Some of the ideas mentioned in this chapter may seem obvious, but they are also essential. For now, I’ll speak to you as if you are sitting at a piano, following directions like a piano lesson. If you’re not at a piano, just do these things the next time you are sitting at a piano.
For this lesson, I will provide music that you can use to learn the first steps of learning to play by ear, but you are welcome to get your own CD or MP3 of music instead. Make sure that if you use an MP3 player or iPod it allows you to pause and rewind without having to rewind the whole song.
Listen to the piece one time through without touching the piano. Do not get discouraged as the piece develops. Of course it sounds hard, you’ve never played it before! Just enjoy the piece for now. This will implant the feel of the piece into your mind and heart. This “implanting” is very important, because as we will discuss in later chapters, the feel of the tune is much more important than the sound of it.
When the song ends, return to the beginning of the song. Push play. As soon as you hear the very first note, stop the player.
Now find that note on the piano. If you can’t find it, restart the track and play that first note again.
Repeat this as many times as it takes to find that first note. If you think you have it but you’re wrong, you’ll discover it soon enough. Just do the best you can. The secret to this whole process is to not get discouraged. After you feel confident that you have found the first note, rewind the track again and find the second note. Repeat this with every note. Each time you add a note, play it in context with the other notes you’ve already learned.
As you know, most piano pieces start on 2 or more notes. It’s usually not too difficult to find the high notes, since they are usually the melody, or main tune. The highest note, or melody, is usually accompanied by lower notes in the chord. The challenge is often in finding the lower note(s). I will speak in later chapters of tricks to find other notes using the melody as a guide. For now, just keep trying until you find the notes, and be sure that as you find them, you play them together as they are played on the CD. If you have to re-play and retry the notes 100 times before you finally get it, don’t worry, you are perfectly normal. Be patient with yourself – you are just beginning.
Each time you learn a new note, or group of notes, play all, or at least many of the notes before it. This may make the learning feel very monotonous for awhile, but it is an important part of learning to play by ear. Unlike reading music, when you play by ear, you have to be memorizing the piece as you learn it. The interesting thing about it is that if you simply play each new note and chord in context with what you’ve already learned, memorization will happen automatically, without conscious effort. This is nice, because you will likely never feel like you are doing drills or exercises, but rather you are simply learning a piece of music.
In my own learning, I never did drills, exercises, or conscious memorizing. These things happened automatically as I learned to play the piece. So be patient with yourself as you get started, because you’re learning a lot more than you think.