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playing by ear or from the dots ? pros and cons

george garside

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I am starting this thread to, hopefully, invent a place for the thread drift that is muddying the waters of the 'teaching and learning' thread 'playing by ear'.

In recent bits of thread drift a comment was made that playing by ear is not suitable for band work. As an experienced dance band leader ( Country dance and Ceilidh bands) I much prefer earists to dotists for the following reasons

- Earists tend to have more finely honed listening skills and readily follow the leader

- Earists are free to watch the feet of the dancers and take the time from them i.e they play for the dancers !

- Earists are more likely to keep time with their feet which helps keep a band in sync

- Earists put greater feeling into their music and and are more likely to play the gaps' well - and this is if anything more important than playing the notes well!!

As to playing together that is what band practice is about and it applies to bands of dotists or earists or a mixture of both.

Feel free to discuss/agree/disagree but keep in mind that the reason we all play the box is for fun and enjoyment -- or do some have other reasons for playing??

george :ch
 

Happy girl

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Welcome back George, you have been away far too long, & I for one have missed your banter.

As far as I am concerned, you are part of the nucleus of this forum, so it is heart warming to read again your posts.

I do not have a teacher so I look for inspiration & spirited guidance from people like you & others who are always so generous & tolerant with their expertise.

From the beginning of this forum I have collected, copied & pasted many gems of wisdom into what is now a neat collection of hints & tips into a personal portfolio for my own reading & guidance. Many, (most) of the gems originate from your hand George, so, thank you & it is good to see that you are once again writing from the heart in your usual, passionate way. .

Kind regards, Happy girl
 

Stephen Hawkins

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George,

I am very much in the "earist" camp, having had no formal training in music. It is how I learned to play the Clarinet in the early 1960's, and how I intend to master the accordion now.

My own experience has taught me that familiarisation with an instrument is everything. The more often you play a particular instrument, the easier it becomes.

I know a lot of excellent musicians who have never read dots in their lives.

Kind Regards,

Stephen Hawkins.
 

Morne

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I think something like this might've been discussed here before, but I'd like to propose a third one which is maybe the "worst" of both worlds: being able to do neither properly :lol:. That is, using the dots only to learn a piece and then playing from memory but being unable to sight read or to learn by ear. I.e. a mechanical process only. When playing by ear or by sight, I'd say there's conscious effort involved in honing the process in addition to the mechanical aspects. Whereas I'm mostly just practicing the mechanical part. There might be some slight improvement in terms of recognising simple things in the dots quicker (like small intervals), but I make no effort to sight read for the sake of it.

I also have no formal music education and the accordion is my first instrument. I've learnt to read notation and play at the same time. Basically the books I play from give me the notes, fingering, etc. and only the minimum theory needed to understand the dots. Once I've learnt the bass and the treble side separately and can play both parts together somewhat roughly I put away the notes and practice until I can play it properly (or just less terrible).

I find it harder to learn a new song until I've heard it being played first (accordion or otherwise). I think so far I have done this for almost everything I have learnt. Once I have a rough idea of what a song sounds like I turn to the dots. Now this might hint at being more by ear than by sight, but I definitely make no effort to figure out a song by myself.

I suppose for a beginner this might actually be a good way to get acquainted with the instrument if you're not going to insist on being a purist in either direction. The area I can see myself getting better at most is the bass side. The songs in my current book get more difficult as you go on. Things like larger jumps, using the pinky, simple bass runs, using 5 or more notes (instead of just simple 3 note accompaniment), counter bass, alternating bass etc. By not having to worry about trying to figure out notes by ear, or to practice reading dots I have more time to practice the mechanical aspects. The fingering guides also indirectly teach me a "best practice". Unfortunately I do the wrong kind of "playing by sight" on the treble side by looking down too much when there are larger jumps :D.

As for pro's, here are two that relate to me directly.
By ear: useful when you want to play something where dots simply don't exist or the name of a song is not known. E.g. foreign folk music where your only access consists of online recordings/videos since there's no local (to me) tradition of playing it. This will probably be the reason for me to learn playing by ear later once I'm good enough with the mechanical things.
Notation: having books with lots of foreign (or old) music is a lovely way to be exposed to music you would probably never have come across, or heard, otherwise.

As for the idea that playing by dots must mean rigid adherence, just look at Baroque ornamentation to get an idea of how performers were actually expected to add flourish.
 

