and playing the instrument while reading notes. It resolved itself without any explicit work, though.
September 24, 2019, 8:57 AM · Jean, I did describe the current problem :) I'm addressing it now so it won't become a larger problem. Tonight, when I can type it on my computer rather than this little phone, I will provide a specific example.

The problem has improved, but it's still happening and as my teacher said, addressing it now will be easier than later on when the habit is more entrenched.

September 24, 2019, 9:15 AM · Playing be ear is an asset, reading is an asset. In an ideal world we can do both. The bridge between the two is transcription, sometimes with and sometimes without your instrument in hand. With transcription an ear player becomes a better reader and readers become better ear players. It doesn't have to be sophisticated to start with - just the simplest of melodies or whatever you can manage and go from there.
Edited: September 24, 2019, 10:04 AM · I don't understand why your teacher is making this a problem UNLESS you are indeed making up the music and not playing what is on the page. If you are not "making things up", it is my totally amateur opinion (as an adult returnee in intermediate-purgatory, and as a trained teacher in two different non-music fields) that you should be learning simple pieces or etudes that you are very likely unfamiliar with so you are forced to read the music and not "make things up". I also like Christopher's suggestion to do transcriptions!

But really, you are in Suzuki 2, are playing by ear the simple melodies in said book and unless you are not making up your own notes and rhythms... this is not a problem. In general, I feel like trying to address **possible** problems, that are not yet problems, is a form of procrastination. You're, assumingly, already doing everything you should be doing, why make a problem where there isn't none (unless you are indeed making up the music and not playing what is on the page)!

I remember fake reading when I was at that level as a kid, and relying on my ear. I grew out of it as the music got more complex. My problem was that I had a hard time differentiating F and C, and G and B from each other, in certain circumstances - and I still do that sometimes when there are tons of notes on the page. (None of the teachers I've worked with since my return has considered this a problem, by the way.)

I have a good ear for intonation, but not a good ear-memory for songs - it takes a ton of work for me to memorize music.

September 24, 2019, 10:11 AM · I believe this is pretty common, at least in my experience. My teacher would accuse me of "de-composing" while playing what I remembered instead of what I was reading (and I was following along with the music!).

Edited: September 24, 2019, 10:24 AM · Pamela, the problem is that at from time to time I do start making it up when it sounds like something else that is close. It's gotten a lot better, but it's still happening a bit too often. I DO return to the written music when I, or my teacher, catches it. It wouldn't be concerning if it were deliberate.

A good example is the second half of Grenadiers in Book 2. The problem isn't the key change - that wasn't difficult. The problem is Schumann used part of La Marseillaise and I happen to know that very well. So my eyes see the notes, there is a similar yet different tune in my head, and my fingers, apparently follow my head rather than my eyes.

The transcription suggestion sounds good and will work with that as well.

Bob, I like what your teacher calls it :) It's also good to know this is a common problem. Glad I started this thread!

September 24, 2019, 10:35 AM · I think you are going to have to stop yourself before you get to that section and VERY SLOWLY play from the sheet music so that you learn the notes as written on the page. I'm looking at the sheet music now, and even I (who apparently does not have an ear-memory for music, LOL) is trying to force the notes that I hear in my head with the sheet music. My solution is to very slowly go through the sheet music while practicing. Mark where your ear and the sheet music drift (I usually use parentheses, or draw a box around the notes that will later be erased), then focus your practice on the few notes before and after that - and then concentrate your practice on that until you are dialed in and can repeat it at least 5 times in a row without a mistake. Then go through the next day (start with the marked phrase, then if that goes well then go through the whole section) to see where you are at, and repeat ad nauseum until you've got it.

Also, listen to recordings of this piece, read the sheet music along with.

September 24, 2019, 11:06 AM · Children are often able to learn pieces entirely by ear through about Suzuki book 4, so you have a fair chunk of runway distance before it becomes a major issue. And frankly, most violinists today generally rely on their ears to learn music to some extent. Even if we don't need to have heard things in advance, it certainly is extremely helpful if our ears/brains are predicting where our fingers need to go.

Your current problem is that your ear is causing you to learn music inaccurately, which does need to be fixed ASAP. I think this is effectively a problem of carelessness more so than anything else, though. (It often shows up in subtle ways in advanced players. There are place where rhythm is commonly distorted by performers, and we've heard so many performers do it that it has become part of our inner conception of the work, so we distort the printed rhythm ourselves.)

