Saturday, December 10, 2011

How Good Is Your Ear?

I’ve been away playing-by-ear my future as I guess many of us are these days.  Here in December the stresses of money, getting the right gifts and living up to everyone’s expectations are upon us, rejoice!  I found some relief from holiday pressures by volunteering to play piano for my kid’s elementary school choir.

A Total Play-By-Ear Situation

There was no written music, just audios of songs I didn’t know.  Usually, playing by ear involves picking out familiar songs so this was a little different for me.  Though these tunes were above general 101 levels of skill, to me they were fairly standard.  I took an hour and went through all six songs and wrote the chords above the words.  The hard work was through. 

For the first 3 weeks those chords worked fine but some songs didn’t seem quite right.  Something was missing.  I realized I hadn’t listened intently enough so I went back and concentrated on the parts that were lacking and everything changed.  That’s really the key that you must not ever discount.  Listening.

When a Rose Is Not a Rose

You have to truly know the song inside and out in your head.  I slacked on the beginnings, transitions and endings (and figure this is probably typical of most people).  The songs were there but the basic chord arrangements weren’t enough.  The finishing touches were missing which turned out to be the very parts that gave the kids direction.

So if your arrangement is lacking, go back and listen to what you might have missed in a song.  What is the hidden spark?  It may be a simple hook or musical answer to a verse.  Maybe you’ve got some of the chords wrong.  Maybe you’re playing it straight when you should be shuffling between measures. 

These things are the true essence of playing by ear.  Concentrate on hearing and emulating the subtle attributes that bubble underneath to bring life to your arrangements. 

Joseph Pingel is a pianist, teacher and musicologist. Click here to get the free companion book to this blog. See his other sites at and

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