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playing melodies by ear

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I would take the singing teacher's story about muscle memory with a grain of salt. I mean, not saying it was wrong, but must have been a misunderstanding. The important thing anyway is what you will do, which presumably runs more along the lines of how the general population handles music. If singing has too big a load of expectations? Hum, or whistle or something. Everyone has this faculty, to hear music and perform it by ear, and it's a good thing for a musician to develop.

A couple times recently I've stopped to listen to my head, as it were, to see what's playing in there. Random stuff, it seems. I practice weekly with a little band that plays marches, and I think that's the general character of the music - somewhat like melodies that the basses would get occasionally in a march, but not any actual piece, just random noodling, though now that I had that thought, W P Chambers' Chicago Tribune came on. Which is OK, anything but "seasonal"!
No no no. What she said is extremely true. At a singing lesson the teachers often play the piano and ask the student to repeat untill it is memorize in "muscle memory". I can see that you never took singing lessons.
 

Tom

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Interesting. In my particular mind, if I "sing" a song (internally) that I know well I "think" that I am hearing it as it should be, not the poor way I would sing it in reality. In learning a song I don't know, I find that first visualizing it "properly" helps to learn to play it faster.

What is "singing well" anyway? Is it reproducing the proper pitches at the proper time? Or is it like playing accordion, where audience engagement, energy, emotion trumps (sorry) perfection?

Remember about Bob Dylan back in the day? Everyone said, "He's a terrible singer, no one wants to hear him. But he's making a million dollars doing it."

I don't consider myself a "good singer" but no one has thrown a tomato at me yet and I continue to improve, and I believe it makes people happy. I get the best advice from a professional friend, such as, "Sing softer, use the mic, sing at your normal speaking voice level."

The bigger question is, when is this dam covid going to end so I get more events before I'm 90? I don't even go to open jams. It's so sad.
 
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donn

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Try listening to a song/melody and then transcribing it. Preferably digitally, so you can hear back what you transcribe.

I can easily manage 30 minutes on two bars, and still not get it exactly right as on the recording....

Still I can easily sing/hum/whistle it back to you... so what's up with that??

So there's two different worlds inside the brain for sure
That's sometimes how I learn tunes, it works both ways. The business of setting down the notes not only interrupts the mental playback, but sort of overrides it, so right away I start hearing the song wrong, due to transcription errors.

But if the tune was interesting enough to be worth the trouble, it's likely to suffer from the same problem if I try to do it all by ear - I'll lose the tune as I poke around and start to hear what I'm playing instead. And here it's harder to nail down what I'm learning, so in the end the more complicated tune may be easier to manage on my notation editor. If it's a rhythm I can notate.
 

donn

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My father could sing quite well, without a shred of musical education as far as I know. As I remember it, maybe better than I do, and I work at it. He had a good voice, he liked music, and he just threw himself into it. Sometimes I wonder if we teach music wrong.
 

dan

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Sometimes I wonder if we teach music wrong.
I was fortunate to have an elementary school music teacher who used the Kodaly method. I learned folk songs with movable do solfege, and banged on xylophones with only five notes, before ever getting into sheet music and instrument-specific skills.

I have been really frustrated.
Yes, it is frustrating to struggle with skills that other musicians take for granted. I struggled with reading bass clef and develop hand independence. I had never needed these skills as a woodwind player, and have been reluctant to put in the time working with beginner pieces to develop them, when I can do other things on accordion at an intermediate level.

I think we have established that singing, humming, or whistling is an essential part of how people develop the listening and memory skills needed to play by ear, but you are right that most singing teachers are working on an entirely different set of skills. Last year I bought some singing video lessons to work on things like lip bubbles and vowel modifications and breath support, and it's helped me improve my tone and crack fewer notes when navigating the passagio, but none of that is relevant for learning a melody by ear!
I can sing along to some tunes. But what you are forgetting is: they might be perming it in a bad key for your voice.
Not important! Once I've "learned" a tune by attempting to sing along, I can transpose it to a better key for my voice. In order to do this, you will need to encode the information as relative pitches (something like movable do solfege) rather than "muscle memory," i.e. "here's how my larynx feels on beat one of bar 2."
Copy on my instrument, or by singing? No. I've got one chance in twelve of pressing the right button on the first try.
If you played folk songs on melodeon, you could improve your odds to one in eight! On a fully chromatic instrument, warming up with scales can serve the same purpose. But even so, there's a lot of trial and error involved in learning to play by ear.

