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Some Benefits of Ear Playing.

[This essay was one of the successful essays in the "1,200 words" class submitted in our Prize Essay contest for 1909.]
Playing by ear should not only be countenanced and tolerated, but it should be encouraged and taught. This statement may surprise many. The ordinary way of playing by ear is not beneficial. Indeed, it is, as a rule, very harmful, unless checked before it has gone too far. It leads away from note-reading and the other fundamental principles of early musical instruction. Some benefit is gained by such playing by the cultivation of pitch, but too much is sacrificed in proportion to the gain. Playing by ear in order to improve one's own playing ought to be encouraged and taught.
Some playing by ear is injurious to anyone who ever expects to study music. Other playing by ear is not only beneficial to the player, but necessary to intelligent, artistic piano playing. Playing by ear in the right sense of the phrase may be defined as intelligent, critical listening to one's own playing. Considered in this light playing by ear is necessary to artistic achievements and becomes an art to be placed upon a high plane. The child from the first steps should be taught the musical side of music. This is done by ear work. From the time single tones are struck from the very first lessons this can be done. Each tone should be carefully listened to, both for quality of tone and pitch. Later, when little melodies come, and then simple harmonizations, music will seem quite wonderful to children if the ear work is begun at the first lesson and diligently continued. Regular lessons in ear-training can be begun very soon after the rudiments are learned, and should be undertaken at once, as a half hour will soon become too short to give attention to both the science of playing and the ear work. A course of ear-training begun at an early age with a competent instructor, and continued with the piano work, will bring wonderful results. Parents should rejoice, as the practice hours will not seem so long nor the work such drudgery. The subject of ear-training is deservedly receiving much more attention than it used to receive.
One of the results of playing by ear is that one's playing becomes more intelligent and more musical. Trace the melody and have all pupils hear the tune. The melody should be played without accompaniment or embellishment of any kind, and carefully listened to by itself. Then add the other voices, but listen primarily for the tune. Probably all teachers have had the experience of having pupils, even those musical by nature, play a piece beautifully with the exception of one section. Even here the notes have been accurately played, but the passage has no meaning. The reason is that the pupil has heard nothing in the passage but notes and perceives no connection between them at all— just as if I should write "dog, been, chair, haystack." Some pupils' playing is about as coherent and logical as the preceding chaotic phrase. For the sake of the pupil's musical development time enough should always be spent to make him hear something in a passage seemingly empty to him. There is no one reason for this "emptiness." My personal experience has gone to show that if the melody is found, no matter in what voice it is located, most of the difficulties are then removed. Especial attention to phrasing or marking the cadences often helps. A bit of transposition of the same melody to an unaccustomed key may be the stumbling-block which can be easily cleared away by playing the melody in both keys and training the ear to hear it in the new key. Ear-training teaches the hearing of each tone individually, and will do away with difficulties of key signature or of chromatic alterations of the key. All difficulties in hearing minor passages also are eliminated by this means.
We have seen that playing by ear leads to the art of bringing out the tune or melody, the interpretation of difficult or seemingly unmusical passages, and to accuracy as regards right notes. A beautiful quality of tone is another artistic result. If the tone is listened to from the very first lesson, and every lesson thereafter, by the time the child reaches the advanced grades his tone will be gratifying to hear. The tone-shading or tone-coloring depends upon the control over the tone that one possesses. This is due to training the ear. In a musical way playing by ear is a real necessity. In a technical way, also, it is just as necessary.
All kinds of touch are regulated as to effects by the ear. This was never more apparent than when studying with an artist-teacher who was demonstrating legato scale playing. By hearing the quality of touch and having it impressed upon the mental ear it can be reproduced mentally when away from the teacher. It is an established truth that smooth, clear technic can be gotten by ear work. Clean, crisp staccatos, in contrast to the demi-semi sort some pupils give, must be gotten by ear; similarly all other varieties of touch. The connection of sections, changes of key, smooth adjustment of different tempi all depend upon the application of ear work to the problem. Rhythm depends entirely upon the ear, not only various kinds of rhythm, such as two to three, three to four, etc., but all variations of rhythm, such as ritardando, accelerando, rubato, as well as a general elasticity of rhythm. No one cares to listen to a person playing with no more freedom as regards rhythm than a machine would have. All this is regulated by the ear.
Dynamical shading of all kinds depends for its adjustment upon the ear. The brain and general intelligence may decide just what the dynamics of a passage should be, but the proportion and adjustment are given by the ear. All the finer qualities of tone-coloring, the nice points of dynamics and subtle shadings depend upon the ear, which acts as an agent of the brain, making real the image which the mental ear holds. Continuing a course of ear-training as a separate study for some length of time will lead to a knowledge of key and chord analysis and all harmonizations, also analysis of form. No one can estimate either the joy or the profit anyone so trained derives from a concert. To hear a composition by ear for the first time and understand it nearly as well as if one had the notes before one, or had previously studied it, is certainly inspiring; thus ear-training leads to intelligent listening at concerts, which will increase one's intelligent listening to his own playing. When for the first time one listens to a large orchestra and one realizes that one has the power to analyze a symphony and follow the different themes and their development it is a soul-inspiring moment. Playing by ear has been so frowned upon and discouraged that using the ear in connection with playing has almost become considered by the majority of people as detrimental and almost disgraceful for a musician. Give the ear its rightful place of honor; it is necessary to musical development; redeem it from the neglect it does not merit and encourage playing by ear. From the veriest beginner to the greatest artist all should play by ear. Of course, the greatest artists do this; that is the chief reason they are great artists; but artistic playing need not be reserved entirely for them and used only in the most difficult and advanced grades of music. Children in easy grades can play artistically and learn to interpret musically if properly taught to play by ear.

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You are reading Some Benefits of Ear Playing. from the August, 1910 issue of The Etude Magazine.

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