Music as Magic (Learning by Ear—Part I)

First in a series of blogs about my attempts to learn how to play by ear on the violin . . .

Back in the 1970s, when I started learning violin in public school, the first piece we learned for performance was Twinkle, and we played it in that year’s Holiday Concert. Before the group performance, a few of us had lines to say. My line went something like this:

“Thousands of years ago, people used music as magic . . . (lost in the mists of time) . . . played different kinds of instruments.”

I don’t remember much else from this concert: just this small part of my lines, and none of the actual experience of playing Twinkle with a group of 4th grade public school beginners in front of an audience.


The real magic came when the advanced 5th graders took the stage to play Judas Maccabeus. This performance must have been in honor of Hanukkah, since Christmas music was also part of the seasonal concert program in that time and place. At one point, a singer performer played a solo. Her name was Phyllis, and she was small and petite, with short brown hair and brown eyes. There was a spotlight on her.  She played from memory, without music and without mistakes.

cover-large_fileI was huddled backstage with the rest of the 4th graders including my best friend in the orchestra, Erika. We decided from that moment on, that we were going to learn to play like Phyllis. To us, this meant that we were going to learn to play Judas Maccabeus, which felt like striking out into uncharted territory. Not only was this piece not in our method book (Mueller-Rusch Book 1), it had LOW 2s on the A string. We had only just recently heard of low 2s, and of that weird symbol # that meant high 2s on the D and A. Erika was sure that the piece started on the 3rd finger on the A string, and we went from there.

I had some musical notation paper at home, and I painstakingly tried to write out what I remembered so I could bring it in and show Erika the next time we had orchestra. I wrote across the top of the music in big letters: “Low 2s except for notes with # in front!” I didn’t have much idea about key signature, time signature, or which way the tails on the notes were supposed to be pointing. But when I was done, it was the first phrase to Judas Maccabeus. Erika and I were thrilled.

I’m not sure about our teacher’s level of thrilled-ness. Looking back, I don’t think she was a violinist herself; she was a general music teacher with a bit of violin training. She left the school the following year on maternity leave, and was replaced by someone else, whom I liked, but who was also not really a string teacher. With him, we worked our way through Mueller-Rusch book 2 and then graduated from elementary school.

IMG_4930It wasn’t until 30 years later, when my daughter got to Suzuki Book 2, that I saw Judas Maccabeus for violin again: there it was, on the first page, right above Bach’s “Musette”. It occurred to me only then that unlike Erika and I, Phyllis had probably been a Suzuki student; she must have had lessons outside of school, and that’s where she had learned the piece. Also unlike Erika and I, my daughter wasn’t impressed. She didn’t even like the piece. It held no magic for her. And she’d known about low 2s for months.

Although there were a few times that I tried to figure out Christmas Carols or pop songs from the radio, I never really tried to play by ear again until recently. I left the school district and lost touch with Erika and Phyllis during middle school. I stopped playing the violin altogether for long periods as a young adult. As a teen, and since I’ve restarted playing, I have played sophisticated symphonic repertoire in a variety of orchestras. I’ve used sheet music to memorize Bach suites on the viola,  and rock violin arrangements. But as far as playing by ear goes, I’m still that 4th grader of long ago. I haven’t gotten much beyond Judas Maccabeus. I want to know: why not?

And can I do something about it?

4 thoughts on “Music as Magic (Learning by Ear—Part I)”

  1. Yes you most definitely can do something about it, but be patient with yourself and do a little bit of learning by ear every time you practice. Just find a recording of a simple piece that you like (or record it yourself from the sheet music) and then listen to it a lot. Try and recognise the patterns – the scales, the thirds, the fifths. Then start trying to play along with it. It takes time to get the hang of it but you can do it. I had no experience of learning by ear 3 years ago – I can now do it (albeit slowly) and I am getting better at it all the time. You will notice that you think about the music differently when you learn it by ear rather than memorising it from sheet music. It really does activate a different part of your brain.

    Liked by 1 person

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