Creating Music

Opening the door to creative musical expression

Posts Tagged ‘playing by ear’

Surviving YouTube: Playing Smart with Music Instruction Videos

Posted by Pamela Szalay on February 23, 2013

YouTubeYouTube is giving many aspiring pianists the ability to learn popular songs by rote. Without a doubt, many beginning students learn easily through imitation. When a song is learned this way, I believe it should be celebrated! An accurate, fluid performance is an accomplishment.

However, I heartily believe that the learning should not stop there. A budding musician who is successfully learning songs by rote is in a perfect position to deepen  understanding and speed progress. Here are a few ideas for looking a little closer at the songs you play. Feel free to ask a musical friend or mentor to help you with any of these steps.

  1. Identify the key and meter of the song.
  2. Learn the names of the chords. Then, create a chord chart or find one online in the same key.
  3. Break down the song into smaller chunks. Identify the sections such as the introduction, verse, chorus, bridge, and any other unique moments.
  4. Look for chord patterns. Perhaps there are four chords that repeat over and over during the verse.
  5. Determine the role of the piano part in the song. Is it mostly a chordal accompaniment or are there fills, too?
  6. Test your understanding by re-arranging the song. Play the sections in a different order, for example, or repeat a line of the song.
  7. When you are secure with the key, meter and chord patterns of the song, try some rhythmic, melodic or harmonic improvisation. For example, throw in a surprise accent. Play a chord in a different inversion. Create your own fill.
  8. Record yourself playing the song, in its original form and with your variations. Listening back will make you more aware of what you do well and what might need further improvement. It would be helpful to get feedback from others you trust as well.
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Posted in Improvisation, Music Instruction, Philosophy of Education | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a Comment »

Stepping into musical composition: the limited tone row

Posted by Pamela Szalay on December 8, 2012

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Looking for a way to introduce composition into music lessons? Creating a melody using a limited set of pitches is a great way to start. While the label “tone row” often suggests using 12 tones, this activity is focused on a smaller set of 4 to 7 tones which are arranged in a sequence and used to compose a melody, guided by just a few rules. This activity encourages creativity within constraints and works for beginners and more experienced musicians. As a matter of fact, it can even be used with students who do not yet read music.

For music-readers:

Materials:

manuscript paper, pencil, music notation flashcards (optional)

Activity:

1. Select four to seven flashcards and arrange them in a sequence (the teacher can do this ahead of time, or the student can select the cards randomly). Write the desired sequence on paper.

2. The student composes a melody using the sequence, using whatever rhythm, expression or style is desired.The composition should be committed to paper, but written in pencil for easy editing.

3. Each tone must be used in order, although a tone can be repeated before moving on to the next tone. When the end of the sequence is reached, the sequence beings again with the first note.

4. The sequence can be repeated multiple times, and can be treated differently each time.

5. The sequence should have a definite ending.

Depending on the outcome and the needs of the student, the melody could be further developed, harmonized, etc. Also, for additional mileage with this activity, start by using pitches that reinforce a recent note-reading or theory lesson

Alternate approach for non-music readers:Image

If the student is quite young and not yet reading music, use letter names instead of music notation. The focus should be selecting the sequence itself, rather than composing from a sequence. This will develop the ear while also introducing them to the compositional process. When the student is satisfied with the sequence, have the student write down the sequence on paper to preserve it.

Posted in Composition, Music Instruction | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a Comment »

Choosing your pathway to musical expression

Posted by Pamela Szalay on August 9, 2010

There are many ways music can be learned: through books, through imitation, and by ear, all with or without a teacher. A successful musician might start off using any one of these approaches but at some point, teacher guidance and focused study plays an important role for most students. Before selecting a teacher, it can be useful to know about some of the approaches they may use.

There are essentially three approaches:

  • Traditional – book based, with emphasis on reading music.
  • Rote – visually-based, with emphasis on copying.
  • Ear-training – sound-based, with emphasis on developing musicality

Teachers may use a combination of these as well. Although I have my own preferences, overall I recommend finding a teacher that recognizes your strengths and is willing to work with them.

More on each method:

A traditional method will provide a foundation in music notation and theory: many teachers prefer this route . It is a text-based learning method, using a written system of symbols that must be interpreted. Learning to interpret musical notation takes years, and there is no guarantee that knowledge of music will make you a good performer of music. But this approach does provide a clear way to communicate and record progress.

  • Pros: Students will understand standard musical terms and notation, be able to talk about music easily with others
  • Cons: Students may be bored playing simple, unfamiliar songs; they may be unable to perform without a book

Learning by rote is a fast way to move toward actually playing, especially with songs that are familiar. This method is greatly preferred by children, who often watch their friends or siblings play a song so many times that they figure it out for themselves. You-tube videos are also a primary source for kids who want to learn particular songs. Kids will carefully observe the placement of the performer’s hands on the keyboard, often watching over and over, and then mimic with great accuracy songs that would be very difficult to read out of a book. Having a patient teachers provides an extra advantage for getting tips on proper fingering and rhythm.

  • Pros: Students learn more difficult songs they really enjoy playing before they are even able to read music.
  • Cons: Students don’t always play with understanding and they may not be able to transfer what they learned to other songs.

Learning by ear is what happens when the student figures out the notes to a song purely by sound, with no visual model (such as a friend to play it for them first). The student perceives different pitches and then finds them on the instrument, playing the notes in the order he hears them and according to the rhythmic pattern he discerns. It is a slower process at first, but a very intimate one. Students who learn this way tend to know why they are playing certain keys on the keyboard and eventually become very quick absorbers of new songs. Like the rote- learners, music is always memorized. But the advantage for ear-players is that if a song is forgotten it is easily relearned.

  • Pros: Students able to learn many songs and play fluidly
  • Cons: Student may resist learning to read music

Each of these methods will allow students to express themselves musically, although some are better suited for  certain applications.

  • If you want to play in orchestra, you need to read music.
  • If you play in a garage band, no music books are necessary but a good ear is very helpful.
  • If you play in three piece jazz band, you may be glancing at pages of a fakebook that contain only words and chords—the best players will have a strong foundation in music theory.
  • If you play solo, you can pretty much do whatever you want!

As a teacher, I have used all these approaches at one point or another to prepare my students to express themselves musically. I am not hung up on one method. But I will say that the main ingredient in any musical program, for an adult or a child, is time and attention. To be good, musicians put in years of practice with attention to detail. That’s not bad news, though, because learning music can be a pleasure in itself.

Enjoy your journey!

Posted in Music Instruction, Parents, Philosophy of Education | Tagged: , , , , , | 2 Comments »

 
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