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#1043058 - 09/22/04 06:56 AM Site reading vs. [Improvisation] Memory
Jerry Luke Offline
500 Post Club Member

Registered: 09/15/04
Posts: 969
Loc: Tillamook, Oregon
Hi all.

I'm new to the forum and I've tried checking the FAQs for this to avoid a repetitive post, but could not find what I was looking for. I am a beginning pianist in my late 30's. I've been practicing for about 6 months now (no teacher, just Alfreds Basic Adult Course). I can play beginner pieces fairly well with the music in front of me, but if I sit down at a piano without music...it's like a foreign object! I cannot play even the simplest melody. I just bank on the keys like someone who has never seen a piano before.

My question is how important is being able to play by [ear] memory as opposed to reading music, especially when learning? Should I work on memorizing scales and chords, or is it enough to recognize them on the page?

Thanks!
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#1043059 - 09/22/04 07:29 AM Re: Site reading vs. [Improvisation] Memory
Bob Muir Offline
2000 Post Club Member

Registered: 11/01/03
Posts: 2653
Loc: Lakewood, WA, USA
Firstly Jerry, you need a teacher. In order to play by ear, you need to learn lots of theory. Also, a teacher will help you properly learn scales and chords which you will definitely need in order to play by ear.

I would recommend memorizing every piece you learn in the Alfreds book. I'm using the same course, starting about 10 months ago and I just began the second book.

The way you memorize is to do it while you're learning the piece. Once you can play through the piece with the music, then stop looking at the music until you get to a point where you don't remember the notes. Then check for what the notes are, practice them a few times, and then start from the beginning without looking at the music again. It won't take you long to have it down pat. Of course retaining it requires that you practice it a few times a week.

When you practice while looking at the music all the time, it becomes a crutch. Without it, as you discovered, you become completely lost and can't even remember the first few notes.

You should memorize a piece you're learning as soon as possible because the benefits are huge! If you have the piece memorized, then you can concentrate more on listening, relaxation, finger placement, hand/arm/body position, and how different parts of the piece should be played.

I would highly recommend downloading C.C. Chang's book. It's free and has some amazing advice that is spot-on.
Fundamentals of Piano Pratice by Chuan C. Chang

Unfortunately, no book or website is a substitute for a good teacher.

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#1043060 - 09/22/04 07:39 AM Re: Site reading vs. [Improvisation] Memory
mound Offline
500 Post Club Member

Registered: 08/10/04
Posts: 782
Loc: Rochester, NY
 Quote:
I would highly recommend downloading C.C. Chang's book.
I was actually going to respond with exactly the same link until I came to the end of Bob's post and saw he beat me to it!
_________________________
"You look hopefully for an idea and then you're humble when you find it and you wish your skills were better. To have even a half-baked touch of creativity is an honor."
-- Ernie Stires, composer

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#1043061 - 09/22/04 09:38 PM Re: Site reading vs. [Improvisation] Memory
Jerry Luke Offline
500 Post Club Member

Registered: 09/15/04
Posts: 969
Loc: Tillamook, Oregon
Thanks for your replies. I've downloaded C.C. Chang's book. So it sounds like the answer to my question is that its important to learn playing by ear at the same time I'm learning to sight-read?
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#1043062 - 09/23/04 12:08 PM Re: Site reading vs. [Improvisation] Memory
mound Offline
500 Post Club Member

Registered: 08/10/04
Posts: 782
Loc: Rochester, NY
 Quote:
So it sounds like the answer to my question is that its important to learn playing by ear at the same time I'm learning to sight-read?
well, C.C. Chang's book and the methods presented in it are intended as a more efficient method for the practicing, memorization and ultimately taking to performance level of classical repertoire. If by "playing by ear" you are referring to "performing repertoire from memory" then the answer I think is yes.