My guesses are more accurate than they used to be. On piano accordion, the sequence of skills acquired was something like this.
1. I can tell the next note is higher, so I'm going to press a key to the right (or down) from my current note.
2. I can tell it's a small interval, of the sort I hear when I practice scales, so I won't stretch very far
3. I can tell it's a small interval, and doesn't have that dissonant or dramatic quality I associate with accidentals, so it's probably a B rather than a B-flat
4. I can tell it's a bigger interval, so I'll need to skip some of the notes in the scale. I'm not sure how many though
5. I can tell it's an octave because it sounds like other tunes that use octaves. "Chesnuts roasting on an open fire" etc. I know how much I need to stretch for an octave.
6. I can tell its a medium size interval, so I'll stretch about so much. 50/50 chances whether I get it right
7. I am 75% sure it's a perfect fifth, and will need to stretch exactly this much
8. I am 95% sure it's a perfect fifth, and will need to stretch exactly this much.
 

godgi

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just brosing some of the info above. the concept of not been able to play by ear is interesting. i could always play learnt pieces quiet quickly by ear. recently i was at an accordion college in france. there was one accomplished accordionist there who practiced the same russian piece for a full week playing it incessently with great gusto. on the final concert night we all had to do a piece. she arrives on stage with her sheet music on a music stand and proceeded to read the piece whilst playing. i couldnt believe it ie thst she couldnt play it by ear.
another piece of useless information.
godgie
 

Dingo40

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Godgi,
To add to your anecdote (above), my accordion teacher had organised a Christmas concert for all his students where everyone was to perform a party piece each.
I arrived duly prepared and so confident (been playing it by ear for weeks) I didn't bring any sheet music for it.
No sooner I sat down, my mind went totally blank and I couldn't remember a thing about my item (or much else).
What ensued was ( judging by the audience reaction , spontaneous laughter and applause ) a highly successful, unintended, impromptu stand up comedy set, which was better appreciated than my actual playing would likely have been.
However, I always brought my music to subsequent concerts ?
 

Monty [IIIII]

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I've been following this thread with great interest. Like others here, I can play various instruments, have studied theory, can read sheet music, memorize tunes and even play by ear. But, I can't sing anything but simple tunes in a narrow range by ear. Nor can I listen to a note played and tell you if it is an A or G or C. The problem is made even worse by a medication I take that affects my vocal cords.

Before my voice crapped out, I asked a prominent singing teacher if she could help me learn to sing. She told me it was a waste of time. I have enough trouble making time to learn the accordion, so I didn't give it much more thought until now.

My mother was a great singer. Like others have mentioned, she didn't have a lot of musical training -- could vamp a bit on the piano -- but played no instruments. However she could look at a hymnal and sight read any of the parts within her vocal range. Where did this come from?

A few years ago I found an early 1900s text book written for music instruction. I assume it was used by young students by the juvenile graffiti written in the margins. The book presented a more advanced approach to music theory than I had encountered in High School and beyond. I was amazed that someone thought children could learn this stuff. But then I recall that Mozart was composing symphonies at an age that I was still playing "hide and seek" and long before I was seeking Haydn.

A few other historical factoids may be relevant as well. in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, sheet music was big business. Musical scores were published with lavish illustrations like magazine covers. Even people who had no piano would buy a score to sing a popular melody from Stephen Foster and many others. People would also take the score to musical performances and follow it like a libretto. Speaking of which, tune piracy was a big problem for opera composers. Music publishers would hire people with a keen ear for music to lurk near rehearsals and memorize or notate new arias. The bootleg music scores were often available by the opening night of a new opera. And, presumably, there would be "cover bands" playing Verdi while he was conducting his new opera down the street. I don't have links or footnotes for all this, but I'm sure you can find the same stories on the internet as I did.

