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Formal or freestyle? Learning to play a tune ‘by ear’ or starting on page one of the sight-reading manual? For many this is a consideration when thinking about how to go about ‘taking up’ an instrument, when it comes to deciding how our children should proceed, it’s a different matter altogether. In the shop I often meet parents who can’t decide between the two; it becomes a problem when they can’t decide which may best suit their child and end up not choosing at all. My advice is to try them on one, see how it goes and if it doesn’t seem to be working you can always try them on the other one.
There is a lot to be said for both methods. In an effort to educate myself I asked two local musicians who both teach piano, in different ways, for their thoughts.
John, who is formally trained, has had great results teaching people the ‘learning by ear’ method. People can go to him with the music or songs that they want to hear, want to play, and quite quickly learn to express themselves on the keyboard in a way that gives them great joy and encouragement. Particularly for those of us who struggle with the structure of formal education.
John often picks up students that have tried the ‘by the book’ method and have been left cold, uninspired, and even their natural aptitude choked, to be allowed unfold their wings in fertile ground and soar to unimagined planes to express themselves quickly. They are often playing on the keyboard the songs they wanted to play, the songs they have in their heads, the songs that they want to be played, within weeks. There is no better encouragement.
Tonya has a different has approach. She knows well that learning staff notation is structured, a bit like schoolwork, and doesn’t give instant results, but it’s not that hard. Learning to read music takes time but is much simpler and more straightforward than learning the alphabet.
Every one of us has different aptitudes, capacities and skill levels, but for most of us there is a limit to how many tunes we can keep in our heads. The ability or skill to read music means that, as time goes on, a player can at any time go back to a piece they have played before (or a piece they haven’t) and play it as they read it from the sheet.
It is hard to know if one method is detrimental to the other. It may be that if you can play a few tunes by ear, you find it hard to go back to the beginning to begin on the formal training of sight-reading, but with a little application you could be back up to speed sooner than you think, and have learned a new skill in the process. Often people who have reading or concentration difficulties have a gift to pick stuff up by ear.
For adults in particular who may have less time on their hands and just want to be able to knock out a tune or two, learning and playing by ear may be a fast track. But for those of us who are a bit more ambitious, it’s the guy who can read the music that’ll get the gig.
I was talking to a (very lucky) person today who is hoping be in Mali this year in time for The Desert Music Festival. As soon as I got home, I had to put on one of my favourite albums, which just gets better with time — a collaboration of two of my favourite musicians, blues guitarists Ali Farka Toure and Ry Cooder’s ‘Talking Timbuktu’. If you like that, then I would also recommend Ry Cooder’s Paris Texas sound track. Hope you enjoy.