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So You Think You Can't Play by Ear
By Vivian T. Williams
The primary and essential way to learn fiddling is by ear. Over many years of teaching fiddle, I have run into numerous students, mostly ex-classical players, who are convinced that they just can't play by ear. If you are one of these people, let me prove that you're wrong, because playing by ear is not a mystery.
There are a couple of simple exercises that will help you get started playing by ear. Think of a simple tune that you already know, such as Mary Had A Little Lamb. Try playing it on the fiddle. Then try playing it in a different key. Try another, slightly more complex but equally familiar tune, such as When the Saints Go Marching In. Try this in different keys. Try more familiar tunes: You Are My Sunshine, Jingle Bells, anything you can sing or hum, in different keys. You are playing by ear.
The next exercise addresses the skill of learning by ear. Have a friend play a note that's in the range of the fiddle, on any instrument, without telling you what that note is. Find that note on your fiddle. Have your friend play two or three notes that form a coherent musical phrase. Find them on the fiddle. As your friend gradually increases the length and complexity of the phrases that you imitate, you will find yourself learning by ear. It's as simple as that.
It's not that far from Mary Had A Little Lamb to Turkey In The Straw, which is a genuine fiddle tune. Did you learn those silly songs when you were a kid - "Do you ears hang low, do they wobble to and fro" or else "Oh I had a little chicken, and she wouldn't lay an egg"? If so, you already know the first part of Turkey in the Straw, and all you need to learn is the second part.
In order to remember any tune, simple or complex, over a long period of time, you can do two things. Listen to it often, so that it becomes as familiar as Mary Had A Little Lamb. If you find a written version of a tune you would like to learn, make a tape of yourself playing it from the music. If you listen to it often enough, you'll know what it's supposed to sound like, and will be able to tell if you're hitting the right notes when you try to play it. Play the tune often enough, and your fingers will start falling into place automatically.
The more you play by ear, the easier it gets.
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