Playing by ear.

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Playing by ear.

Postby JamesT3 » 24 Apr 2024 02:20

Playing by ear.

I’d like to hear from members who play by ear. How and when did you discover this gift? Can you also play to music score? Did you start on a piano or keyboard? What inspired you? What skill level would you consider yourself to be?

This is my story which I’d like to share.

I was 11 years old when a piano was introduced to our household back in 1971. My eyes lit up. Something to distract me from reading comics! My four sisters had a tinker but were easily bored. The piano was a typical old upright sounding like it needed retuning, but I loved it. I think a lot of people had these pianos at one time. I didn’t rush in bashing at the keys. I enjoyed playing all the keys fascinated to hear the changes in sound. I remember asking my parents if I could have a play on the piano after school, during school holidays and weekends.

Music was always being played in our house, either radio or records. Anything from Dean Martin, George Formby and as far back as Maurice Chevalier! My elder sisters would play popular modern music records from the present time. I loved all music types, styles and instruments. Beautiful Dreamer was always being played and it was that particular melody that caught my ears first hand. Whilst the record was repeatedly being played, I pressed on a few ivorys until I picked up the tune. The song must have been in the key of C at the time as that was my main key set that I adapted to. I remember discovering that first note that matched the start of the song, ‘B b b beautiful dreamer’….That’s it same key to match. Took me time and many wrong notes but once I got there, there was no stopping me.

What do I do with my left hand then?
I discovered the way to play three notes to make a chord. C, E and G. Then discovered the changes to make other three finger chords with my left hand. Trying to get out of the habit of vamping the chords rather than gently playing.

I progressed over the years. Next melody was ‘I’ll take you home again Kathleen’. I remember I was annoyed at that tune as there was a difficult key change but with perseverance I hit it! Then I moved onto Val Doonican’s ‘Paddy McGinty’s goat’, ‘Delaney’s donkey’ and ‘Rafferty’s motor car’! I recall being excited that I seemed to enjoy learning to play faster tunes. Of course there was a lot of improvisation until I could master the piece to the best of my ability. My school teachers would allow me to tinker on the piano in the hall during play times! I loved it.

I recall an elderly gentleman friend of the family regularly visited our home. He arranged charity events for the elderly at homes or clubs. He had a good ear for music. He would scald me saying: you’re not playing the black notes and your vamping too much! I didn’t know what vamping was. Of course the left hand was bashing at three keys; key of C, although correct, was too heavily played against the right hand melody. This annoyed me, although I did somehow manage to tone it down!
My other habit was just playing the white keys. Soon to discover the magic of introducing the black keys for massive changes.

Of course what I really needed but we couldn’t afford, was professional tuition, so I continued the best way I could: by ear. I played piano at some charity events and it built my confidence up as well as learning new songs to play, as requested by my audience.

Over the years I created a repertoire, when around 1976 I answered an ad in the local newspaper for a piano player at weekends in a local pub, as we say up North! Dare I do this I thought? What if I am not good enough? The piano was as old as mine from 1971 and out of tune. Little bits of ivory missing from the odd key! Sounded like something from a bar in a Western movie. It was a rough old local pub that certainly had character. £5 to play for two nights. I started around 8pm with easy listening and popular songs. Then bang on 10:30, when people were a little more inebriated, I introduced a sing-a-long of old time songs like ‘Roll out the barrel’, ‘Baby face’ etc. This became very popular and the highlight of the evenings. Always ended up with ‘Show me the way to go home’ (hurry up before a brick comes through the window!). Only joking, but it was a rough house! Even the chairs were tattooed! But I got to know the local characters by their favourite song requests. One chap introduced me to Klaus Wunderlich. He gave me some cassette tapes. After listening to these, I never looked back and acquired most of the late great Wunderlich collection, especially ‘Dream concerto’. And I am proud to have recorded and covered most of those tracks on Tyros 3, which I believe are posted on PSR forum under James Tyros (A user name I adopted because of discovering the Tyros range).

Back in my early days playing piano, my left hand was beginning to ache as I fell into the old vamping, especially at the sing-a-longs. I knew that I was definitely not a pianist, although customer tips kept coming in at the end of each night, especially occasions like New Year’s Eve when I would be playing beyond midnight and was rewarded with an old tin ash tray filled with cash tips, minus the cigarette butts!

Around Christmas 1972 I was given an old table top Bontempi with chord buttons. Later I acquired a Busilacchio electric reed organ. It blew my mind that I could have a continuous background chord along with the melody. My first real portable organ with 18 full chord buttons, which introduced me to minor and major chords and how they should be played along with melody. It was a 1960s vintage fan driven organ in its own case with detachable aluminium legs. I even took it to school and formed a little band alongside friends who played guitar and drums, and did a stint on local radio.

Once I discovered the electric organ, that was it. My musical abilities confirmed that I was a keyboard player and not a pianist! Although I loved listening to piano and still enjoy having a go at the ivories.