But, based on the subject line of your original post, you are asking about Improvisation, not playing from memory. Those are two completely different things. Playing from memory is just that, playing a piece of music w/o needing to look at the sheet music. Improvisation is creating something new in real time, something that is not written down anywhere. Chang's book isn't about improvisation. I have to agree with what Bob Muir said:
 Quote:
Firstly Jerry, you need a teacher. In order to play by ear, you need to learn lots of theory. Also, a teacher will help you properly learn scales and chords which you will definitely need in order to play by ear.
Improvisation is taking music that's in your head ("your music" as it were) and translating it to the piano (or whatever instrument you are playing). For that you need to have all the sounds and theory in your head so that you can translate what you are hearing in your head to your instrument in real time. The only way to really get there is through lots of study, practice, and for jazz, playing with other people.

You wrote:
 Quote:
Should I work on memorizing scales and chords, or is it enough to recognize them on the page?
I'd say it's very important to know all of your scales and chords cold if you want to be an effective improviser, especially in a group setting (i.e. Jazz). Recognizing notes on a page won't help you with improvisation, as if it's written out already, nothing is being improvised. I dare say there are many folks who learn classical pieces from the score, memorized or not, who don't know scales or cords, maybe don't even know key signatures. It's entirely possible to learn to play a piece of music from a score w/o ever studying any of this stuff.. But if you don't take the time to learn the theory behind it all, chances are you won't be able to create new material very effectively, and you definitely will lack a deeper understanding of why this great music is so great.

Hope this helps!
-Paul
_________________________
"You look hopefully for an idea and then you're humble when you find it and you wish your skills were better. To have even a half-baked touch of creativity is an honor."
-- Ernie Stires, composer

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#1043063 - 09/23/04 01:10 PM Re: Site reading vs. [Improvisation] Memory
Jerry Luke Offline
500 Post Club Member

Registered: 09/15/04
Posts: 969
Loc: Tillamook, Oregon
Paul-

Thank you!! That was EXACTLY the information I was looking for. Being a beginner, I am using words that perhaps I don't know the full meaning of. Improvisation was NOT the right word. Reciting pieces of music from memory is what I meant to convey. I do not desire (at this point, anyway) to be able to belt out music made up on the spot. I have limited time to practice and study and play, so I want to get the best bang for my buck, so to speak. My goal is to be able to sit down with a piece of written music and play it fairly well, and also occasionally play it from memory if the music isn't handy, or to work on putting my own personality into the piece. I want to practice the techniques that will help me achieve these goals. No sense practicing a skill I am not wanting to use. \:\)
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#1043064 - 09/23/04 01:44 PM Re: Site reading vs. [Improvisation] Memory
mound Offline
500 Post Club Member

Registered: 08/10/04
Posts: 782
Loc: Rochester, NY
 Quote:
I do not desire (at this point, anyway) to be able to belt out music made up on the spot.
But you do hope to one day? If so, definitely get a teacher and start working on learning your theory.
 Quote:
I have limited time to practice and study and play
As you'll find in reading Chang's book, it's the quality of your practice that matters more than the quantity, and there are plenty of ways to do it "wrong" which will ultimately lead to frustration, wasted time and limited progress. You only need to internalize the first 80 or so pages of his book to get started.

 Quote:
My goal is to be able to sit down with a piece of written music and play it fairly well
You'll be able to do that if you really work on your reading. The key phrase is "fairly well" - it will likely never be anything more than that though. (in my ever so humble opinion)

 Quote:
and also occasionally play it from memory if the music isn't handy
Aha - so you do want to memorize it, you just don't realize it! You'll have to learn to memorize if you want to be able to do that. If you learn a piece following the methods Chang has presented (he didn't "invent" this method, he's just done a great job presenting it), you'll memorize as a byproduct. Otherwise you'll likely end up fumbling all over the place trying to play it w/o music should that time come, which will leave you dissapointed. (That is if you're even willing to try when that time comes!) My grandmother has been sight reading Moonlight Sonata regularily for the last 60 some-odd years of her life. I took the sheet music away from her recently and she was completely lost. Couldn't even play the first bar. And even when she does play it while reading, it's never particularily expressive (sorry gram!) As astonishing as that may sound, the mind works in mysterious ways. If you're not training yourself to "own the piece" from the start, it's likely that you never will.


