Playing Piano By Ear:
A Natural Experience

Girl playing piano

A concerned mom whose daughter is taking piano lessons wrote me today... she informed me that her daughter seemed to be spending more time playing piano by ear than reading. Her concern was that the teacher did not seem to mind. My automatic internal feeling, after hearing this news, was one of gratitude toward the teacher.

One might respond, "But Dave, are you saying that if a student is not spending most of his or her time doing what the teacher is prescribing, this behavior is worthy of praise?"

Remember that an instructor is a guide, not a god.

Consider this... a child (or adult!) is sitting at the piano experimenting with those keys, trying to perhaps reproduce a melody that is familiar, whether it be a song heard on the radio or a little original "jingle" that is whirling around in the brain.

What is happening here?

Well, it's about as natural a musical experience that one can have! It is my conviction that each and every person on earth has an innate desire and ability to express himself or herself musically.


Delving into the history of human existence, what came first - the very act of expressing ourselves in a musical fashion or reading music?

Certainly, the act of reducing music that was heard and played to a form of written notation followed the music itself. If we are to accept this as truth, would it seem natural, or righteous, to discourage the nurturing of such a natural experience as that of musical expression?

Of course not. Along with that, I'll ask another question... what is it that compels so many people to want to play a musical instrument? Is it the because they are captivated by the very thought of reading musical notation? Or is it because they are in touch with this innate passion to musically express themselves?

So, kudos to a teacher who recognizes a student's self awareness of this inborn desire. Any teacher who would discourage the development of such an awareness should perhaps have his or her incentives questioned. It saddens me to say that there are far too many "teachers" who do not encourage a student from building upon his or her strengths... and, regrettably, this is sometimes due to the teacher's lack of understanding of the importance of doing so or the teacher's sense of insecurity in having to deal with a student who shows more interest in self-growth in certain areas than he or she ever did (or was encouraged to do).

Granted the fostering of skills such as reading and understanding theory is a must if one is to enjoy the entire musical experience... the rewards are endless (by the way, when I refer to a "student" I am referring to both the individual who is engaged in lessons with a private teacher and the person who is not - we are all learners). The main point of this writing is to emphasize that the "should be's" in our thinking about the learning process, which are usually based on previous exposure to authoritative ways, can get in the way of our enjoyment of our natural development. It could go without saying that this holds true in more areas of our lives than the musical experience...

Balance is a good thing.

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