Glenn

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I don't normally contribute to this discussion as I am someone that reads music very well (hope so after all these years) but can also play by ear. In my opinion the best is to have both abilities. To have only one will be a limitation at some point. I think the pros and cons of having only one ability then become obvious. Of course, if the real question is which one is better then that is a whole new kettle of fish. Is that what this thread is about?
 

george garside

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Glenn said:
I dont normally contribute to this discussion as I am someone that reads music very well (hope so after all these years) but can also play by ear. In my opinion the best is to have both abilities. To have only one will be a limitation at some point. I think the pros and cons of having only one ability then become obvious. Of course, if the real question is which one is better then that is a whole new kettle of fish. Is that what this thread is about?


As the one who started this thread I would like to state categorically that in my opinion neither is better or worse than tother and that is not what I had in mind when starting the thread! Each has distinct advantages and disadvantages and each is probably more suitable for a particular type of music?

You are very fortunate Glenn in having a good level both abilities but as has emerged in many posts most seem to have gone up one road or tother, with or without attempting to to dip their feet in the other waters and as faar as I am cconcerned ( as a mainly earist) both are mainstream and both are used either separately or together by large numbers of box layers.

Perhaps some honest and unbiased discussion of the pros and cons of each may encourage exploration of other waters and also endow players of both genres with a better understanding and respect of each others methods , their advantages aand their disadvantages.

george
 

donn

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Which one is better would depend a lot on what you're trying to do. That's why as a controversy it's mainly imaginary. We are all trying to do different things, and we have no idea how different because it doesn't come across in this medium.
 

Stephen Hawkins

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Hmmmm, My accordion tutor gave me a tune to practice a few weeks ago, but my progress with it was rather slow. This had not been the case with other tunes, and I soon figured out the reason.

It is simple really; I just didn't like the tune he gave me to practice. Last week I told him that I didn't like the tune, and that I would only play tunes that I like. I then gave him a list of the tunes I wanted to tackle first. He agreed that this was probably best practice, and we have had no further problems of like nature.

When the accordion becomes as simple to me as the Clarinet became, maybe then I will attempt tunes I don't care for. Until then I will continue to play what I like, knowing that my competence will grow with practice. If I know a tune, I know how long to hold notes, and I don't need dots to tell me.

Stephen Hawkins.
 

george garside

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Stephen has a point about laying tunes you like. If you are playing the box for the fun of it then that is as good as any way to approach it and I think that probably goes for the majority of those playing by ear who, dare I say it, can't be bothered with tunes they don't like and have no particular reason to lay. On the other hand a ''professional'' player be it orchestral, or backing other instruments as a session musician or whatever has to play what he/she is asked to play and usually needs to be a good sight reader.

This is perhaps one of the main 'pros and cons' A good earist is often able to busk along with others ,picking the tune up on the hoof so to speak . In that situation a pure dotist may well be left high and dry unless he has the appropriate dots to hand. On the other hand the good dotist armed only with a bit of paper can play (sometimes straight off) that would leave the good earist up shit creek without a paddle so to speak!

Does this make a case for each to have an occasional paddle in the other water?

george
 

artelagro

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Hi George, Good to see you back again.
I have been out of action for the best part of a year and am forcing myself to do some catching-up. A couple of things happened yesterday that you may be able to explain.
1) While playing 'Donald Iain Rankine' to Ian Lowthian's sheet music, I found the second page very much easier than the first.
2) When playing the 'Banjo Breakdown' from a fake book, it started OK then I started playing by ear and could look away from the music (for the first time in my life)
3) I moved onto 'The Australian Ladies', followed the fake book music for the first part then played the remainder (which I have no music for) by ear or memory.
Am I going through the change of life?
Garth
 

Soulsaver

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Sounds like a break through moment to me.. well done Garth. Do you think the layoff helped the step forward??? Or just returned with renewed zeal? :ch
 
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Bill V

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As an ex band player(20 years ago) we had both ,fiddler could play anything with or without dots, accordion a reader, bass player an earist,piano a reader,we very easily gelled.after some rehearsals.At dances the bass player kept the tempo,violin took the lead sound thats all the dancers could hear and take notice of,accordion and piano filled in the middle.You are no better or worse for the mix.After a while when nerves were overcome l found I played on automatic pilot we knew the tunes well enough to concentrate on the dynamics to give the music some light an shade.The dots were there as a crutch just in case(gave some confidence).Tapping your foot is not always a good idea as some stages are hollow underneath you could submerge the drummer ok if you haven't got a drum I suppose.It was all good fun for the ten years it lasted.
 