My playing and confidence improved and I started playing the organ in local pubs. They all had their own organs from Hammond, Orla, Yamaha etc. One of the best was a Lowrey with double keyboard with rotary Leslie speakers. I’d never played anything like that ever. Luckily the landlady allowed me free use anytime I wanted to practice and get the feel of this incredible instrument. This is how I have always been. As soon as I come across a new keyboard, I want to explore it. I could pick things up quite quickly. I could hear a tune and adapt to it after several listens. Although more difficult tunes would take me some time to pick up.

However, I thought this was too easy now it made my left hand lazy, I realised this over the years and progressed to concentrating on developing better skills with my left hand.

One of the advantages playing by ear is the ability to improvise, or get away with murder sometimes! Hitting the wrong key but swiftly changing to another tune.

Needless to say my obsession to keep up with the best keyboards I could afford, continued moving up from the basic chord organs to Orla double keyboards and eventually Yamaha Tyros 3, 4, 5 right up to Genos 1 and now 2. The adrenaline is still there.

I’m a far more experienced player now since I began in 1971. I don’t consider myself a professional by any means. Yes, I am more of a home player nowadays, I’d like to think I am semi professional that I can work my way around any keyboard and can play practically anything in any style, traditional or creative. I have and still create my own music pieces ranging from ballads, ambient soundtracks and especially fast pieces. I’ve always enjoyed playing fast numbers. Fingers just flying across the keyboard, although stiffening a little bit with age! I still have many photographs taken over the years playing various piano and keyboards.

So that’s my story condensed. I hope I haven’t bored you! I’d love to hear yours.
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Re: Playing by ear.

Postby barwonfan » 24 Apr 2024 06:28

Wonderful. I certainly enjoyed reading every bit of your post. Some of it I can relate to. Other bits have given me food for thought. The first part of your history related to me growing up in Australia . When I was about 10 years of age, my interest was aroused when a piano appeared one day in our house. My siblings were not interested, but I certainly was, and from that day on, I have played for my own pleasure every day. That is for the past 78 years; although during that time we did not always have a piano handy, I could usually get access to one. I will never be any good as a pianist, but when Yamaha keyboards came into my life around 1987 my world became complete. Of course , I ALWAYS use Styles. I NEVER play without the ACMP switched on. By the way--I can play by ear, but finding the right chord for my left hand leaves a lot to be desired. J.T.
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Re: Playing by ear.

Postby Brian007 » 24 Apr 2024 08:03

Hi,

Started playing guitar at about 12 years old and gradually became fairly good at it, learnt to read music thanks to Bert Weedon's play guitar in a day.
Joined a Band and played in the CIU Clubs around the North East. After hearing the Animals House of the Rising Sun and A whiter Shade of Pale bought a 32 note organ but still kept playing guitar until marriage and two children took over my life.

While I still listened to a lot of music I sold all my gear and never touched another musical instrument for 30 years, and then bought a Roland arranger keyboard and gradually worked my way through various keyboards and now have a Yamaha SX900 , but my real passion is now Synth Wave music and as such I do use a software DAW and love it

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Re: Playing by ear.

Postby JamesT3 » 24 Apr 2024 09:59

Hello Brian,

Thank you for your valuable input on this subject it’s really inspiring to hear how we developed our talent playing by ear.

Yours is an interesting background. So glad you picked it all up again after 30 years absence. It never leaves you. Love how you started off your musical career with a Bert Weedon play guitar in a day. I had a bash at guitar but found my fingers couldn’t cope with the strain of pressing on the strings! No doubt your keyboard playing will incorporate some brilliant guitar voices.

I also love synth sounds and use Logic Pro and GarageBand, that’s one of the main reasons I invested in a KORG PA5X because of the arranger synth side of that particular keyboard. I also have a king KORG, which I rarely use since I bought the PA5X. I think I made the mistake with the king KORG as it doesn’t have styles and backing rhythm like a workstation. It was just the synth sounds that attracted me to it but playing by ear, I really can’t do much with it without backing styles and rhythm.

An interesting topic, thanks for taking part.

Best wishes

James.
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Re: Playing by ear.

Postby JohnT » 24 Apr 2024 18:46

Hi James. Very interesting life with music and instruments. I sometimes wish I could play by ear. I started when I got my daughter an organ and it came with four free lessons at Windows in the Metro centre. She was having lessons so I went and ended up playing with under 15 . They left me standing. I persevered with Andrew the instructor.
We did a performance at Cadaman Hall Gateshead and Glyn Madden did the presentation for under 15. When I went down he gave me a strange look. I said if you reverse the numbers you will get my age at 51. He said keep it up.
I have just purchased a second hand Genos 1 to replace my Tyros 5. I get a lot of pleasure in trying to play. I also organise the Musicmakers club which we attend 3 times a month. There are about twelve members but numbers are dwindling with age. I also once a week visit a friend who has a Bohm Sempra organ and we play a couple of hours. Most enjoyable and a cracking instrument.
That’s about it. I do put posts up on the site in the Community section about our club. All the best. John
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Re: Playing by ear.

Postby JamesT3 » 24 Apr 2024 19:43

Hi J.T.

Thank you for your valuable input on this subject.

