How to set up your musical mind for success
Whenever we set out to learn something, our brain automatically tries to take what it assumes to be the easiest path. We naturally navigate towards what we take to be the easiest way to accomplish any given task. But what may seem to be the easiest path might not actually be the best one. What if it were actually impeding our progress in the long run?
When learning a piano piece, the easiest path is to learn with our fingers. If we repeat a sequence of movements hundreds or even thousands of times, we do tend to remember it. In other words, we learn a series of keypresses, thereby relying on “muscle memory” (more accurately called motor memory). Motor memory may be the most important kind of musical memory when preparing for any kind of performance, but it’s hardly the only one. If we rely exclusively on motor memory, our musical memories often fail us right when we need them most: when we’re on the spot in a performance situation. Our attempt to learn music in the easiest possible way might actually be hampering our progress.
To learn music more effectively, we need to give not just our fingers but also our minds a workout. One way to achieve this is by challenging ourselves to learn music by ear. The more we are able to translate the music we hear in our minds to the keyboard, the more secure our playing will be. Luckily for us, this skill is learnable.
What is ear training?
Ear training is the "listening comprehension" of music. Because it can be challenging to train systematically and because instrumental teachers need to accomplish so much in little lesson time, it tends to get neglected in music training. Many teachers of classical music never systematically train the ear at all, instead focusing on reading music and instrumental technique (which are themselves broad skill sets that take years of training to master).
Ear training really deserves to be given similar attention in music training. Just as a painter needs to develop acute visual perception and a chef refined taste, so should musicians develop aural sensitivity.
Stages of ear training
Ear training is really a set of aural skills. These skills may be thought of as stages of ear training:
The first stage is learning to hear ourselves as we really sound. This is already a major task!
The next stage is using our aural sensitivity to refine our instrumental technique so that our playing is as beautiful as possible.
A further stage of aural skills development is the ability to recognize the notes we hear. We can learn to hear notes within the scale. In most music it’s usually quite easy to hear the tonic--the main note of the piece. Most people in our culture are able to do this without any special training. Then we can learn to recognize other notes of the scale. Major and minor scales have seven notes, so this is a manageable task. From there we can learn to recognize intervals, chords, and chord progressions.
Audiation is the name given to the ability to hear music in your mind. When combined with reading skills, you can learn to hear written music in your mind’s ear.
The final stage is applied ear training, which is the ability to play what we hear.
Learning to hear ourselves
Our first ear training task as musicians is to learn to hear ourselves. This may seem trivial, but there is typically such a wide gap between how we think we sound and how we actually sound that it typically takes years of working with a skilled teacher before we develop an accurate idea of how we sound. The goal of this aspect of ear training is to be able to hear ourselves as we really sound, almost as though we were sitting in the audience listening to ourselves play.
This aspect of ear training is one of the most difficult tasks for developing musicians. It can take many years to synthesize one's inner conceptions with the sounds we're actually producing. It certainly took years and a lot of patient teaching for me. Until we're advanced musicians, the sounds we think we're making probably aren't the ones other people are hearing. At the piano, it’s so easy to make basic mistakes, such as overpowering the melody with the accompaniment, not projecting the melody, or not taking time when we think we’re doing so. Carefully listening to every note we play, even if we’re “just” practicing technical exercises, helps, since active listening is a crucial component of a good technique.
Nowadays musicians have a technological advantage compared to earlier generations of musicians. The ability to record ourselves is ubiquitous. In fact, you can probably record your playing using the device you’re viewing this website on right now. As you progress and refine your ear, you can upgrade your recording setup, but you can improve your ear significantly just using whatever you already have. Record yourself, then describe how you thought you sounded, and then play it back and listen. You may be surprised by how you actually sound! Continued practice, with careful listening as you play as well as carefully listening back to your recordings, will gradually close the gap between how you think you sound and how you really sound.
Recording yourself in practice can also help you to refine your instrumental technique so you can learn to make beautiful sounds--the second stage of ear training. By taking advantage of the technology in your pocket you can work on the first two stages of ear training at the same time.
