Ear Playing

By Ken Davies
From AccompaList, a Resource for Church Accompanists
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Editor's note: the following words of wisdom about ear-playing were written by Ken Davies, a freelance composer from Denver, CO. Ken says a lot in a small space, and his thoughts are somewhat more philosophical and theoretical than they are an applied set of exercises, but if you'll take time to carefully think about each sentence, it may be very useful, and possibly encouraging as well, as you seek to venture forth toward playing by ear.--Richard Huggins

From youth, some of us lean toward ear playing while others tend to be more conducive to the structure of note reading. Some of this is a result of our "mental wiring." Both can be learned. Each requires a "kind of" opposite thinking process.

It is true that "applied theory" helps ear playing, but that in itself doesn't quite get to the root of the matter. Ear playing, at its best, is akin to expository speaking in a sense that in expository speaking, all the aspects of vocabulary, grammar and syntax have been so well brought together that little thinking needs take place except for the focus of concepts being spoken of. However, one can be a great orator in English while a virtually paralyzed mute in, say, German. Similarly, an ear improviser can be wonderful with jazz styles and literature and horrible with gospel. A thorough familiarity, or one might say a "blood feeling," of a style helps. Even more fundamental before this is the tactile knowledge of the instrument based on sound rather than on written notation.

We speak also of playing "by heart," which I believe most of us would probably agree suggests that crossover point in learning a piece of music, whether by repeated readings or by ear rote repetitions, where we know it so well we experience the ability to let go and simply "feel and do," or "we could play it in our sleep." In brief, somewhere beyond mere memorization.

For the person accustomed to fluent music reading as the primary learned process, ear playing development is rather like starting over, as if written music never existed in the first place. At its most fundamental level, ear playing develops as a process of trial and error. Very simply, one "sings mentally" and copies with the instrument. Gradually, one sings and copies more accurately and more simultaneously. Gradually one is able to introduce and utilize applied theory in the process, though there is no substitute for the hands of the instrument learning their positions based on sound instead of note positions on staves. It is a "hear and do" process. "Translating the visualization" of written notes actually adds another step and gets in the way. (Although there ARE some good improvisers who actually do visualize notes)

It is largely a mental CRAFT rather than anything specifically spiritual. There are many who were thus "wired" and began improvising at a very young age. Not uncommonly they had difficulty learning to read notes fluently (the other edge of the sword and mental process) and thus sort of compensated by working on the development of their ear techniques (perhaps even unconsciously) to even a greater degree. One day many years later, we see them as "able to express out of thin air" so to speak. Their craft has been developed to the point where spirit can virtually take over and produce almost instant art. Sometimes they then occasionally quote the joke, "Yes, I can read music, but not well enough to hurt my playing."

Thanks to jazz education during recent years, there are several good books leading to ear development (in those styles). But fundamentally it ultimately comes down to the essential practicing to get the hands of the instrument to coordinate with the voice of the mind. And it takes practicing "the forgetting" that written music ever existed; that is, think not of notes but of sound. This part is done with hours of rote repetitions, of trials and errors, as a tactile vocabulary builds (of melodic materials and chord forms in the case of keyboard). Nothing in a book or printed word will assist THIS process at this basic level. And "this basic level" continues even though the skills rise, refine and compound. The process remains the same whether one plays a known tune by ear or "spontaneously creates" a new one. Every now and then the ear player will suddenly notice that he/she has just comfortably played "over his/her head," and will think "Gol-ly that was good. Now how in the world did I do that?" I like to think that that is one of God's little encouraging rewards so as to say "See, you're getting there."

By spending an hour a day learning tunes without written music, improvising in different keys, exploring and fooling around with musical ideas, and deliberately working out a relatively simple tune a day by trial and error plus rote memorization, one can become pretty good at ear playing in a couple years. One can also utilize the better books on the subject to help guide direction and stay on course for future refinement and growth.