We seem to have a lot in common in the way we both came about playing the keyboard. Starting with a piano appearing in your household and only you persevered in playing. 78 years on, wow! Good on you. Chords were quite difficult for me in the very early years, always playing in the key of C. But over time, I picked up on learning new chords through my own listening techniques and watching other players, who read the dots, gave me a better insight. It gives us so much pleasure doesn’t it.

I’m delighted you enjoyed reading my story and hope to hear more from other performers who play by ear, and especially those who have the skills to play by the dots and by ear or memory.

Best wishes

James.
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Re: Playing by ear.

Postby Hugh-AR » 24 Apr 2024 21:09

As my parents lived and worked in East Africa in an area where there were no schools, I had to be educated in UK .. and ended up at a Preparatory School in Haywards Heath in Sussex (as a 'boarder'). My parents paid for me to have 'piano lessons', which I hated (didn't like the teacher). But then one day I heard The Blue Danube by Strauss, and that really inspired me to have a go at playing it. So I asked my piano teacher if I could do that, but she said, "No! That's not 'classical'. We only play Bach and Beethoven here." How short sighted was that! Can you imagine how much time I would have spent practising on the piano had she said, "Yes!". From that point onwards I gave up piano lessons altogether.

My parents then moved to Thika, Kenya, and I was able to return from the UK and go to The Duke of York School in Nairobi .. where they had a school 'dance band'. There was no coach or musical mentor; the pupils did it all themselves, with guitar, trumpet, saxophone, trombone, double bass, piano .. and a drummer. I remember very well the first time I was asked to play piano for them. I was in the school music room and had just discovered how to play a G7 chord for a song I was learning to 'play by ear' in the key of C .. The Story Of My Life (by Michael Holliday). Now usually a G7 chord 'leads you back to C'. But in this song, that first G7 chord is followed by an F chord. The second G7 chord does indeed lead you back to C.



Someone must have been impressed by that G7 chord, and I was told that the pianist in the band was ill and they had to play for Square Dancing at the Kenya High School for Girls that Saturday night .. and if someone wrote all the chords out for the songs they were playing would I be able to play them .. 4 days to do it in! And that's what happened. They wrote all the chord out in this fashion: / C - - - / F - - - / G7 - - - / etc. and I managed to keep up with it all for the evening. The pianist, of course, was back again after .. but at the start of the next school year, when the pianist left, they asked me if I would play piano for them, having done it once already. So that was how I got in. What followed was quite a learning curve! The guitarist wrote out all the chords for the dances and pop songs we played, and I fitted in with that, playing everything 'by ear'. I'm sure this is why I have never 'read the dots' on music sheets. For starters, we didn't have any; and secondly, there wasn't a need to do so.

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When leaving school I came to UK and ended up in Dundee, in Scotland, at St. Andrews University, where I answered an advertisement to join a Scottish Country Dance Band as pianist. There were just the three of us .. piano accordion, piano and a drummer. The band leader, Andy Hay, who played piano accordion, played completely by "ear" as he didn't read a note of music. Not only that, he didn't know any of the chords either ... he just hunted around his bass section until he found the sound he wanted. So when I joined I had to record all the songs to tape so I could analyse them and put the chords in for me to accompany him. He was brilliant. Used to have the accordion amplified, and would play sitting down with the accordion on his knee, stamping his heel on the ground to the music. This had a remarkable reaction on the bellows of the accordion and gave the music a sort of "lift". We had heard Jimmy Shand playing in Edinburgh .. standing in front of a mic, with every note technically perfect .. but the music was not as dynamic as ours! We also used to play the "Rock and Roll" of the day and were really carried away in our music. I think my favourite Scottish Country Dance number was The Mason's Apron ... which is the first number in this selection.



Then .. work, marriage and two children took over my life. I was a Maths teacher, and one day when I was passing one of the music shops in Bristol I noticed a number of Church Organs through the shop window. Thought I would ask about them, so went into the shop .. to find that the shop assistant sent to talk to me was one of the pupils I used to teach. He asked me where I had been for the last ten years? These were not 'church' organs .. and he sat and played one of them to show me what they could do. I could not believe what I was hearing! Trumpets, saxophones .. and drums? If a hole had opened up I would have dropped into it! And that is how I was introduced to organs and keyboards.

So that's my story.

Hugh

PS. James .. I too had a go at playing guitar (why wouldn't one?), but I too found that pressing on those strings hardened the pads of my fingers and I couldn't 'feel' the piano keys. So I gave up on it.
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Re: Playing by ear.

Postby JamesT3 » 26 Apr 2024 01:28

Hi Hugh,

This is a fascinating story. Had to read it twice over. What an interesting time you have had.

Firstly, which one is you on the band black and white photo? I take it you are on that photo? Love the paragraph about the band.

The Scottish medley is brilliant. My kind of music as well. Love Scottish reels and Celtic sounds.

You’re so right about having a go at the guitar. It does numb the fingers that much you can’t feel the piano keys!

These stories of how we keyboard players started playing by ear are so inspiring to read. Thank you for sharing yours.

Best wishes

James.
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