Playing by Ear

PianoIan surprised me the other day. I was practicing for an upcoming gig, and he came into the music room and started playing his own song in the top octaves of the piano. I always let him play whatever he wants while I play because it doesn’t really distract me, and I figure it’s good for him to be creative. Slowly, it dawned on me that I recognized the tune he was playing; it was Ode to Joy. When I asked him where he heard the song, he replied, “Peggle.” I guess it’s a video game he’s played. On the next day, I overheard him working out the harmony in thirds. I showed him where to add in a few fourths to make it fit the chord structure and explained the reasoning behind using different intervals in harmony. Now I am kind of excited about the fact that his ear is so good. I’ve played piano since I was nine, but I have only rarely worked out melody and harmony to an existing song, and the first time I did, I was a teenager. So, of course, I would like to help him improve his existing skills, but I don’t want to ruin it for him by forcing yet another instrument on him. So, of course, being me, I have concocted a sneaky plan.

I found a book in my closet that I’ve owned for years but never used. It’s called Performance Jams. Each song starts out with eight measures of a simple melody. Two of those measures (at least in the first song) contain a single harmony pitch that lasts the entire measure. The next eight measures of the book are completely blank, in which the student improvises using prescribed pitches played in any order in any octave. The last eight measures bring back the original melody and finish up the piece. There is also an accompaniment included for the teacher, so the melody and improv parts will have a nice background. I am going to:

  • Record the song into the song bank on my piano
  • Have him mute MineCraft for at least an hour of his playing time
  • Loop the song over and over and turn it up where he can listen
  • Have him spend five minutes a day at the piano until he can work it out on his own (I may help him with the harmony at first)
  • Once he can do this, I will show him the parameters for the improv section and have him try

I’m pretty sure he will think this is fun, and not a horrible waste of his time. Wish us luck!


5 responses to “Playing by Ear

  1. Something you might also want to try is “black key” improvisation. I’m working with a class piano group right now that lets the students improvise on just the black keys, while the teacher is playing an accompanyment that is also on black keys. This frees up the whole range of the piano, and can make it to where ANY note he plays will sound right. Have fun!

  2. Elvis’s “Crying in the Chapel” is black key. Just saying.
    I loved this post, Amy! It shows so much of what is good about home schooling and shows a lot about why you should be teaching music. If we’d lived closer, you’d have taught my kids. 🙂

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