Starting Point: The Story Behind the Video Project
Long before I ever thought of trying to teach this material, I was intent on learning how to play by ear. At family gatherings my dad’s sister would sit down at the keyboard and play family favorites, without any notes, adding extra flourishes to familiar hymns and other songs. Since this early experience of being impacted by hearing someone playing spontaneously, I’ve been inspired by many others who play by ear. Their examples continue to inspire and motivate me to continue to grow.
My first glimmer of hope came during my first year of study at Oberlin. Dr. Wesley Smith challenged us with the idea that learning syllable names could result in our being able to sing familiar songs as if the syllables were an additional verse of a song. I decided to give a try, and I soon became quite fluent. I transferred this to the keyboard and played by thinking syllable names. Changing the key was easy, because the syllables worked in all keys. Dr. Earl Lehman at Bluffton College showed how children can begin to internalize the pitches of the scale. Using a vertical arrangement of syllable names or numbers on a chart, children watched, listened, and sang as he pointed to each pitch.
In music theory class at Oberlin, Robert Melcher required us to harmonize a major scale in all keys, singing the Roman numeral names as we played. We were also required to transpose several familiar songs to all keys, again singing Roman numerals.
The lights came on when I realized that I could combine these skills, and I began playing songs in keyboard style with melody and chords in the right hand and the bass in the left. We also did a lot of common-tone chording. For me, commencement was the beginning of a journey as a life-long learner. With the addition of more chords to my vocabulary, I’ve learned to sift through melodies to find underlying scale progressions, sequential chord patterns and more .
Organizing my file of rhythm patterns was facilitated by my study of Dalcroze eurhythmics with Marta Sanchez and other fine instructors. Using binary and ternary patterns in improvisation really helped me develop a command of rhythms, including mixed meter. As you’ll hear me say throughout the video series, we must organize the sounds that have been floating around in our ears, minds, voices and fingers since the day we started making music. We can use what we discover and internalize in a rapid-fire thinking process called improvisation. First, we have to program them into our muscles. Our muscles will remember.
After about twenty five years of sifting through melodies and applying what I was learning, I sat down and in a week’s times was able to outline the materials that are included in this video training series. First, this became a book entitled, Want to Play by Ear? A Step-by-Step Approach. My suggestion to those who would like to develop skill in playing by ear is this: Start by thinking about what you already know. You’ll be delighted as you hear standard chord progressions in music you’ve heard and played for years. It’s exciting to make these personal discoveries. It’s also exciting to learn some of the chords that jazz musicians use, and the chords learned through a study of modes. You’re never too old to increase your vocabulary of chords. Keep on learning; it’s a great antidote to aging. I hope what you discover will bring joy and fulfillment for you on your journey as a life-long learner! Welcome opportunities to pass what you learn on to others.