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