A couple of conclusions. First, musical involvement was much different before the technological advances of radio, tv, I-tunes etc. Without boom boxes or Bluetooth people made their own music. Lots of people played fiddle, piano, guitar, squeezebox etc. and brought these instruments to gatherings. People with no formal musical training would sing together, harmonizing acapella or with the help of a piano. In small towns everywhere, people like my grandfather and great uncles formed dance bands with instruments from the Sears catalogue. Ordinary folk participated in brass bands that performed in the town square on holidays. Sometimes these bands were organized by mine owners thinking the exertion would clear and strengthen their lungs.

Such traditions still survive -- to some extent -- at folk festivals and music sessions of traditional music attended mostly by self trained musicians, many of whom play without sheet music. Often, their thinking is that "the dots" on a page interfere with their mental processes that enable them to hear and memorize so many tunes. I tend to agree, as tunes that I have learned by ear tend to stay with me better than ones I sight read. On the other hand, isn't it great that a group of strangers can show up someplace, pick up some complicated score for jazz band or chamber orchestra and start playing something they've never heard and do it well enough to entertain a room full of music enthusiasts?! Wouldn't it be nice if more people would turn off the tv or shut down the smart phone so they could get together with friends and make music as people once did?!

And with that thought I'm going to get back to accordion practice.
Monty [IIIII]
 

donn

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Such traditions still survive -- to some extent -- at folk festivals and music sessions of traditional music attended mostly by self trained musicians, many of whom play without sheet music. Often, their thinking is that "the dots" on a page interfere with their mental processes that enable them to hear and memorize so many tunes.
If anyone really believes there's any harm in reading music, they're confused about that.

There are indeed limits to people's ability to play without music, but it's more or less the same either way. Does my playing by ear account for my sight reading defects? I could get better at sight reading (I do OK until I hit anything novel.) I could get better at ear playing, too. I will have some absolute limits for either of those faculties.

We do have a lot more people who come out of a lightweight formal educational background, thanks to school programs, with little or no musical performance context - they've never seen anyone play for fun, outside school. That's a different thing from music "in the wild" so to speak, where some young people are motivated to pick up musical performance, and a good measure of ear playing is surely going to happen. But I doubt the education does a thing to interfere with that ability, it just fails to develop it. And it may be to some extent, that when people decide much later in life that they are deficient in this ability, it's harder to develop than it would have been at an early age - there are a lot of neurons involved - so one has to be patient and appreciate any small gains.
 

CC_PDX

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I wouldn't go so far as to call it "harm," but there is a natural tendency toward literalness when reading music vs. playing by ear especially amongst those with classical training and it can limit exploration/expressiveness if taken too far. I see Monty's point and would compare it to learning a skill by watching / listening / experimenting vs. reading the manual. I would think figuring out something on your own makes more (and deeper) neural connections, much like navigating by "feel" creates a more durable sense of where you are and can be more adaptable than relying on rote turn-by-turn GPS directions.

The act of writing down and publishing a score artificially locks down one version as "definitive" but there is far too much reverence for this, in my opinion. The written notation is always a pale approximation of the composer / songwriter's idea, so the sooner you can internalize the "bones" of the tune and put the written music away, the freer you are to interpret it in a unique way. If you learned it by ear in the first place, you are accelerating this process of making it your own because of what you choose to focus on and emphasize. From Bach to Trad to Jazz, the notion of a singular "right" way to play a tune is fairly meaningless--in fact you usually don't want to play it the same way twice, you change up articulations / ornamentation / voicings / push and pull of rhythm, tempo etc. just like the original creator likely did when they performed it.