Recognizing the notes we hear
The next stage of ear training is recognizing what we are hearing, just as we recognize objects we see. As a listener, it’s not necessary to recognize with scientific precision everything you hear. Extremely few people not named Mozart are able to do that! It is, however, important for us musicians to understand the compositional material of every piece we play, just as actors need to understand the nuances of language. There’s meaning to the notes, and our job is to communicate that meaning. To do so, we do need to understand basic musical building blocks, such as common chords, when we hear them.
Playing music without this essential ear training would be similar to trying to speak a foreign language without understanding the words. You could learn, say, Mandarin by rote, just by imitating the sounds, but at the end of the day you’ll want to know what those sounds actually mean! It’s similar for music: It's possible to learn how to press the right keys in the right sequence simply by repetition, but if you don't understand the actual "words"--the notes, intervals and harmonies, you won’t be able to get at the meaning of the music. Your fingers are learning, but your ears aren’t fully guiding your fingers. All too often this leads to both an insecure performance and a suboptimal interpretation.
Relying on motor memory at the expense of aural skills is an easy learning mistake to make. I’ve certainly made this mistake, learning intricate music such as fugues this way, only to experience performance anxiety, fearing that memory slips are waiting around every corner. If you're in the habit of practicing like this, it’s time to incorporate ear training into your daily practice. Whenever you practice with a disengaged ear you’ll end up reinforcing the very habit you're trying to break. Start today to build the critical ear-finger connection!
"Hear" with your eyes and "see" with your ears
The ideal is to learn to "hear" with your eyes and "see" with your ears. Ideally, your fingers should be guided to the right notes by your inner ear. We shouldn't hear because we play, rather we play because we hear. In other words, we don't hear a note simply because we happen to have struck the right key, we strike the right key because we hear the right note in our mind's ear. This is the essence of getting the mind ahead of the fingers, and this is the ultimate goal of ear training!
The first aspect of this goal is technical: Your inner sound concept always needs to direct your fingers; that is the aim of technique.
The second aspect deals with pitch and harmony. Ideally, your understanding of harmony should become be so ingrained that your ear seemingly automatically tells your fingers which notes to play.
How to test your ear
A simple test to see whether you're learning primarily with your ears or merely with your fingers is to transpose your music (without the aid of the score, of course). Obviously, extremely technically difficult pieces such as etudes don't lend themselves to this sort of ear training, but slower pieces do. Fortunately for us, it's the slower pieces that tend to give us memory trouble since we're unable to play them on "autopilot"; that is, our motor memory readily takes over.
It's also best to use practice pieces rather than performance pieces for transposing, at least at the beginning. Béla Bartók's Mikrokosmos is absolutely ideal for this work, especially since it's so full of surprises. When working with this material it's essential to stay very alert for unexpected notes--you can't simply play notes within a conventional scale or chord.
Another simple but powerful method of ear training is to sing each voice in all pieces you play. This is an especially useful method of testing whether you're really hearing everything. In most cases, students hear only the melody and bass. They tend to have only a vague impression of the vital middle voices and hence the piece as a whole. This accounts for much of their high degree of uncertainty, difficulty memorizing and performance anxiety. Sing each and every note without the aid of the piano, making sure you're staying absolutely on pitch. The piano is used only to give a starting note and to periodically check your pitch. While tedious at first, this method of basic ear training will ensure that you're truly hearing everything and will give you far greater security so that you can concentrate not on playing the right notes but on expressing the music.
If you're using music such as Mikrokosmos, be absolutely certain you don't "cheat" and merely sight-read new pieces at the piano! All the ear training value, hidden in the many unexpected melodic turns, is lost forever the moment you press the keys to hear the correct pitch. Make the effort to hear the next note in your mind before playing it. Remember, this is exactly the habit we're seeking to correct--the goal is to create an accurate inner musical impression rather than rely on external auditory feedback. With practice, you too can develop this skill of inner hearing!
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