I’ve always felt more at home playing music by ear. Even when I was browbeaten as a child into reading music during my countless years of piano lessons (16 years to be exact), I would struggle with my Clementi, while waiting patiently for my teacher to get annoyed and play it through for me, after which I would be able to play it down ten times better than before. I suppose this is just how I was built, and I’ve always struggled with it. As my piano playing progressed, I was forced into reading more and more difficult pieces, out of necessity rather than want, because if you want to learn music in suburbia, you have to read it. This is surely why I gravitated toward jazz. Once, when I was about twelve, I think, I was learning a standard and I would fake my way through the melody, so I could hurry up and solo; running up and down the changes with the modes and chord scale relationships I had just learned (or figured out). My father, a bass player, laughed at me saying, “you can solo over the changes before you know the tune!” Yes, I was ignorant at the time to the intricacies of songwriting, and saw tunes as blocks of chords to be conquered rather than cultivated.
Eventually there came a point where I could read through any lead sheet and work my way around the chords, with no regard for the black circles with the little stems growing out of them. I was very much at odds with reading. In the Middle School big band, the music given to me sometimes had many notes written in grand staff, with no chord symbols to provide a buffer (I suppose they do this because they don’t trust middle school pianists to play changes? Though, in the professional big band world, your lucky if the arranger writes the extensions he uses let alone the written out chords!). In these cases I struggled to combine my poor reading skills with my ear, and was usually able to develop a happy medium that the band director was unable to detect, though there was certainly inner anguish and disappointment.
I operated like this for a few years. every time beating myself up for my lackluster reading skills, yet finding some solace in my ability to hear something and regurgitate it onto the piano. It wasn’t really until college that I found a true passion for classical music, past playing it out of necessity that is, that I seriously boned up on my grand staff sight-reading capabilities (and its something I still struggle with today, of course).
This divide has been going on forever. Even in Mesopotamia, there was written music, and I’m sure there were the traditionalists who disagreed with the need to write down their music. Some of the really old school jazz cats can’t read a note of music, but can play on tunes for days using their ears. Conversely, many classical musicians can read for days and days, but ask them to improvise and the room becomes silent. I don’t think that it’s a comment on their musicianship, but just shows the apparent divide between the two schools. Now, the argument can be made that both skills are required to be a total musician. One famous method for developing both is the Suzuki method, which teaches children the importance of both playing by ear and reading. Perhaps the greatest expert on this particular issue would be Keith Jarrett, who has played all types of music, and likes to completely take one hat off while putting on the other. Keith is famous (or infamous) for his completely improvised solo piano concerts (two of which were recently released), and he is also famous for his interpretations of classical pieces, like the Shostakovich preludes and fugues. In fact, Ethan Iverson of The Bad Plus recently sat down with Keith and they talked about some of these issues at length. The interview is lengthy, but worth the read. At one point he talks about improvising cadenzas inside a classical piece stating (even as a jazz artist), “…I can’t mix both sides, the improvising with the classical performance…there are so many good cadenzas out available already. I don’t want to get in to the part of me that isn’t interpreter.”
To conclude, well, I guess there is no, and will never be, a conclusion to this discussion. Myself, I will continue to play by ear and read, preferring the former to the latter, but do both. What are your thoughts?