The Suzuki recordings render the rhythms precisely. You could try recording yourself and seeing if your mental conception of what you played matches the recorded conception, and then whether that matches the Suzuki recording. Or you could always learn works with a metronome that keeps a strong first beat so you can immediately hear if you've gotten off with a rhythm.

I'd also suggest finding a sight-reading app that keeps track of both accurate pitch and accurate rhythm, and spending several minutes each day on sight-reading.

September 24, 2019, 11:36 AM · aha so that is the problem, now I get it. yes this is indeed a problem. solution: look at the music :-)
Edited: September 24, 2019, 11:41 AM · Thanks Lydia and Pamela. My teacher's direction to practice everything backwards right now will also help (measures, not notes). Impossible for the fingers get all rebellious and play something else. He has had me do this with individual pieces in the past so I know it works. By backwards I mean:

For example, the piece has 30 measures:

Play measures 29-30 until comfortable
Next, play measures 27 - 30 until comfortable, then 25 - 30, so on and so forth. By the time I've reached measures 1-30 it is note perfect no matter the starting point.

He has specifically told me not to listen to Suzuki recordings as then I just duplicate what's in my memory. I DO record myself from time to time so I can hear what I'm actually playing rather than what I think I'm playing.

Lydia, good suggestion on the additional sight reading work, we also discussed that. I've a Korg tuner with metronome but will look to see if there is something more targeted. I have to actually look at my tuner to see my pitches which takes my eyes from the music.

September 24, 2019, 11:40 AM · Jean- I DO look at the music, which is the problem. I actually think I'm reading :-) This doesn't happen with every piece, thankfully.
September 24, 2019, 11:53 AM · The Trala app is pretty good.
September 24, 2019, 12:46 PM · Catherine,

Since I'm a geezer, and a very-late starter I never developed the "ear" skill. Although as a teacher and working with a youth orchestra I have discovered the issue. Actually I believe that, in the age of YouTube this has gotten worse.

One of my students has the talent to learn by ear. I recently assigned er a piece which she looked up on YouTube, only she made a mistake and got a totally different piece and that is what she played at the next lesson. Therein lies the problem - it becomes easier than reading and you also learn the other person's mistakes.

I have found that sight reading totally unfamiliar music forces you to actually read the music. That being said, I like that idea of learning it backwards from the last measure to the first.

FWIW: I'm a product of and devotee to the Doflein system and my students, once they fully understand the way the four "Attitudes" work tend to rocket past their peers not to ignore that I am a real stickler about the bio-mechanics of playing the violin and don't allow sloppy standing and body position in my studio. Suzuki may have had the idea that you can fix poor posture later, I disagree because un-learning a complex arrangement of neurons that create muscle memory is very difficult to impossible.

Edited: September 24, 2019, 1:20 PM · Thanks George! I think you and my teacher would be able to have a good conversation. He uses Suzuki only for the rep - he likes the progression of the pieces for his adult students interested in classical music but uses his own method he's worked out in his many years of teaching.

The backwards approach is interesting and, yes, totally forces me to sight read and why he elicited a promise to not turn to YouTube for current pieces. Whatever it takes!

September 24, 2019, 7:11 PM · I thought the solution to the problem is obvious... 'Read and play more unfamiliar music'. There are many compilations of selected etudes/pieces/duets for the beginner level. Sight read through them, there's no need to play them perfectly, play it through a few times then move on to the next one, thus not giving enough time to memorize. One book will keep you going for a couple of days, then repeat. A book of easy Celtic tunes is also indispensable, you will learn to sight read pretty quick while searching for tunes to add to your repertoire.
September 24, 2019, 7:57 PM · Inattention, mind on too many other things, can happen to anyone. For the kids, it's also when they see a less familiar pattern or marking and don't process it fast enough so they "make it up". ("Are you playing what you think it is, what you want it to be, or what's on the page?")

I wouldn't worry too much about trying to not-memorize. After a lifetime of hearing things and remembering them, it's probably too automatic. What you're after is overcoming "don't realize I am no longer reading the music" so people's suggestions are basically to remove the factors that contribute to autopilot:
- Playing the actual violin (thus, looking at the page while listening, for both music you can play and music you can't)
- Playing a familiar piece (thus, reading lots and lots of tunes that you don't know or non-tunes)
- Playing a familiar piece from the beginning (thus, not starting at the beginning so that you're not carried through by the contextual memory)

Along similar lines of transcription is doing dictation. Reading is seeing something and playing (hearing) it, and dictation is hearing something and writing (seeing) it, so it forces you to practice slowing down. Then you listen to the source again while checking what you wrote.

