Teaching Piano by Ear: A Journey into the Unknown - Creative Music Education
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Teaching Piano by Ear: A Journey into the Unknown

By Roberta Wolff | Aural

Oct 02

teaching piano by ear

Teaching Piano by Ear

This month, the blog and podcast will be dedicated to the topic of teaching piano by ear. 

Students can often be put off by aural training. It can be tedious and difficult to grasp. But persist with it! 

To give us an introduction to this month’s topic, we welcome back our expert guest writer Roberta Wolff. She will give you an insight into what teaching piano by ear looks like, which we will continue to expand on all month. Thanks, Roberta! 

You can find Roberta’s Facebook page by clicking here.

A Journey into the Unknown

Rewind around 15 years and you find me in our small London townhouse waiting for my first ‘proper’ (i.e. regular and paying) student to arrive. I had been teaching her long enough to have developed a good rapport but we were both still very much in the early beginner stages.

“In the lesson plan today…playing by ear.”

It was daunting and frankly, somewhat terrifying. However, for me, there was something more terrifying, and that was NOT to take this step into the unknown.

Were I to teach fully within my comfort zone, I would be limiting her musical education the way mine had been.

A Teaching Philosophy

Before I even began teaching I had decided upon a teaching philosophy. If you have not thought about yours recently why not do it now?

Briefly, to this day I still work to make each lesson a delightful exploration, one where the student is free to experiment and all ideas are considered and challenged, all of this on top of a solid foundation of knowledge.

This seems to me the most reliable, and fun, way to raise a rounded and independent musician. This was not my experience as a student. Mine centred much more around me being told what I had done wrong each week. There was no thought of linking learning (using my hard-practised arpeggios to make a nice improvisation, for example), and least of all, having my own ideas!

The Benefits of Learning to Play by Ear

Actually, it may be quicker to list the drawbacks; there is only one I can think of. That is if a student is taught to play exclusively by ear without technique and theoretical understanding. Other than that extreme case, playing by ear offers the opportunity to:

  1. Reinforce theoretical and structural awareness.
  2. Develop a keen ear and even keener objective listening skills.
  3. Bring confidence to performing, both in memorised and played-with-score pieces.
  4. Improve sight-reading.
  5. Really feel the nuances of pulse and rhythm – rarely is timing an issue when playing by ear.
  6. Develop intrinsic co-ordination.
  7. Develop skills which allow students to learn pieces faster.
  8. Be a rounded musician who always has a few party pleasers handy.
  9. Discovering something new, that applies to both the teacher and student.
  10. To have fun!

What Every Teacher NEEDS to Know Before Beginning to Teach a Student to Play by Ear

I used to be really bothered by the fact that the chord sequence I settled upon would be slightly different or exclude some nuance present in the original. It doesn’t matter. The difference is the same as that of a professional pianist playing a simple Bach Prelude compared to a student. Feel free to mix it up and change things.

When starting out, aim to get your melody sounding as good as possible, choose a close accompaniment pattern and then enjoy your playing. The more you listen and play by ear the more you will notice and be able to identify the nuances you couldn’t hear before. This is how you refine your skill. It really is a case of learning through trial and error.

Like a Sketch

This is the process I use when a student and I begin a piece by ear. I approach it like we are creating a rough outline which we then go back and fill in. Work from the outside in, details come last.

  1. The student gets to choose the piece and then they need to send the link to me because most often I don’t know it.
  2. We listen to the piece together during the lesson considering the structure, verse, chorus, bridge, etc. then we pick a section to work on.
  3. We find our home key. This is really important because it considerably narrows down the possible notes. Next, we decide whether the excerpt is major or minor and then play the relevant scale.
  4. Now we must ease the ear in. With our key identified we play the primary triads, I add the 6 chord also at this stage. This is a great opportunity to work on keyboard harmony and theory skills.
  5. Identifying the most likely chords in this way, again, reduces possibilities.
  6. At this stage, I think consensus is split, I begin with the melody, I like to have it in place. So, we work the melody out minus any vocal/instrumental decorations.
  7. Now it is time to add the chords. I encourage students to keep it very simple, just playing triads rather than getting involved with accompaniment patterns. However, we do include any catchy bass lines. These are both rewarding to play and listen to and I feel somewhat let down as a listener if they don’t occur.
  8. Now, the student gets the simple version, as described above, under their fingers.
  9. Then we add the chosen accompaniment pattern, this can throw up coordination issues and some talk of pulse and time can be useful.
  10. Remind the student to keep listening back to the track and refining their piece.
  11. Keep playing, keep listening, keep uncovering and keep having fun.