 Quote:
or to work on putting my own personality into the piece.
Unless it's a simple piece, you won't be able to do that, not effectively at least, if you rely on reading it. If your reading chops are really advanced, you can probably get away with it to a certain extent, an accompaniment situation comes to mind. But if you are hoping to inject your own personality into a performance, you have to "own it" and that means having it memorized inside and out. There's no other way to be truly expressive with it. How hard would it have been for you to write your thoughts in this post if you had to refer to a dictionary for every word?

 Quote:
I want to practice the techniques that will help me achieve these goals
Read and internalize the methods in Chang's book, but more importantly, get a good teacher who will keep you on track.

 Quote:
No sense practicing a skill I am not wanting to use
Of course not!

Seriously, I'd recommend getting a teacher, regardless what you think of Chang's book or what your end goals are. There is a great deal to be learned from a teacher that a book simply can't convey, and just as you don't want to waste time practicing a skill you aren't wanting to use, you shouldn't want to waste time doing things wrong only to realize later how much faster you could have progressed.

good luck!

-Paul
_________________________
"You look hopefully for an idea and then you're humble when you find it and you wish your skills were better. To have even a half-baked touch of creativity is an honor."
-- Ernie Stires, composer

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#1043065 - 09/23/04 09:33 PM Re: Site reading vs. [Improvisation] Memory
Jerry Luke Offline
500 Post Club Member

Registered: 09/15/04
Posts: 969
Loc: Tillamook, Oregon
Thanks again, Paul, for your comments. I have begun reading over the Chang text and will continue in my Alfreds Basic Adult Course book. I will consider the prospects of a formal teacher, but for the short term, it's just me. I appreciate the fact that Chang says it's ok to learn the first year or two on a keybard because that is what I am currently using.
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#1043066 - 09/24/04 07:13 AM Re: Site reading vs. [Improvisation] Memory
mound Offline
500 Post Club Member

Registered: 08/10/04
Posts: 782
Loc: Rochester, NY
There are alot of benefits to a digital piano. Hopefully you have one that has 88 fully weighted keys and good sampled sounds. I use a Roland RD-700. Of course advanced technique where you get in to subtle details of touch and what not isn't really possible because after all we're dealing with electronic switches, rather than the physics of your arm weight transferring to felt hitting steel strings and what not.. but high end digitals come pretty darn close (I'd love a digital piano with better pedal capabilities too).. Close enough for me at this time. Plus you have the benefits of headphones (practice at all hours) easy transpositions, sampling etc.. Great practice tools and even great tools if you find your self in a good 'ol fashioned rock-and-or-roll band :-)

-Paul
_________________________
"You look hopefully for an idea and then you're humble when you find it and you wish your skills were better. To have even a half-baked touch of creativity is an honor."
-- Ernie Stires, composer

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#1043067 - 09/24/04 09:06 AM Re: Site reading vs. [Improvisation] Memory
Jerry Luke Offline
500 Post Club Member

Registered: 09/15/04
Posts: 969
Loc: Tillamook, Oregon
I'm currently using a Yamaha EZ-30 keyboard, which I purchased when I decided I wanted to learn the piano. I intentionally got something that was not too expensive, yet gave me the capabilities I was looking for, because I did not know if I would like playing, or would quit after a few months, etc. I did not want to make a large investment in something that might end up collecting dust. I really like the LCD staff that shows the notes on it as I press them. It's a valuable learning aid. I do have access to an upright piano (at our church) that I occassionally use just to familiarize myself with the weighted keys and the difference in touch and response.
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#1043068 - 09/24/04 09:56 AM Re: Site reading vs. [Improvisation] Memory
Roxane Offline
500 Post Club Member