September 25, 2019, 4:59 AM · For goodness sake, when you find you are playing "by ear" that's when you are really playing music, not just transcribing written symbols, which are a useful but inadequate substitute.
September 25, 2019, 8:16 AM · Like Adrian seems to suggest I also think there is really no problem at all, and you should just feel blessed with your musical instincts, as it were "composing on the go" the sequel of the notes you are currently playing. I think I had that too when I was a child. Just pay more attention to the actual notes, which is easier said than done, but then, that is the story of the violin: lots and lots of things to pay attention to, until they have become a habit!
September 25, 2019, 10:24 AM · "Playing by ear" is hearing the music in your head and just doing it. It demonstrates an instinctive sense of interval distances and melodic contour. You have a valuable talent that will help when performing pieces from memory, and if you do non-classical genres, it helps improvisation, composing, transcribing from recordings, and, what I have to do sometimes, transposing an accompaniment to other keys when working with singers.
But, for classical solos, you are using it at the wrong stage of learning a piece.
For me, learning a piece has 4 stages.
1) Sight-reading
2) Choreography; designing your personal fingers and bowings.
3) Repetition; to turn those mechanical motions into habits.
then last:
4) Memorization, which gives you a superior performance by removing the mental and visual distraction of reading.
Edited: September 25, 2019, 6:59 PM · Joel - thank you for putting that together so succinctly. That was what my teacher was saying the other night in his own way. It's not about NOT using my ear, but about the right timing and way to use it.

I know it is a different balance/approach in non-classical genres, but my focus is on classical music of all types. Of course that could change at some point.

Jean, that sounds so simple to do :) Right now it's about knowing when my fingers stop playing the notes on the page and move to what's in my head. Last night I started the "backwards practice" for my assigned pieces. It really works, if a bit humbling at first as it highlights where my playing has differed from the actual assigned piece. The differences sound good most of the time (thankfully I DO hear that when it happens), but of course that isn't the point.

I really appreciate all of the comments and insights, thank you!

September 25, 2019, 8:21 PM · Maybe if the skills of....1. Sight-reading. 2. Memorization. 3. Playing-by-ear, were studied and practiced separately and in-depth there would cease to be any confusion between them...?
Edited: September 25, 2019, 10:01 PM · Catherine--try working without the violin, sometimes, as you learn. As many have said, the ear thing is wonderful musicianship and you can learn to use the written notes consciously, even without the instrument, to get to the music...if that makes sense, my words aren't finding me...so that when you look at the score you see music instead of just decoding. For example: Practicing singing the rhythms or letter names or just the tune, but consciously following the score and the visual picture of the melody it creates; on spots you tend to get off, work on the music without your instrument, so the instrument can't take you on flights on fancy till the score has taught your ear where it's going. The technical term I think would be learning to audiate from the sheet music itself--similar to sightsinging, where the score translates directly to the ear with no physical "decoding" step necessary--trying to make your ear and the score allies rather than enemies :)

I am not sure that made as much sense as I hoped but maybe it touches a helpful concept? I feel like when that visual-aural link is there your ears will be less likely to go off on their own, at least without you knowing it :)

Edited: September 26, 2019, 3:07 PM · Kathryn - that is an interesting suggestion. I've not mentioned it before, but I am in a Greek Orthodox choir- we sing acapella. My choir director is also my violin teacher and he observed the other evening that I'm less likely to follow my ear in choir, but I dont think it's ever presented in this exact way. My problem as a choir soprano happened when others around me got off pitch. Thankfully that problem is almost gone as I'm better able to resist following my ear when that happens


I will also mention that until I returned to the violin that I didn't truly read in that I didn't know the formal names of the notes, but understood the note values. So I really depended on my ear in a major way. My singing has certainly benefited from the returning to the violin, more than I had expected. Specifically when others around me get off pitch, I'm better able to follow the music so, perhaps, that aural-sheet music connection is already changing.

September 26, 2019, 1:58 PM · Henry, I that that may be the approach my teacher is using, starting with the backwards practicing. I trust his teaching so I won't question what else he may have in mind but I already see benefits from this first step. It certainly forces sight-reading!


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