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Music Improvising HOW TO

Frequently Asked Questions

by Renee Leech
  1. What is the relationship of "playing by ear" to "rote learning"?
  2. Does playing by ear hinder or help playing by sight?
  3. What is the relationship between music lessons and self-teaching?
  4. What teaching methods integrate well with creative self-teaching?
  5. Why use the Suzuki and Pace methods together for keyboard instruction?
  6. What if I am interested only in certain types of music?
  7. What are the advantages of acoustic versus electronic instruments?

1. What is the relationship of "playing by ear" to "rote learning?"

When I was actively teaching piano, teachers often disagreed about the value of playing music "by ear." Sight-reading was felt to be a most important skill. Anything that interfered with reading musical notation was felt to be "rote" instruction--a dead end to reading and learning music.

The truth is that playing by rote is not synonymous with playing by ear. While rote learning may involve imitation of movements or sequences, before one actually understands the why of them, "playing by ear" only means that one plays music as one hears the music in the mind. Most American children can hear "The Star Spangled Banner" in their minds. One could view that knowledge as a starting point for reading a complicated version of that anthem from a musical score, if need be. Knowing the song does not automatically mean the singer will always sing the song in the same way, by rote, or never transfer the musical concepts in that song to another song.

While playing by ear may be a part of rote learning, just as we should be aware of the advantages of playing by ear, we should also acknowledge there is some benefit from rote learning. Rote or "ear and finger" knowledge of a piece may help a student over the hurdle of learning a piece, so he can concentrate on refining technical skills, and learning the keyboard by touch while trying to look up at the piano score. In addition, pieces learned by rote, but containing sequential concepts, may reinforce the inductive reasoning process in learning the new concept. In these ways, rote learning, which may include playing by ear, can be a profound tool for developing musical skill and understanding. Back to FAQs

2. Does playing by ear hinder or help playing by sight?

Students who can play by ear are sometimes perceived to resist reading music on the page. The argument is that a student may feel: "If I can play music by ear, why learn to read it? Give it to me by rote, please." Such a student may resist sight-reading, expect the teacher to play a piece first, and try to memorize by sound or let the sound guide him to guess at the notes on the page. He may prefer to look down at his hands in preference to looking at the music. But these are problems unto themselves, and should not be blamed on a student's preference for playing by ear.

To encourage reading, one should rather address the root of these problems, taken separately. The student generally desires to avoid mistakes and criticism, and to get on with the lesson. He compensates for problems with eyesight, eye-hand coordination, and imperfect comprehension of notes or patterns on the musical staff, by thinking back to his ear comprehension. He may not yet comprehend the usefulness of the black keys as "keyboard Braille." Ear training may actually help to overcome these problems, by assisting the student to self-correct.

Most people immediately realize the value of "ear training." As a child, my dad taught me to play an "ear tune" on the piano, with both accompaniment and melody. Although I was blessed with early exposure to piano lessons, it was that ear tune that turned on the light for me, in understanding music. From that point on, I had the feeling I knew the keyboard from the inside out. I could play what I could hear, in some basic fashion, even though I might have neither the notes on paper, nor the technique to play masterfully. And I could know more quickly how to read a piece of music, once I had heard it.

To be sure, I experienced all of the problems teachers have found with children who learn well by ear. One tends to rely on one's strong suit. But when the problems described above are addressed, it can be seen that the ear, which may have led to over-reliance on ear playing, may also be the way out of such over-reliance. In fact, the ear may have kept the student going, despite some perceptual failing. Once identified, a student's area of weakness may then be corrected, with the help of the good ear.Back to FAQs

3. What is the relationship between music lessons and self-teaching?

Music lessons are invaluable. But teachers and students move. Situations change. When one stops lessons, the skill of self-teaching is critical to continued progress. With an educated ear, one is never starting from scratch. One makes musical sense by playing the notes, learning the sounds, and then checking them with the ear with each new attempt at playing "by sight." A well-trained ear can be profoundly helpful at times when one must rely on self-teaching.

It seems we get nowhere in music without dedicating time to it, and digging deep--taking responsibility for our own learning. In that respect, we are all self-taught. A piano teacher may be a necessity for good progress, at times. But whether or not we are able to pursue regular lessons with a piano teacher, we have available many teaching methods which can lead us to teach ourselves when the teacher is not available. One is creative improvising. Another is use of a proven teaching method. Another is listening to music.Back to FAQs

4. What teaching methods integrate well with creative self-teaching?

Of interest to a student wishing to learn in a profound way are two methods which develop the ear in depth, while also developing excellent reading and technical skills. These are the methods of Shinichi Suzuki (applicable to a number of instruments) and Robert Pace (applicable to the keyboard). These methods integrate sight-reading with ear training, but in such opposite ways that the methods seem to many teachers incompatible. The methods are sometimes pitted against each other, and characterized as rote versus concept teaching.

