Do Classical Pianists Need to Play By Ear? With Special Guest, Scott Houston

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We’re continuing with our series of reading music versus playing by ear with Scott Houston The Piano Guy. Scott has a lot of books and he’s got all kinds of resources. Piano In A Flash – being able to play by ear is his specialty and he’s helped thousands of people. So you should check out his resources. Today, we are going to cover why playing by ear is essential for classical pianists. You might wonder why you would even need that when you have the score. Isn’t that enough? Let me put it to you this way. Whether you take the music from the written score initially or you learn it by ear, ultimately all playing is by ear!

It’s so easy to play a piece you have learned once you commit it to memory as a pianist. You may have found yourself as a classical pianist playing the piano and realizing in the middle that you’re not zoning out but you’re zoning back in! You don’t even know how long you’ve been playing on auto-pilot. How can this be? There is a certain amount of motor memory where your hands just go without thinking. This is not good. In fact, it is dangerous because you can easily take a wrong turn. If you have a sonata movement where there’s a recapitulation that goes into a different key from the exposition, you can find yourself either leaving out half the piece or going back to the beginning. This can be a nightmare situation!

There is another aspect to this. I’ve noticed sometimes listening to a performance at a concert, even though the playing is fine, I find myself not being able to concentrate on it. I find myself zoning out. More often times than not in these situations, that’s when the player has a memory slip! If you’re not engaged when you are performing as if you yourself are composing the music, then the audience can’t concentrate on the music either. That’s the secret of captivating an audience no matter what style of music you’re playing:

You must remain engaged in the music listening as you craft each note essentially playing by ear no matter how you initially learned the score!

The other reason why it’s essential for a classical pianist to be able to play by ear, is no matter who you are, how accomplished your skills playing the piano, or how much experience you have performing solo music from memory; you will have memory slips. It happens to everyone from time to time. None of us are perfect.

Here’s why playing by ear is so invaluable in these situations. If you get fouled up momentarily finding yourself over the wrong notes, you can hear the music in your head. Then you can play the correct notes by ear until you get back on track. I’ve actually had circumstances in performance where suddenly I find that I’ve forgotten something. Maybe I’m on the wrong finger on a note and I don’t know where I’m going. I just feel my way. Often times when I listen back to the recording of my performance I’ve actually played all the right notes even though I had a memory slip. I was able to flesh it out the correct notes. Other times might not be so fortunate. But by being able to play by ear, a momentary memory slip may result in only a slight blip in a performance in a situation that could have been disastrous.

So many classical pianists I know have never played by ear and have no clue how to even approach such a thing. I think everyone thinks that being able to play by ear is a God-given gift. We all have the ability to play by ear. If you can ever remember tunes, you can play by ear in some way. It’s a very human thing to do. Here is a critical thing to remember and this probably applies to a lot of people today who are serious classical pianists. You need to get to a point mentally where you realize that the black dots on white paper that you consider music, are really just a recording of music. It’s not the actual music. The music is the sound you are creating. Sheet music is no more music than writing is speech.

So, with that in mind, here are a couple of different thoughts: I think it’s helpful at the beginning if you’re trying to play by ear you should think through and use the ability you have as a good classical pianist or great notation reader to your advantage. When you’re reading a score, pay attention to what chords the score is spelling out. The step between doing 100% reading and the other side of that coin which is being 100% playing by ear is that it doesn’t just happen with no steps in the middle. The middle step is that you understand chord changes. It’s the theory that we’ve all learned of working through a tune and working through the chord changes. I think the middle step is to just start down that path and paying attention while you’re reading the score.

The more you’re working through tunes and you’re working through scores, you can imagine the score as what it looks like underhand and not as individual notes, but as a chord progressions. That’s the biggest tip I can give someone who has never done it at all and is to start to think in terms of chord progressions instead of individual notes. That can be a huge help. More than that, I think it’s really important not to be afraid to just try things because you’re going to experiment with hitting right notes and wrong notes. As you do this, you’re will refine what you do. That’s why playing by ear is essential for classical pianists and it’s a lot of fun too. We hope this has been helpful! I thank Scott Houston for joining in this continuing discussion about playing from the score versus playing by ear. Robert Estrin here at Your Online Piano Store 949-244-3729


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