The Strad – How to Improve Your Listening Skills and Ditch Your Sheet Music in 5 Easy Steps

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I used to think that the things I was no good at were a lost cause, I didn’t even question it. After a particularly abysmal singing performance in high school, I thought to myself, “well, I guess I’m not a singer, luckily I love playing the violin!” It wasn’t until later in college that I started noticing that my peers weren’t good at something originally (take singing for example), worked hard, and got noticeably better with the time. I started to seriously rethink my ideas about what I was good at or not and to take on new challenges.

As a violinist, I get questions about learning by ear all the time from classical musicians. Many people assume that you were either born with good ears or you weren’t. Thank God that’s not true! Learning music by ear can be an amazing way to improve your aural skills and musical sense. You may assume you’re destined to carry a grueling load of sheet music with you to every lesson and performance until the end of time, but I promise there’s hope for your ears and your sore back. ! Learning by ear is like any other skill, even if it doesn’t come naturally to you at first, there are things you can do to practice and improve. It’s not magic, it’s just dedication and hard work.

Before you begin, commit to working on ear training daily, in addition to your usual practice time on your instrument. Record your commitment in a practice journal and take notes over time as you progress.

Here are five suggestions to get started:

1. Practice active listening (as opposed to passive listening)

Think about the musical qualities – is it fast or slow? How many parts or sections are there? What do you like or dislike about it? Singing along to your favorite music is another way to practice active listening and develop your ear, while helping retain long-term memory.

2. Accept constructive criticism, drop negative self-talk

When learning something new, it is important to approach the activity with curiosity and an open mind. Note which tasks are easy or difficult, so you can focus your efforts where you need the most improvement. Make a habit of being patient with yourself, while paying attention to how and where you can improve.

3. Simplify settings

If you’re totally new to learning by ear, you might want to start by listening and thinking one note at a time rather than large sections. You can practice identifying notes on a single string or in a certain octave to make it less overwhelming. You can also try learning only the rhythm of a piece, or only the pitches, rather than both at the same time. Is music easier to learn if you sing it a million times first? The extent of the settings will depend on your learning style and level.

4. Break everything down into small pieces so your ears don’t get overwhelmed

No one begins by learning all of Vivaldi’s Four Seasons by ear in one sitting; Instead, try to listen and repeat one note at a time. Try to evaluate what you hear and compare two notes in a sequence. Is the second note higher or lower than the first? A little or a lot ? Identifying specific intervals may come later as you progress. Then try to find those one or two notes on your instrument and gradually increase the notes in a row over time. Use the ‘pause’ and ‘repeat’ buttons when learning music by ear from a recording, give yourself small sections to listen to over and over again. Experiment with different learning techniques and record what you observe. When something works, do more of it!

5. Find a guide

Having a fellow practitioner or teacher to help you improve has many benefits. I love working with students on ear training, but there are plenty of qualified teachers out there who will help keep you motivated.

Fine-tuning your ears will allow you to be a more responsive musical partner and more deeply digest all the music you play. Whatever your level, the main goal is to fully experience the pleasure of music, so take it one day at a time and have fun. ENJOY your next musical adventure!

Lissa Schneckenburger is a violinist, singer and teacher from New England in Brattleboro Vermont. His Learning By Ear video course is a 14-part series that students can start anytime, available for all instruments and levels on where people can also sign up for the FREE “Tune Of The Week” challenge and group practice.