I begin by working through these steps during lesson time. However, I keep out of the process as much as possible allowing the student to get lost, find themselves and develop confidence.

Learning Step-by-Step

As with any other learning process, we must progress from the simple to the complicated and we must be willing to engage in the activity at our own, or more importantly, our students’ level.

However, when we give our students the option to learn a song of their choice by ear, they may very well pick something we feel is unsuitable. I don’t think this should be a worry.

The experience should be fun and the student will be more motivated if they love the piece. We may make a small comment along the lines of, “What a great piece, I can see why you chose it, let’s give it a go, we can always make a few alterations along the way to tailor it to you”.

If you are starting out with teaching students to play by ear and are concerned about the song they may bring back to you, then steer students in the direction of a Christmas song, hymn or national anthem, as these are generally a simpler place to start.

Foundations

Before launching our students into playing by ear, there are activities we can undertake at the earliest stages to develop skills unconsciously.

  1. Listening games. “Here are 3 notes, do they move up or down, by leap or step, are they major or minor?” Progress to, “I started on D can you find the other two notes?”
  2. Spot the difference. Play a section from a piece they know making a slight change.
  3. Teach chord sequences from the very beginning, I know you all know about this, after all this is Tim’s site!
  4. Improvise.
  5. Look together for the tunes you know on the piano.

For older students:

  1. Revise key relations and scales, learn the most likely chords, cadences and key changes, work on keyboard harmony skills and learn the circle of 5ths in practice.
  2. Learn to play from a lead sheet.
  3. Give lots of encouragement.
  4. Analyse pieces they are learning from the score, highlight particularly wonderful chord progressions.
  5. Talk about music in its parts, my favourite interval, voice leading in chords etc.
  6. Transpose simple chord progressions, or pieces.

When I Don’t Teach by Ear…

It is important to me that my students become independent musicians; that they will have the confidence and knowledge to tap into the enjoyment music making brings long after lessons end. For this reason, I won’t act as a translator, deciphering the dots on the page on their behalf and teaching those dots to them by ear.

Some students, for example those who struggle with co-ordination or dyslexia, develop a heightened memory or ear and this approach can be tempting. In these cases, I work on separating the reading and playing processes putting in strategies that they can use on their own and on finding helpful ways to mark the score to make it easier to read, this nearly always involves colour. In this way students do not become reliant on me as a code cracker.

A Powerful Tool

Teaching students to play by ear is not just an enjoyable part of a lesson, it has become one of my most powerful teaching aids. I am often amazed at how long a student will persist when working out a piece they love.

They are determined and driven; they are developing the exact processes needed for great quality practice. They are fuelling their enthusiasm through a joyful cycle of musical achievement and it is not insignificant that they have a piece to play which will impress even the least musical of friends.

Hook Them

In her book “Grit. The Power of Passion and Perseverance” Angela Duckworth discusses the important role teachers of beginners play.

“Encouragement during the early years is crucial because beginners are still figuring out whether they want to commit or cut bait. Accordingly, Bloom and his research team found that the best mentors at this stage were especially warm and supportive. Perhaps the major quality of these teachers was that they made the initial learning very pleasant and rewarding. Much of the introduction to the field was as playful activity and the learning at the beginning of the stage was much like a game. A degree of autonomy during the early years is also important. Longitudinal studies tracking learners confirm that overbearing parents and teachers erode intrinsic motivation.”

Playing by ear and improvising are the perfect solution. It is fun, rewarding, and playful with a healthy dose of exploration and discovery. I can think of no better way to hook the young musician.

I have just released a brand new practice game, which helps encourage students to enjoy their learning. This is especially a great way to get your younger students to have fun during their practice. Please follow this link for more information.

This Month on topmusic.co…

On Tim’s blog and podcast this month, there will be discussions on…

  • Encouraging your beginner students to learn by ear
  • Andrew Bishko from MusicalU will share with us some of his favourite ear training games
  • Some of the best teaching piano by ear applications
  • How to teach pop music by ear
  • A brand new teaching piano by ear online course created with Christopher Sutton
  • And plenty more, including a look at hybrid pianos!

Conclusion

What do you need help with when it comes to teaching piano by ear? Is there anything in particular you would like to know when it comes to aural training?

Please leave your questions and thoughts in the comments section below.

This Month’s Resources

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About the Author

I am a piano teacher, mentor and writer based in Surrey, UK. I am also author of the "highly recommended" Music, Me, Piano Practice Resources. My students cover a wide range of ages and abilities; there is something new to be learnt from each of them. I love finding unique ways of inspiring each musician I meet and sharing ideas with others. You can visit me at my website by clicking here.