One of my favorite tricks when I play at a wedding is to play stump the fiddler with the guests. They get to request any tune they can think of and it’s my job to play it. Sure, I get stumped sometimes, but I have a pretty awesome record – much better than most major league batters.
People are shocked that I can play just about any tune that I have heard. They think I have some sort of magical talent that allows me to play these tunes. Sorry, there’s no magic, but I can let you in on my secret. I practice playing by ear.
That’s it, but that isn’t clear if you have never played by ear, and memorization is a challenge for you.
I have is a system that I use when I’m learning a new tune, and it helps me learn new tunes extraordinarily quickly. This system is most of the magic. And, I’m going to let you in on how I do it.
First, it’s important to understand what it really means to memorize a tune. There are 2 basic parts to being able to play a song from memory.
Step 1 – Internalize the Melody
The first step is to internalize the melody. You can do this by listening to a song over and over again, or by playing a song over and over again. I always recommend listening to a tune a few times before attempting to play it.
If possible listen to a really great musician perform the tune. And, if you can, listen to multiple different recordings of the tune. If you can, listen to people who you would like to sound like. This gives you context for understanding the tune and beginning to internalize it. And, if you want, try playing along with your favorite one of these recordings.
When you play the tune, you get an added bonus of hearing yourself play it. If you are really listening as you play, you create a feedback loop between what you are playing and what you are hearing.
I often have new students who think that memorizing song is really hard. They have tried to memorize music before using various methods, and it was tricky. Some of them tried to memorize what the sheet music looks like – what notes are on the page, and how they look, others tried to remember their fingerings that play the song.
These techniques really miss the point. Memorizing a melody is primarily an auditory experience. Listen to the song or play it until you can sing the melody out loud (or in your head). At this point, you have done the hard part – you have memorized the melody.
Step 2 – Play the Melody by Ear
Once you have internalized the melody, you have NO reason to use sheet music any more on the song. If you keep using sheet music at this point, you are creating a false dependence on having the notation in front of you. In essence, your leg has healed but you are still using crutches.
Now it’s time to play the song. Start at the beginning and play it until you get to a point where you get uncomfortable. This could be because you feel like you aren’t sure what note to play next, or just that you played a wrong note.
This is a very important moment. Stop and play that phrase again slowly. When you get to the note where you are uncomfortable take a stab at it and play the note you think is the right one. If it doesn’t sound right, try a different note, until it sounds like you hear it in your head. Slow it down as much as you need to. Then go back and play that phrase again with the corrected note.
Once you can play that phrase comfortably, incorporate it back into the tune as a whole.
Work your way through the song one phrase at a time until you can make it through the song. Then play it until you can comfortably play it up to speed without thinking about it. Never play it faster than you can play the most difficult part of the song.
IMPORTANT: Only reference your sheet music when you are ABSOLUTELY stuck.
Where does this leave me?
When you have taken the time to really internalize the melody, and have worked your way through it slowly and patiently, you now know the song.
And, when you practice transferring what you hear in your head out through your instrument, you are making your instrument an extension of your body. Your violin, or piano, or guitar becomes just another way to sing.
This is why playing by ear is so important to becoming a great musician, regardless of what instrument you are playing, or what style of music you are playing. If you use this method to learn new songs, and you really stick to it, you will develop a new muscle in your brain.
And that connection will grow stronger and stronger as you train it and reinforce it. But, like any skill, you have to practice it if you want to get good at it.
Over time I have become very good at being able to play what I think. And if you are willing to develop this muscle, you can to.