Registered: 05/16/02
Posts: 932
 Quote:
Originally posted by mound:
 Quote:
or to work on putting my own personality into the piece.
Unless it's a simple piece, you won't be able to do that, not effectively at least, if you rely on reading it. If your reading chops are really advanced, you can probably get away with it to a certain extent, an accompaniment situation comes to mind. But if you are hoping to inject your own personality into a performance, you have to "own it" and that means having it memorized inside and out. There's no other way to be truly expressive with it. How hard would it have been for you to write your thoughts in this post if you had to refer to a dictionary for every word?
[/b]
I beg to differ. One can play expressively without committing the entire piece to memory. Once a piece is learned, one does not have to read every single note each time while playing. And reading notes is just like reading words; you do not need the dictionary for every word if you already know the meaning. I can recite a poem reading from the printed word with as much feeling as I can from memory. Same thing with a piece of music. I can also reproduce a poem or a piece mechanically, without feeling, from memory. Expression does not hinge on memorization; it all depends on understanding the piece and building an emotional connection with it.

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#1043069 - 09/24/04 10:44 AM Re: Site reading vs. [Improvisation] Memory
mound Offline
500 Post Club Member

Registered: 08/10/04
Posts: 782
Loc: Rochester, NY
 Quote:
Expression does not hinge on memorization
true enough. but..

 Quote:
it all depends on understanding the piece and building an emotional connection with it
That is the real heart of the matter. I'd submit that having it memorized will allow for a deeper connection with it. But you're right, this certainly isn't a black and white discussion!

-Paul
_________________________
"You look hopefully for an idea and then you're humble when you find it and you wish your skills were better. To have even a half-baked touch of creativity is an honor."
-- Ernie Stires, composer

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#1043070 - 09/24/04 03:56 PM Re: Site reading vs. [Improvisation] Memory
Jerry Luke Offline
500 Post Club Member

Registered: 09/15/04
Posts: 969
Loc: Tillamook, Oregon
I have several friends and associates that are accomplished pianists, and I consult them when I have a question on fingering, or notation, or other such items. Does that count as a 'teacher', or do I need to formally take lessons from an official 'teacher'?
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#1043071 - 09/27/04 07:02 AM Re: Site reading vs. [Improvisation] Memory
mound Offline
500 Post Club Member

Registered: 08/10/04
Posts: 782
Loc: Rochester, NY
I've asked myself that same question before. Even recently, I was talking to a beginner drummer friend of mine, we are mutual friends with a very talented drummer. The newbie drummer "thinks" he's taking lessons from our more experienced friend because they get together every now and again and he shows him some latin rhythms or what not. But I wouldn't call this a teacher student relationship, even though my beginner friend will say "I'm taking lessons." The experienced guy isn't a teacher, he has no teaching experience, and has never studied any kind of teaching methods. He's a great drummer, don't get me wrong, and yes he can show the new guy how to play something, but he's not a teacher.

Why not?

I think friends and such whom are good players are always a good resource for ideas and tips (like my good drummer friend) and of course those resources should always be taken advantage of. After all, music is a social experience (it can be at least.) But I do believe that having a formal "teacher" is a much different and more worthwhile experience in the long run. A teacher puts much more focus on your longer term development, and generally the things they have you work on are part of a bigger picture that while they see, you probably only see a piece of it, and over time you start to have "Aha!" moments where you realize there was a rhyme and reason to something they had you do weeks, months, years prior. A friend who shows you something is doing it (generally) completely out of any longer term context, and so it simply is what is is. A teacher (a good teacher that is) will provide a well rounded long term path to your goals. That's just my humble opinion on the matter.

edit:
By the way, that question and my response seems like a new thread to me. I got confused when after adding the response, I came back to the Site Reading vs. Memory thread!
_________________________
"You look hopefully for an idea and then you're humble when you find it and you wish your skills were better. To have even a half-baked touch of creativity is an honor."
-- Ernie Stires, composer

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