Story Behind Learning Piano By Ear
by Tanner Palmer
Hi! I'm Tanner and I am a self-taught professional pianist, playing the piano completely by ear since the age of four.
Learning to play piano by ear may not be for everyone. However, for those of us who may not fully understand music theory, playing piano by ear provides an awakening of the soul...an unlocking of gifts and abilities that lay within, waiting to be discovered!
I tried traditional piano lessons as a child but never understood music theory or sight-reading. It was as if I literally lacked the brain capacity to comprehend the theory. Although my piano teachers were very kind, they did not know how to teach a child who did not understand notation. No matter how much I tried to memorize notes and learn how to read music, nothing ever "stuck".
Additionally, I experienced high levels of anxiety at the piano because I could produce beautiful sounds on my own but when "forced" to sight-read, I could not produce any sound. One piano teacher would sit beside me as I played during our lessons and cover my hands with a music book so I would be forced to look up at the sheet music on the scroll instead of looking at my hands (thus teaching myself what sounds came from what keys). The anxiety intensified during these lessons of frustration.
Some say that if I am so good at piano and music, I should be excellent and proficient in mathematics. I assure you, this is not the case for me. To this day, I am not sure if I have a learning disability or what... I just know that I struggled and failed math all throughout grade school and college, but I can play piano with executed precision without reading music.
So, when I was very young, my parents desired me to take formal piano lessons. Practicing at home with my music books was always agonizing for me. It was during this time that I had an extremely difficult piano lesson...more difficult than usual. (All my lessons were difficult for me because I never grasped the theory part of the lessons.) I was not comprehending how to sight-read at all. I was losing my patience and my will to even try.
During this particularly painful piano lesson, my piano instructor stopped our lesson, told me to ride my bike home (just a couple of streets away), get a tape recorder and a blank tape, then return back to my lesson.
When I returned to my piano lesson with the tape recorder and blank tape, my instructor pressed record on the machine and began to play the song as it was written, while I watched. After that lesson, I went home with that tape and listened to the song over and over again without looking at the sheet music again. When I attended my next piano lesson, I had learned the song flawlessly just by listening to the recording and even added my own twist to the song. That day was my last lesson with a conventional piano teacher. I had reached a musical impasse.
How can you teach music to "ears that cannot see and eyes that cannot hear?"