I spend a lot of time reading about piano teaching on the internet. And I spend a lot of time reading questions from piano teachers asking how they can stop their students from playing by ear… how they can get them to keep their eyes on their music… how they can stop them from adding extra notes/changing the rhythm to their pieces. But I rarely read anything about how to teach piano students to play by ear.
Granted, when you are teaching a piece that is to be used for an exam, performance or competition you are not likely to want to be encouraging improv. And learning to read notation correctly is, of course, imperative. However, for those students who take piano lessons as a recreational activity (which is a large percentage of piano students) it seems a shame to me that we are searching for ways to squelch a skill that has the potential to add massive amounts of enjoyment, creativity and self-expression to your piano students’ musical experience.
I think it’s because we’re not quite sure how to teach piano students to play by ear…
No Book… Yikes!
As piano teachers we’re very used to teaching from sheet music. We know where to begin. We know exactly what it should sound like. We know how to achieve that end product. But take away the book… and we lose that security of knowing what is “right”.
And that’s the best part.
…But It’s Not As “Loosy Goosy” as it Seems…
Playing by ear gets a bad rap. But it doesn’t mean that there is no musical clout to being a “play by ear” pianist. In fact, if your piano students are able to both read music and play by ear you’ll have a studio full of the most well-rounded and versatile pianists!
Here’s how to go about teaching beginning play-by-ear skills to your piano students. You don’t need to throw away their method books. You don’t need to toss note-reading to the breeze. You just need to follow this step-by-step guide in their lessons and watch the magic happen:
1) Learn the 4 Chords: Teach your piano student the I, IV, V and vi chords in the key of C. Almost every popular song uses these chords in varying arrangements. Teach them to move easily between these chords, and how to split the chord between hands (LH plays a 5th, right hand plays the root chord is the easiest and lends itself best to pop music). Students can play for hours with just these 4 chords and they can accompany themselves singing just about any song form the radio using these chords.
Check out this video that shows the versatility of these 4 chords. (Note – for our sensitive readers, there are a few “choice” words in the video).
2) Learn to Spice it Up: Teach your piano student how to add some passing tones between chords, and how to add rhythmic interest to their chording. Keep it simple – teach them two ways to expand upon broken chords and two ways to expand upon solid chording. This will serve them well enough to play most of what they want to learn as a beginning “play by ear” pianist.
3) Keep it simple; keep it in C: When starting to play by ear take away the sharps and flats and keep it in the key of C. Choose a melody that your student knows very well – start with something simple like Jingle Bells. Give them the starting note and ask the (liberating!) question “What do you think comes next?”. Help them pick their way through the melody line.
4) Quick Theory Lesson Time: The next step is adding the LH chording to the RH melody. Your student does not need a huge theory lesson. They simply need to know that a I chord usually starts and ends a song. After that it’s best to allow your student to experiment using trial and error and the question “Does that sound right?” You can spend hours teaching the theory behind what they are doing, but playing by ear is just that….using your ears… so let them!
Why Should We Bother?
Teaching students to play the piano by ear is both easy and difficult all at the same time. It’s easy because it can be as simple as you’d like to make it. It’s difficult because we’re not used to getting rid of rules and structure. While your student’s first few attempts at playing by ear may be cringe-worthy, take a step back and appreciate the massive amount of learning that is taking place. Your piano student’s musical ability will truly blossom through the experience of learning to play with nothing but their ears to guide them and the resulting skill set is something which is very applicable to the “real world”.
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