If you look at one the many (attempted) detailed literal transcriptions of a popular Irish tune, it is often a complex nearly unreadable mess of dotted eighths and sixteenths, flurries of fully notated trills and other ornaments. You could learn this note-for-note from the score but you'd end up with a clinical-sounding, soulless, nearly unrecognizable tune. Most lead sheets take the Real Book approach and provide just the stripped-down essence of the tune (which, if played literally, also sounds nothing like the original). They fully expect you to take it in endless directions by making it up or listening to other recordings.
 

Ffingers

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Much would depend on the teacher, CC_PDX, there being more than a smattering of truth in the adage: "Those that can, do - those who can't, teach."
In my experience the rigid pedagogy of some of the teachers who I have encountered has done more to dissuade bright young people from advancing their natural skills and talents than to bring out the best in them.
This is true of teaching in all subjects; from playdough to astrophysics: Fortunately the move away from strict instruction to more playful learning has been taking hold over recent years, especially in early-years education, and the results are very noticable improvements in student retention and creativity.
My observation of people's natural learning processes is one of: "When all else fails, read the instructions." ;-)
 

donn

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I don't know ... it seems odd to me to look to teachers as the foundation of one's experience with a musical instrument. I mean, the instrument is normally yours, right? You take it home, and there you are, the instrument and you and no teacher. You put your hand to it, and noises come out. If you have any music in you, eventually you'll think about how that music might come out on the instrument. If you try and it isn't any fun, nothing the teacher can do about that, much less if you don't even have the motivation to try. I may have a warped perspective on this, in which case I blame it on having been expelled from flutophone class in the 3rd grade.

As for the influence between different routes to learning a piece - that's a slightly more particular issue than I was thinking of, and it's sure true that the music learned from a page will be at a considerable disadvantage. It's kind of like the joke about the guy who visits a remote logging camp and is mystified when, sitting around the cabin, the funniest thing for everyone is when someone mentions a number. It turns out that they tired of telling the same old jokes, so they just catalogued them by number and save some time. At best, written music comes with a whole lot of implied context, and if you don't know Irish music or whatever it is, you'll never get it from the page.
 

Tom

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I don't know ... it seems odd to me to look to teachers as the foundation of one's experience with a musical instrument. I mean, the instrument is normally yours, right? You take it home, and there you are, the instrument and you and no teacher. You put your hand to it, and noises come out. If you have any music in you, eventually you'll think about how that music might come out on the instrument. If you try and it isn't any fun, nothing the teacher can do about that, much less if you don't even have the motivation to try. I may have a warped perspective on this, in which case I blame it on having been expelled from flutophone class in the 3rd grade.

As for the influence between different routes to learning a piece - that's a slightly more particular issue than I was thinking of, and it's sure true that the music learned from a page will be at a considerable disadvantage. It's kind of like the joke about the guy who visits a remote logging camp and is mystified when, sitting around the cabin, the funniest thing for everyone is when someone mentions a number. It turns out that they tired of telling the same old jokes, so they just catalogued them by number and save some time. At best, written music comes with a whole lot of implied context, and if you don't know Irish music or whatever it is, you'll never get it from the page.
Intetesting points. But really when it comes down to it, it's the music that counts (call it "music," that combination of player, emotion, setting, instrument, etc.). A good teacher is good and helpful, a bad teacher is bad. Soulless music is bad whether learned from sheet or ear. And vice versa. I'm very basic.
 

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There are, of course, many other factors involved other than pedagogy versus auto didacticism.
The home environment is possibly more a factor, combined with peer-group pressure in younger years.
Parental attitudes, family stability, economic situation, location, are all invoved.
 

Monty [IIIII]

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This has been a long and winding thread (now humming Beatle's song about a road). It began with a question about teaching someone to play by ear, and then wandered around the topic of how we learn and teach music in general. It digressed a bit into a values discussion concerning the merits of how to learn and which method produces more authentic or perhaps good music. It prompted me to think more deeply about how music actually works in our brain. Then I recalled some reading I had done on the topic and went off to refresh my memory.

It turns out there has been quite a bit written about the neuroscience of music and memory. For that is primarily what is at work in playing by ear -- memory. I won't try to repeat the science here, because I'm not that well versed, nor is that the purpose of this thread. But I would like to make some relevant observations here and then pursue the "brain on music" thread separately.