george garside

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if foot tapping was good enough for Sir Jimmy Shand its good enough for me!

george
 
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acordiansam

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I mostly play by ear. I can't help my self. it's hard to play the same thing twice without atleast a small change. I started playing the box at 6. Had lessons untill 17. Had a great teacher. He worked with my reading problem. I know the notes and all but i can not site read. There must be sum disconnect in my brain. Give me Music come back next week. If you can play or sing it most of the time i will pick it up after a time or two. I do wish i could read better. But it has never stoped me from playing with others. Witch is what i like the best anyway. I think a basic knolage of Music is best. Do you have to read the dots no but in sum cases its hard to get around. To be able to tell sumone what key to play in or cord.
 

donn

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Bill V said:
Tapping your foot is not always a good idea as some stages are hollow underneath you could submerge the drummer

Speaks well for your drummer. Drummers Im up against lately, youd have to be tapping your foot loud enough to cause permanent hearing damage.

I played in a band for a few years that learned tunes from written music. They might have done otherwise, it was a Balkan brass band and written music is not common in that tradition, but the instrumentation means a lot of us had school brass band backgrounds. But once we got slightly serious about our act, we learned our tunes and went up on stage without music. In the terms that George divides the world into, I reckon we were dot-ists, inasmuch as the written music was essential, but we learned to be off the dots for performance.

None of the bands I play in are up for that now, so there are music stands on stage. (Well, except for the Morris side where its just me and a drummer, if that qualifies as a band.) In the largish brass band, thats the normal performance standard, but the other bands are in folk/popular categories where wed do something about that if we were more serious.
 

Stephen Hawkins

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Bill V & George,

I passed my driving test 51 years ago, since when I have never even looked at the manufacturer's manual before driving any new car I have bought. In just the same way, familiarity with an instrument or a tune makes playing so much easier.

Modesty prevents me from claiming that I was a good Clarinet player, but I very rarely had to think about the mechanics of my instrument when playing a familiar tune. I would buy Acker Bilk 45's and listen them through a few times. After a few practice runs I could play anything I heard. (though not as well as Acker Bilk, it has to be said)

I am not in the least bit prejudiced against dot readers; it is just that it has never suited my character or personal needs.

Stephen Hawkins.
 

jarvo

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Stephen Hawkins said:
Bill V & George,

I passed my driving test 51 years ago, since when I have never even looked at the manufacturers manual before driving any new car I have bought.

it is just that it has never suited my character or personal needs.

Stephen Hawkins.



Good luck with finding the bonnet release lever on some modern cars then :shock: :lol: :hb
 

Stephen Hawkins

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Hello Jarvo,

The on-board computer gives me all the information I need about what is going on under the bonnet. Also, my granddaughter's husband is a mechanic, and he knows where the bonnet release is situated.

As for my accordions, I wouldn't know where to start taking them apart but, then again, I wouldn't want to. It is just a question of sticking to what I am good at, and leaving matters I am not adept at to professionals or gifted amateurs.

Brenda & I are not exactly in the first flush of youth, so prefer to pay others to do things for us which require any degree of contortion. This was not always the case, but age brings with it certain limitations. (as you will one day discover)

Take it easy,

Stephen Hawkins.
 

Stephen Hawkins

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I'm sure that reading dots is advantageous to anyone who needs to play music with which they are unfamiliar, but how many of us fit into that category?

Usually, at least in Folk Clubs, we learn or practice a couple of tunes that we intend to play at our next folk evening. Those who have not had the time to practice a new tune tend to rely on old favourites from their repertoire; ones that they can play instinctively through familiarity.

Even if I could play by dots, I would not be comfortable performing a new piece of music without first having practiced it to the point at which I was reasonably confident of getting it right.

In that respect, if I am correct, dots are useful as a training aid, but practice does everything else. Both methods ultimately take you to the same point, but the route is a little different. In other words, there is no right or wrong way, and it all boils down to personal preference.

Stephen Hawkins.
 

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