The Problem With Sheet Music...
Students tend to rely on sheet music.
Now, sheet music is a good learning tool, but not a tool for performing a song.
Remember that scene in Anchorman when Ron Burgundy reads exactly what's written on the teleprompter?
That's what performing with sheet music is like.
Robotic, as written, with little room for variation or emotion.
You can get really good at playing sheet music, but do you find that:
- You can't take your eyes off the sheet music for more than a moment?
- Your playing sounds a little robotic?
- The piece doesn't feel like it's your own?
- If someone asks you to play a song by memory, you freeze up?
If you said yes to any of these, then I have a solution for you. It begins with training your ear.
Training Your Ear
Ear training exercises familiarize your body to common musical phrases through short playback exercises. I say “body” because your ears, as well as your fingers, become familiar with your instrument.
When I hear a musical phrase going up a few tones, what do my fingers do? They go up the keyboard a few times. When I hear three notes being played quickly, what must my fingers do? They play three notes quickly.
Ear training is a process that improves the more you do it.
It’s a skill, and like other skills, it takes time to become proficient at it.
The lucky thing is, you can do ear training exercises on your own. They’re easy, fun, and fast.
You perform ear training exercises along with your traditional exercises in your 15 minutes of practice: Scales, triads, and arpeggios.
Once you are able to play back simple musical phrases, you’ll play back more difficult ones.
After doing these exercises for a period of time, you’ll find yourself being able to play longer musical phrases correctly, without having to rely on sheet music. Hear a song on the radio? You’ll be able to play it on your instrument.
Couple that with song forms, and you can play back songs whenever you hear them.
Are you saying we don’t need sheet music?
Sheet music is written for classical music and complex pieces.
It’s written for learning exact notes with others, or passages that have to be played exactly like this.
The popular music we hear today, and for the last 100 years, are not classical pieces. They are predictable and repetitive and you can most likely sing them in your head if you heard them enough.
What does that mean?
“It means you don't have to rely on sheet music to play popular songs.”
In fact, I’ll argue that learning these songs through sheet music will slow your learning process down.
Learning the songs by understanding the principles behind them will make the song your own. You’ll play it with more emotion. You’ll play it with your eyes up, instead of down. Even better, your song recall - being able to remember the song months from now - will improve.
There is still room for sheet music, for particularly difficult pieces, or to be used as a guide. But not for performance.
I’m in! How do I train my ear?
Below you’ll find simple ear training exercises. Listen to each one - I play the same phrase twice - then play back what you heard.
Were those too easy?
I’ve recorded some ear training exercises - 14 of them! There are some tough ones in there, too. Click the button below to access them.
What did you think? What was easy about these exercises? What did you find difficult? Leave a comment below and let me know.
And what about the Christmas concert?
Ken and I figured it out. He plays off the sheet music, and I'll play along to him. Less improv on his part, while I get to play around with harmonies and ornaments. It works! I'll post a video of our next practice.
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