There are some simple observations upon which all of us might agree: Most people can recall and perform simple songs learned in childhood. Most people can recall popular tunes learned off the radio. And most musicians can recall tunes they have played over and over again whether learned by hearing or by picking out the right notes on sheet music. What interests me is how quickly that music can be committed to memory and how long will it be held.

We who have been making music for a long time have undoubtedly met the musician who could hear a tune once and reproduce it nearly perfectly. How does that work? Why do I have to play it 15 times to learn it and some other person has to play it 100 times for it to stick? Is it the method of training or learning that achieves such results? Or is that each of us has different mental abilities and learning styles.

Think of the autistic savant who can hear a complex melody and repeat it not for note on a piano. I doubt anyone thinks that ability can be taught. Think of the traditional musician who can play hundreds if not thousands of tunes from memory. Can the rest of us hope to achieve that whether we play by ear or by notes? I think not. We may make some improvements in memory through practice or other techniques. But I think we are all limited to a large extent by our natural gifts, no matter how much we practice.

The third chair high school tuba player is not likely to be one day on the stage performing Haydn's trumpet concerto, no matter how much he or she practices or how good a teacher he or she finds. Yes it is partly motivation. Some tuba players practice a lot and go on to perform tuba solos. There are tuba ensembles of gifted player. But most of those tuba players are not going to get past the playing of oom pah pah in the background. I think the same holds true of accordion players. Some of us may have the potential to be a Charles Magnante or Jackie Daly. The rest of us will fall somewhere else on the spectrum -- no matter how much we practice.

I think this variety in ability to learn and perform is particularly suited to the accordion. Unlike the violin, an average player can still squeeze out some pleasant tunes and entertain the folk down at the old folks home. In fact this is particularly important now because the residents remember the era when accordion was a popular instrument played everywhere from Irish pubs to dance halls or television shows like Lawrence Welk. And it turns out there is a lot that this music can do to help them function as their brains and cognitive skills decline. There is much the act of learning ( by ear or notes) that helps the player improve the brain and retain cognitive function as well.

Finally, I think the most important thing for music teachers is to inspire appreciation for music and lead the student towards their potential, rather than try to push them to perform beyond their natural abilities. The gifted will learn however they are taught. The risk is that the less talented will be driven away from a life time enjoyment of music by the pressure of parents or teachers who expect too much and snuff out the simple pleasures of making music at some level or another. Some of us can learn to be performers and others to be good listeners, but none of us should learn to despise the sound of music because it reminds us of tortures endured in childhood.
 

Tom

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Ok, so the big question is, what if you're "an average player can still squeeze out some pleasant tunes and entertain the folk down at the old folks home." and want to get beyond that? Can you name a teacher or method who can do it? I can't seem to figure it out on my own.
 

donn

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Think of the traditional musician who can play hundreds if not thousands of tunes from memory. Can the rest of us hope to achieve that whether we play by ear or by notes? I think not. We may make some improvements in memory through practice or other techniques. But I think we are all limited to a large extent by our natural gifts, no matter how much we practice.

I suppose there's sort of a glass half full/empty aspect to it. There's an up side and a down side for people like us who have the spare time to spend on an accordion bulletin board. We have more time available to work on it, but in many cases, we're old enough that it's going to go a lot slower.

Just for something that may or may not be any practical help - I think I've mentioned this, maybe even earlier in this ancient thread - I acquired tunes solely by ear, on the accordion, having never troubled to learn to read for that instrument, but I often write down what I'm learning. That helps in the process, if I'm having a hard time holding on to what I picked out in different parts of the tune, and it also serves as a record in case I come back later and have forgotten it, which is quite likely. There's a tune or two that resisted notation, because of meter/rhythm issues that got around me, and I can play them anyway, so of course it isn't really essential, but sometimes it can expedite the process of learning a bunch of tunes.
 

