It’s a skill we’d all love to have – the ability to play music by ear, and not need the actual musical score.
You know, sit down at the piano, and just start playing whatever tune is in your head. There are so many benefits to such a talent: the freedom to express oneself musically, versatility in being able to put one’s music to good use for economic or artistic purposes, the ability to entertain and please others…and if we see the talent of playing by ear in our children, we are usually thrilled.
And why wouldn’t we be?
While it is true that having an ear for music is a tremendous blessing that opens wide artistic doors of opportunity, believe it or not, there can be a down side – one that homeschoolers, particularly, encounter.
Those whose children take music lessons from a teacher outside the home are not as likely to struggle with this potential “problem” of being able to play by ear, because such issues are normally handled by others. But if you’re a homeschooler and you have any musical background, it’s likely that you’re including music education as part of your educational plan. And, when you do, if your child demonstrates a strong sense of pitch and can hear music and play it without the notes on the page…you’re likely to come face-to-face (or, shall we say, ear-to-ear) with the problem:
The ability to play by ear can hinder children’s progress in learning to read music.
The better the child’s ear, the more likely it is that he or she will play according to what he hears rather than what he sees on the page. It is not unusual to find that musically gifted children have years of musical instruction, and are able to play pieces beautifully, but that they struggle to sight read notes on a page.
How does this happen?
It is fairly simple, actually. The child struggles through the first time or two of playing a new piece, getting support and instruction from a teacher. Then, once he gets the melody in his head, he plays it from then on according to his memory, rather than from actually reading the musical score. His ability to hear the notes enables him to play pieces effectively even though he is not actually able to read the notes on the page, a fact that often leads teachers to think he is further along technically than he actually is. Consequently, the student moves forward in his instruction, never having actually learned the fundamentals.
Homeschoolers can change all that!
Identify the Problem
The key is to notice that your child is playing by ear rather than by the music. If the child struggles mightily to learn a new song, but then shortly thereafter is able to play it like a virtuoso, it is likely that he or she is playing by ear. An easy way to determine whether this is so is to point to a note in the middle of a song that the child knows and plays well, and ask the child to play only that note. Do this 8 or 10 times for different notes, randomly throughout the score (making sure the notes chosen are not next to each other or in any sequence). If the child correctly plays each note, it is highly likely that she is reading music. If she cannot identify some of the notes (unless she plays them in sequence) it is highly likely that she is playing by ear and not reading the music.
So, once you know your kid is playing by ear and not reading music, what do you do about it?
Fix the Problem
Fixing the problem is not particularly challenging, it just takes time, consistency, and patience. The strategy involves teaching children the notes carefully, and then making them use the written score rather than their memories when they play. Try these steps:
- Spend focused time at each music lesson working on music theory and technique. Get a theory and technique instruction book and have the child work through it, labeling the notes on the staff and actually physically writing in the notes him or herself. Focused study on the mechanics of music is important if these students are to be able to read music effectively and not simply rely on their ear.
- Use acronyms to help the student learn note names and positions. For the treble clef line notes (from bottom to top), use (E)very (G)ood (B)oy (D)eserves (F)udge, and FACE for the treble clef space notes. For the bass clef line notes (from bottom to top), use (G)ood (B)urritos (D)on’t (F)all (A)part and use (A)ll (C)ows (E)at (G)rass for the bass clef space notes.
- Get a sight reading music instruction book and have the child play a few new sections from the book only once. Sight reading instruction books offer short snippets of music for children to play, often just a few measures in length. The key is to do different snippets each day, playing each through only once, so that the child never memorizes the tune, and has to play only by reading the music.
- Have the child play through a well-known piece backwards. Doing so forces him or her to look at the individual notes and play what is written on the page, rather than play from memory.
- Periodically spot-check any piece that the child knows well by randomly choosing a note in the middle of the piece and having the student play it. This will help you track the child’s progress in learning note names.
- Separate “playing for practice” from “playing for pleasure”. Encourage the child to play by ear, but not to do so during focused practice time. When music instruction time is over, let the student play whatever he or she wants.
- Give incentives for learning to read music. When you spot check (according to the technique mentioned in the Identify the Problem section as well as #5), let the child earn a small something special (money, candy, etc.) for each note correctly played. Students can also earn incentives for each snippet of the sight reading instruction book snippet (as mentioned in #3) they play correctly. Another option, rather than the student earning an incentive for every note played correctly, is to keep a log of correct notes played and have the student earn something special after she obtains a certain number of correctly identified notes on the log.
Having an ear to be able to play music from simply hearing it is truly a gift, and one we want to nurture in our children. But it also can be problematic when it prevents students from learning their music fundamentals. Taking a conscientious approach to teach these children music theory, and then using techniques to force them to use this knowledge rather than rely on their ear and memory, can help musically gifted students get the best of both worlds: the ability to hear and play tunes without music, and the knowledge and discipline to sight read and play from a musical score as well.
Such a win-win is enough to fill any homeschool mama’s heart full of music.