Playing By Ear
When I was 6 years old I tried playing a few tunes by ear, but my piano teacher would not have it. I HAD to learn to read the notes. I was horrible at reading notes until one day it all clicked – and now I read the notes very well. But what about playing by ear? I was never allowed to try and find out what it was all about but I knew it was important. My chance came when I started teaching piano in groups and the piano method I was using at the time was based on learning the basics of playing by ear. I was in my 30’s. That is when I understood how to play by ear!
Reading the notes does not have to be our only goal when teaching piano. It must happen from the beginning but not at the expense of the joy of making music.
During the first group lesson you can teach your students to sing and play a simple 5 finger echo song such as Johnny on the Woodpile by ear. I don’t think it matters that you have not taught them correct hand position or the names of the keys. Give them a way to find “where” to begin and end the song, then sing and play.
If students are already playing simple melodies with the right hand accompany their playing with I and V7 chords so that they get used to the harmonies. Then, little by little show them how to do it, just by listening. Allow them the make mistakes and at the same time be creative with different rhythm patterns.
Teach them to play their favorite pop songs by rote. Even if you have to spend some extra time learning the songs. Recently I taught a group of 5 year olds to do just this. This particular class had already learned the names of the white keys of the keyboard. It just so happens that “Annie” was a favorite movie in theaters and a favorite with this crowd. “It’s a Hard Knock Life” was chosen by one of the girls and if you click on the above title you can watch the video of the keys played. This is the same video I gave the parent. It took a little extra time to prepare but I also gained a little more experience in adapting songs for piano and the students enjoyed playing “regular” songs that everyone recognized.
Speaking the vocabulary of music is also a key concept when learning to play by ear. Make a habit of mentioning if you are playing in C or G major. Play the C major 5 finger scale in different rhythm patterns and with attractive teacher accompaniments. Repeat will all the major keys. Eventually they will get comfortable with these patterns and begin to identify them in the music and use these patterns to create new songs.
Transposition should be a natural occurrence in piano lessons. Some students do it easily and others will struggle. When the teacher is enthusiastic about introducing this new idea it so happens that 90% of the class will probably fall in line.
I’m sure you have a few other ideas that should be listed here about playing the piano by ear. It is a indispensable tool for well-rounded musicians and a lot of fun to implement in your group piano lesson.