Monty [IIIII]

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Several years ago, a young man with no musical experience became a keyboard virtuoso instantaneously after injuring his brain in a swimming pool accident. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Derek_Amato The condition, called "acquired savant syndrome" is quite rare, and debated amongst neuroscientists as to what extent it is an instantaneous emergence of "real" genius. There is more agreement on the existence of musical and mathematical savants born with that brain anomaly. In either case, it suggests there may be untapped musical ability in any brain.

However, before bashing our heads against concrete to bring out the musical ability, I suggest there must be teachers and methods that can help the motivated person to advance -- at least those of us who are not already musical geniuses.

My music teachers over the years have ranged from excellent to inept. As a teen, I learned organ from a retired jazz organist who introduced me to elaborate chord structure even though the scores were written for beginners. With her training I thought I was destined to be a cocktail lounge performer....until the first time I played intermission for an accomplished performer and embarrassed myself. Still, it is not entirely bad if your teacher can help you believe in your own abilities...even if they kind of suck.

Taking up accordion in my early 60s, I found another older woman teacher, Eileen Hagen of Portland Oregon, who has since departed this earth. She had successfully taught a number of older adults as well as children using the Palmer--Hughes method books. Before I got very far with her, I had to move to the other side of the country. But I had enough training from organ and piano lessons to continue on accordion with the help of various instruction books, Youtube videos etc. I occasionally think of finding another teacher, but have yet to find the time to pursue formal lessons (when I'm not restoring old houses and pontificating on this site)

One of my instruction books was written by Gary Dahl, a jazz accordionist and composer living near Seattle. He was teaching accordion remotely via video tapes exchanged in the mail. Eventually he switched to lessons via Skype on the internet. He too died a few years ago, but other accordion teachers offering classes via Zoom etc.

A very good accordionist in England/ Scotland, Karen Tweed, has produced some tutorials and does occasional lessons by Zoom. I think this may be the future of accordion teaching unless there is another surge of accordion interest like the 1940s and '50s when every music store seemed to offer accordion lessons.

Speaking of which, Petosa accordion company published a list of accordion teachers. Most were on the West coast US, primarily Seattle area, but then again they may be now teaching by zoom. I would check out the Petosa web site for leads. Or just Google "accordion teachers near me". In this way I found several listings of accordion teachers near Cleveland OH, some of whom taught on line. One teacher in this area, Ralph Szubski or "Accordion Man" is older, but still actively performing and teaching. He was recommended by a great accordion tuner near Cleveland, Brian Slosarik.

In short, finding accordion instruction is perhaps better than ever now that we have the internet. We are not stuck with the guy at the last remaining local music store who dabbles a bit in keyboards as well as guitar, trumpet and kazoo -- not that we can't learn something from him too. Even though I think we all have limits in ability, motivation and time to pursue a musical instrument, an extra application of time and motivation can make up for whatever might be lacking in natural ability. And the mere process of trying to advance our musical skills seems to help in maintaining our other cognitive skills as we age. We may be surprised at what we can squeeze out of ourselves as well as our accordions.
Monty [IIIII]
 

Johnny

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This is fascinating thread. I’ve learned a lot from the discussion. I was also reminded of a couple quotes included at the end of one of my jazz technique books:

“We start out playing by ear, learning everything we can, and finally end up playing by ear again.” — Lee Konitz

“It gets to the point where the player, if he’s going to be any kind of serious player, teaches himself.” — Bill Evans
 

jozz

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Ok, so the big question is, what if you're "an average player can still squeeze out some pleasant tunes and entertain the folk down at the old folks home." and want to get beyond that? Can you name a teacher or method who can do it? I can't seem to figure it out on my own.
Focus on interval training, and perhaps daily scales and common progressions;
this will lay the basis of playing a melody by ear, or at least manage a recognizable tune

Move on to playing a short set without sheet to have at the ready in an unforeseen situation;
this will help in establishing yourself locally as a musician. Might open up doors that otherwise would stay closed.

For reference: to really nail one set without sheet, typically it will take me at least half a year.

But always stay at the interval and scales practice. This is the basis of everything beyond, especially for a chromatic instrument
 

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