Dependency and the Musician

Posted on 3:20 pm

In this post I would like to expand the discussion of learning by rote/ear and music reading to discuss the relationship between each and the connection to dependency.

By dependency I am referring to that which we need in order to learn a piece of music.

In our earliest stages of learning as a student we are usually dependent on a teacher. This is normal and productive. However, at some point, we desire our students to become independent musicians in the sense that they do not need us as teachers anymore.

I also believe there is another kind of dependency that we can have as musicians. Musicians who learn only by rote are dependent on a recording, a performance, or a teacher to aurally demonstrate the music they want to learn, while the musician who learns only by reading is dependent on the written page.

In my previous post:, I responded to Howard’s comment (which you can go read for yourself) and noted that I believe both listening and reading are important to learn.

Many of my posts on this blog are dedicated to the value of learning to read, since I believe there is a great lack of skill in this area for the majority of those learning instruments in American (especially string students). However, I do not believe that reading should be focused on to the detriment of ear training. I believe true musical independence comes when we are proficient at both skills, and it is my desire to make that clear should anyone come away from my posts thinking that I do not put any value on playing by ear!

The Value of Learning by Ear

As a Suzuki trained violinist I was originally taught by ear. You can read in some of my posts how I believe this was detrimental to me. However, that does not mean that I do not value my ability to play by ear. For one, it has been a great help to me in my teaching. I have had several students come to me who want to learn to read, who have taught themselves how to play by ear. Sometimes they bring me a simple melody and I make sure they can play what’s on the page, but then we work on improvisation off that melody. When they come to lessons having created an improv. verse I need to be able to listen, play back and critique by ear what they are presenting to me. We do not write down their improv. (although the skill of dictation can aid learning to read, and is an important skill as well!), we work by rote or ear, changing things as necessary. This is just one example of how learning to play by ear is a great asset.

Dependency and the Professional Musician

I have met classically trained musicians who claim they have no ability to learn music by ear, create harmony or improv. They are very fine musicians as long as they have a printed page in front of them. They lead fulfilling and successful lives as professional musicians. There are also those non-classically trained musicians who cannot read a lick or music, but are highly honored and revered in the music world. They also lead fulfilling and successful lives as professional musicians. While each in their own rite is good at what they do, they each have their dependencies.

Conversely there are those musicians who have both skill sets. They can proficiently read music, but can also play well by ear. These musicians often bridge the gap between traditional classical music and jazz, fiddle or pop. I think of the group Time for Three. This classically trained jazz inspired string trio is proficient in both skill sets and its members have been successful in both the world of classically trained music readers and non-classically trained “improvers”.

How we Teach

One of the ways we can create independent musicians is to give our students the gift of being able to both read and play by ear proficiently. As a teacher I realize that the majority of my students will not go on to be professional musicians. Perhaps they won’t even continue on as amateur musicians. But I desire to give them the skills to do whatever they want to do with their instrument and be able to do it independently.

While I train my students classically, I desire to give them the ability to hop into a fiddle group and jam, or perhaps they want to play in a rock band, or maybe they are drawn by early music. If I create students who are dependent either on the written page or by ear playing, I am hindering their ability in one area or the other, to go as far as their desires would take them. I create a barrier. My desire as a teacher is to teach, to the best of my ability, independent students who can both read and play by ear.

As a further nod to Howard’s comment which I mentioned earlier, it is important to recognize that students naturally have different skill sets. Some may more easily play by ear, and others more easily gravitate to learning via the written page. As a teacher I can capitalize on what my students do well, but I also think it is my responsibility to focus on what they do not do well so that they develop their skills as evenly as possible. This will give them the best possible chance for success on whatever path their musical journey may take them!

Emily Williams is the creator of Strategic Strings: An Online Course for Violin and Viola Teachers

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