Teaching Students Who Play by Ear


Nancy L. Ostromencki and John M. Zeigler, Ph.D.
Rio Rancho, NM USA


n ability to play by ear is a wonderful skill that can be helpful to any pianist, young or old. All too often, however, this skill turns into a liability when the student relies too heavily upon it and never learns to read or interpret music. There are simply too many important works that cannot be learned easily by ear; the student who depends upon playing by ear will find that his skill has become self-limiting in his ability to become a true pianist.

Parents and teachers alike must realize that playing by ear is no substitute for a facile ability to read and play music at sight. Think of it as forcing a child to live with a handicap, when there was a chance for the handicap to be removed. Allowing the student to play by ear is like putting a blindfold over his eyes. He will still be able to experience the musical world to some extent, but that experience will be far less rich. In this article, we'll discuss techniques for diagnosing ear playing, materials to help combat it, and repertoire that forces the student to read music.



To help 'prove the point' about playing by ear, we will often put a piece of music in front of a student, and ask them to play at least the right hand for me. It will become painfully apparent that they depend too heavily on playing by ear if they are unable to read a note of the music or need to have us play it for them. We point out to them that a lot of great music either has not been recorded or cannot be properly learned by 'playing by ear'.

There are several good ways to help wean students away from playing by ear. We would suggest that the teacher and/or parents have the students learn to identify notes on flash cards, be able to say the names of the notes and play the notes where they belong on the piano. Note spellers, such as the Schaum Note-spellers Books 1 and II, or the A Line a Day Series by Bastien, published by the Kjos Publishing Company can be a great help in making sure that students are reading notes, rather than relying on their ear to get them through. Another great book is Keyboard Town by Louise Robyn. Keyboard Town not only does a good job pulling students away from playing by numbers, but also forces them not to depend on playing by ear.

A wealth of repertoire is available which cannot be learned by ear and cannot and should not be chorded through. For example, most of the sonatas of Beethoven, the Inventions, Partitas, Suites, Well Tempered Clavier, and Italian Concerto of Bach, and the Nocturnes, Ballades, Scherzo's etc by Chopin are simply too intricate to be learned totally by ear. Music by such composers as Shoshtakovich, Rebikoff and others of the great 20th century Russian composers virtually defies playing by ear.

Last, but certainly not least, as repertoire aids in removing a student's reliance on playing by ear, are the wonderful books, Microkosmos Volumes I, II and III by Bartok, as well as any of the music from his For Children Volumes I or II. These charming and somewhat challenging works cannot be played either by ear or by number, i.e. by "position playing." It is interesting to be aware of something that we have found happens with many students who have been trained by a "position" oriented method. Not only do these students depend almost exclusively on playing by position rather than learning to read the notes, but they also depend on how it sounds rather than reading the music carefully for all the details. This relationship may constitute another good reason for avoiding methods which teach position playing.

We don't mean to say that there is no role for developing 'an ear' for music. Most traditional music theory classes incorporate, and rightly so, ear training exercises and classes. Indeed, there is even excellent software that is fantastic for helping with ear training, several examples of which we have reviewed. Nonetheless, parents must realize that having a good ear for music is not musicianship and does not, by itself, constitute an ability to "play piano." An inability to read music means that the teacher and the student have failed as musicians. So, please open the doors to the wealth of music that is out there. Grit your teeth and make student pianists learn to read music. They will be forever happy that you did.  

Page created: 3/28/99
Last updated: 01/06/21
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Reprinting from the Piano Education Page The Piano Education Page, Op. 10, No. 1, http://pianoeducation.org
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