In my view, the two methods are highly compatible for self-teaching. Both instruction methods have the same objective: developing versatile and expressive musicians with excellent technique and deep musical knowledge. As a point of comparison, the simple difference might be said to be that the Suzuki method employs inductive reasoning, whereas the Pace method employs deductive reasoning.

In the Suzuki method, the student induces how to read music. First, the student listens (and watches his teacher). Then, he reads and plays the music. At home, he compares his playing to a recording. He tries to use movements (technique) demonstrated by his teacher, to produce the nuances of sound he hears on the recording. At home, during self-teaching, the recording is the reminder, the home teacher.

In the Pace method, the student deduces how to read music. First, he learns a basic concept (of sound, note reading, music pattern or structure, type of movement). Then, he applies that concept to a keyboard exercise or piece of music. At home, he tries to employ variations of the concept as he uses it in his pieces, self-teaching by referring again and again to the concept, and applying it in different ways.

Shinichi Suzuki, famous for his success in teaching piano and violin to very young children, proposed that the music teacher's job was really to develop musical talent. He felt that if one would internalize not only musical sounds but also the artist's interpretation of those sounds, a satisfying involvement in music could be experienced immediately. With such involvement, and a classical repertoire where technical concepts are introduced sequentially, diligent Suzuki students can develop a high level of playing skill early on in their musical education.

Robert Pace, who has developed profound keyboard teaching materials for all ages and many genres of music, has based his instruction on the premise that core concepts of music are relatively few in number. Each concept may be introduced again and again, each time in a higher degree of complexity. Because his method relies on teaching of concepts, his method is adaptable to group learning and peer teaching. Pace students develop depth of understanding, and move easily into different genres of music.

The Pace materials deviate from more traditional teaching methods by challenging students to use all twelve keyboard hand positions from the start, and identify patterns and harmonic structures, rather than play from Middle C and play only notes as written. This twelve-key approach is made easier by the limiting of hand positions and chord progressions in the early years of study, so that the more demanding transposition exercises can be accomplished. There have been spin-offs of this concept-teaching method which revert back to the drastically less flexible Middle C approach, for those seeking less challenge in the early years of piano study.Back to FAQs

5. Why use the Suzuki and Pace methods together for keyboard instruction?

Although some of my fellow teachers found these two methods of piano teaching incompatible, I found them to compliment each other. While some parents and children preferred one over the other, the two were effectively utilized together by some students. This compatibility stems from the fact that both methods emphasize similar concepts for the first two (the most critical) levels of instruction. The main shared concepts include initial use of: (1) a five-finger position for melody, and (2) the three Major chords in the diatonic scale (the I, IV, and V) for accompaniment, using a six-key range of notes.

For self-teaching, I have felt the Pace materials to be profound, so that they capture a student's interest and inspire creativity. Especially with a teacher's manual, the instructions are very clear, and there are rich, sequenced repertoire materials to explore at all levels. Concept coverage is broad, and language is applied to concepts, so that the student gains solid command of the tools of music composition. The materials lead easily into ensemble playing, or composing. Should one not have the benefit of lessons, one can progress nicely in the interim by self-teaching with the Pace materials.

To check for a polished sound and good technique, the Suzuki materials are a uniquely helpful self-teaching resource. I have found the recordings to call upon the inductive learning process to promote a beautiful sound, while reinforcing the concepts taught more fully and intensively in the Pace keyboard method.Back to FAQs

6. What if I am interested only in certain types of music?

To be a flexible musician, one needs to develop a general knowledge of music and how to play it well. A student who starts with a particular style may find that the style can be limiting. Like rote learning, learning in only one style can impede a versatile, conceptual understanding of music and beautiful keyboard technique.

That said, it should be noted that the Robert Pace teaching materials encompass many different musical genres and styles. Back to FAQs

What are the advantages of acoustic versus electronic instruments?

Soundwise, a good acoustic (unamplified) instrument will not tire the ear and so will invite longer playing sessions. Overtones resonating from acoustic sound will suggest ideas to the player.

Skillwise, a player may develop good technique by comprehending the demands of an acoustic instrument, and playing it correctly. Playing first on an electronic instrument which is not touch-sensitive can inhibit development of good technique.

Freedomwise, the acoustic improviser may start with an open slate and go where his experiments take him, whereas the electronic improviser may be limited to or distracted by the program capabilities of his instrument, so that he is channeled into playing in certain styles.

As a companion to acoustic instruments, electronic instruments excel in the ability to connect to the computer, translate improvised music into notated music and vice versa, and educate the musician to think in theoretical terms as to accompaniment patterns, rhythms, chord construction, key changes, etc. A good electronic instrument can provide reliable connectivity to simulated group playing experiences, as well as, in some cases, access to a wide vocabulary of sounds, sound effects, orchestration capabilities, and recording capabilities which enable the same player to play more than one part in ensemble music. Back to FAQs


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