How NOT to play by ear....
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.
Keep looking at the music even if you are s playing it from memory.
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...
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.
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.
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.
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 ;-)
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.
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.
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.
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!
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!).
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.
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.
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
aha so that is the problem, now I get it. yes this is indeed a problem. solution: look at the music :-)
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:
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.
The Trala app is pretty good.
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.
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.
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?")
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.
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!
"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.
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.
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...?
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 :)
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
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!