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Learning by ear or by rote?

In my last post, I discussed playing by ear versus playing by test. This post is the difference between learning by ear or by rote.

There are programs where you use neither of these techniques to learn, and some who claim to use one, but is actually using the other.

Learning by ear requires training the student to hear a melody, rhythm or chord pattern, and then be able to play it back with reasonable accuracy.

Many instrument training courses now come with a CD, so the student has an idea what the piece should sound like as they begin learning. I usually ask my students to only listen to a piece when they first start playing it. Oftentimes, these recordings are played at a very quick tempo, or the focus was not on mood or musicality when the piece was recorded. While I encourage reading skills, it is possible to teach someone by ear alone, playing a phrase from the teacher instrument and having the student play back on their instrument. Playing by ear, playing back music without written out notes is an important skill for a jazz musician, or anyone who needs to improvise when they perform.

Some courses claim to be ear-based programs, but in practice they are taught by rote. The student does listen to a CD to get an idea how the piece sounds, but instead of just using their ears and musical memory to learn, the teacher shows the student how to play the piece in short phrases. Students use their eyes to learn, as they watch you play, instead of their ears. Because you are not taking time to read notes or train the ears for each phrase, the student and teacher focus on technique. The Suzuki method focuses on technique from the first lesson, so there is a lot of rote playing in this method.

What is the best way to learn? Ask ten different teachers and you will get ten different answers. Jazz musicians must have an excellent musical memory, be able to play by ear, and know their theory. Professional classical musicians must have excellent technical skills and be able to read music (although there have been famous blind classical musicians). I usually start students, especially young students, with some rote playing of familiar tunes and some basic technique, then ease in to note reading. No two students are exactly the same. Teaching styles need to adjust to the students learning style and their goals and interests.

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