Creative Corner: Play it By Ear

Look for a new  "Creative Corner" post each's the first...

Posts will follow a question and answer format. Although answers may be provided others, I am pleased and honored to announce that a good portion of posts will be provided by the sage of all things jazz and so much more: Bradley Sowash. Bradley possesses a unique combination of skills as an acclaimed jazz performer, author of top-selling method books for learning jazz, and an educator, too.  He is a regular guest on the PBS TV series The Piano Guy since its inception.

Today's Question:  Some of my students can play by ear with ease, while others struggle. As a teacher of all styles, I feel it is important for students to play by ear as they develop creative skills at the keys.  How do you go about teaching those how who don't come by it naturally? -Leila from Colorado

Bradley's Answer: While it's true that some individuals possess extraordinary musical ears, most of us fall somewhere between "prodigy" and "tin ear" on the bell curve of musical aptitude. Here are some tips for teaching this important skill for even those who may be hesitant about playing by ear.

Begin by selecting a simple tune in a major key that uses only primary chords. Ex: Frere Jacques, Row, Row, Row, Mary Had a Little Lamb...

1) Work out the melody:

  • Establish the key. Everything is easier in C, transposing can come later. Ask the student to play the C major scale to master the sound of the key.
  • Ask the student to sing the tune in C to determine the tonic or home tone. Work backwards. The last note of most simple tunes is nearly always the tonic. Make sure the last note is C.
  • Find the first note. An easy mistake is assuming that all melodies begin on the home tone. Check out Mary Had a Little Lamb--starts on E but ends on C.
  • Hunt and peck the melody. If the student gets stuck, guide by asking if the melody goes up or down or ask the student to sing with you.
  • Memorize the melody. Your student should be able to play the tune by ear with a steady beat before thinking about adding chords.
2) Add Harmony
  • Look for chord tones. When melody notes that fall on strong beats coordinate with notes in one of the primary chords, there's a good chance that chord will work as harmony.
  • Choose a chord. If the melody has a note on a strong beat that could be in more than one chord ask the student to test which chord is preferred.
  • Combine the melody and chords. Encourage the student to play whole-and half-note primary chords using common left-hand inversions.
3) Add Style
  • Accompany your student. Play a common LH Accompaniment while the student plays primary chords. Consider using Alberti, boogie, Latin bass lines or perhaps a simple root-fifth pattern.
  • As skills progress, the student can start developing a sense of style by changing the rhythm or embellishing the melody. Advanced students can learn to include harmony in the right hand.
  • For an alternative, accompany the student with a small drum or shaker.
The answer above is a portion of an article found in Clavier Companion. If you are not a subscriber and are looking for more advice and inspiration as a piano teacher, subscribe now. Like to read on the go? A digital edition is now available!
Copyright © Clavier Companion. Used with permission. All rights reserved.
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