Don’t we all just play by ear?

Tristan Le Govic once remarked during a workshop that everyone is playing by ear, even people who only use sheet music, because if you’re playing from the sheet music, you’re aurally checking whether it’s correct (then it will sound ‘logical’.). I’m now working (eh, still working) on a piece which has a lot of three fingered chords in eights. It looks pretty boring and etude-like on paper. Yet when my teacher plays it, it comes alive, it flies from the page and it really grips you until it’s finished. I’m trying to achieve the same effect (or at least trying induce a pulse in it) but it is really, really hard. And I think it’s so hard because I’ve been approaching it like ‘a piece of music on paper’ and not like part of the oral/aural tradition of music making.

During the past months, I learned that in French music the first note is often ever so slightly emphasized, but not too much; there is also a very distinct shape in phrasing, including the dynamics and the tempo. But my teacher really needed and still needs to spell it out for me, I can’t just read from the written page that I’m really allowed to really really accelerate and really really decelerate to the point you’re not in sync with the metronome anymore. Indeed, these boring eight-note-figures really become something else when played in the way they’re supposed to sound. But how was I supposed to know? I thought I was on the right track, keeping in mind the right notes, the right dynamics and the tempo markings. Am I just so untalented that I can’t ‘know’ all by myself what it’s like to sound?

In folk music, it’s a total no-go to learn a song from paper. It will sound really weird because it’s impossible to write down e.g. the subtle accents of a bourree in 3 times vs a waltz in 3 times vs a polka in 3 times. But they all sound very distinct from each other! So that is why – if you really have to make do with sheet music e.g. for time constraints or laziness – you listen and play along with a recording because otherwise you know you’re missing something.

Why don’t we accept that classical music is exactly the same? You can’t just go and sightread a piece,you need to know how it’s supposed to sound. How do you gain such knowledge? Your harp teacher! Where did they learn it? Their own teachers! And the only other sources are CD recordings and live performances! Doesn’t that sound like aural/oral tradition?

Of course, eventually, you’ll internalize the knowledge – just as I can effortlessly switch a waltz-melody to a mazurka or a polka. But it took some time to get there – workshops, a lot of dancing (to know what sets apart a waltz from a mazurka) and getting feedback from dancers. So the exposure to ‘classical music’ and being taught what to look/listen for are vitally important to be able to play well using sheet music. For some classical musicians this will sound really odd, because they’ve been exposed to classical music and its idiom for their entire lives. Of course you play a Bach piece like that and a Chopin piece like this. But for me that wasn’t all that obvious. I think there should be more aural teaching in classical music. Of course, then you’re imitating the teacher. But now we’re all imitating an abstract unheard concept -which is still an aural concept and less of something that you can easily write down.

When will we have the first Classical Harp tune learning sessions? 🙂



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