We are super excited to be joined on the show today by Ruth Power, the creator of Piano Picnic – a method for learning to play piano by ear that remarkably manages to teach it in lessons so short and simple they almost guarantee a student will succeed.
We admire and agree with Ruth’s perspective and approach to teaching play-by-ear skills so much that when time came to look for a new Resident Pro for piano at Musical U, Ruth was the first person who sprang to mind. We talk a bit towards the end of the conversation about her work here and how she’s helping our members apply their core training directly on keyboard in fun and creative ways.
This conversation was great fun and there are lots of good piano-specific nuggets in here for anyone who’s a pianist or wants to become one – but as always, most of the discussion is equally relevant and interesting whatever instrument you play.
We talk about:
- Ruth’s own journey of learning to play by ear and the distinct phases she went through to develop a fully-fledged ability on keyboard
- The particular challenges of playing by ear on piano compared with other instruments
- The terrible piece of advice she was given early on about how to learn to play by ear – and her top tip for actually succeeding with it.
That’s just the start – we also talk about humming, about basslines, about why and how modern instrument learning can look different to the traditional methods, active listening, and a lot more. You’re going to get a ton out of this one!
Listen to the episode:
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Christopher: Welcome to the show, Ruth. Thank you for joining us today.
Ruth: Thank you for having me.
Christopher: I was saying to you just before we hit record that I really enjoyed prepping for this interview, because I knew quite a bit about yourself and piano picnic now and what you’re up to, and obviously you’re working with us at Musical U as well. I didn’t know all that much about your own backstory. I knew the highlights, but not really the tale behind it.
I’ve been really looking forward to this chance to understand a bit more about where you’re coming from as a musician, and how you’ve become the person that now leads Piano Picnic and helps people play by ear.
I wonder if we could start at the beginning and tell the story of Ruth Power. How did you first get started in music?
Ruth: Okay. I actually started with recorder, which is the noblest of instruments as everyone knows. My oldest sister actually played piano. I would’ve been, I don’t know, six or so. I did the horrible younger sister thing where as soon as she got off the piano, I’d jump on and slam it, and just embarrass her. I think mum noticed that I was finding it cool and interesting, and she made me take piano lessons to start with.
I also had a friend actually really, my earliest memory of learning by ear and the idea of it was I had a friend I think when I was about seven, and she was playing Fur Elise, and I was at her house. She was teaching me the opening bits of Fur Elise, as you do, then I went home, would listen to the song, and try and figure out some more.
The learning by ear came very quickly after starting to learn the piano when I was really young. Then I went through all the grades, had many, many different teachers, and did competitions and recitals and all that sort of thing, but all the while through that traditional training, I was always mostly just passionate about what I could do on the side with playing pop songs and TV themes and things like that.
Christopher: Interesting. Tell us a bit more about the interplay between those two? I think it’s fairly unusual for someone to manage to juggle those two. You meet a lot of people who are firmly in one camp of sheet music reading or playing by ear, and kind of grow up with one or the other. Not many manage to keep the two going side by side. How was it for you? Did you identify more with one of them than the other?
Ruth: Yeah. What I wanted to do was to play cool songs, what I thought was cool songs, so stuff I’d hear on the radio. When I was growing up, there wasn’t… well, I didn’t know about any sort of way to learn how to do that. The only way, especially the small town I came from, was to go to a classical piano teacher and learn the traditional way. Since in our family, we were allowed to have one thing that we could do, and my parents worked very hard to pay for that one thing, I made sure that I kept up with my lessons and my exams.
What I was really doing and not practicing all that much, the exam material was just plain songs that I liked, and the soundtrack from Romeo and Juliet mostly.
Christopher: The Baz Luhrmann film?
Ruth: Yeah, yeah.
Christopher: Was there anything that helped you? You mentioned a friend showing you a bit of Fur Elise. Was there anything … obviously you’re in the formal lessons for the sheet music side of things, but was the playing by ear purely dabbling and teaching yourself, or did you have any resources or teachers or peers that helped you figure that out?
Ruth: Yeah. That was my early days with it. When I got to a high school age, we used to go to church and church teams are a great source of inspiration when you’re playing music. There was a keyboardist at our church, her name was Bridget. I talk about her a lot in my Piano Picnic emails and various correspondence, because I think that everyone should have a Bridget.
My Bridget, she was just the most amazing pianist I had ever seen play from just some letters on a page, which I now know is a lead sheet, but at the time, I was like, “What is she looking at? That is so bizarre. It’s not dots, it’s just letters. It’s really strange to me. It don’t even make words.”
I was very intense as a young pianist. I went through a lot of different teachers. If I didn’t like what they were teaching me, I would change. I said to my mum, I need her to teach me what she knows. My mum hooked it up, and then I had some lessons with Bridget, and it was the best thing ever. She taught me how to play chords, how to play different rhythms with chords, just everything that I now love and obsess about over music.
Christopher: I see. For anyone listening who has heard of a lead sheet but never tried playing from one, could you give a glimpse of what that different was like? Why was it so much more appealing to you to learn the lead sheet way versus the note-by-note notation way?
Ruth: Yeah. I think there’s two advantages of lead sheets. If you already know a song basically in your head, it allows you to pick up how to play it really quickly. A lead sheet is just naming the chords, or with chord symbols, or sometimes they write out the chord names. You can just read those chord names, and with your knowledge of chords, be able to play those, and play those in a rhythm that you basically know the song has, and therefore, be able to play a song I think much quicker than if you were reading that rhythm note-for-note off the page. Yeah.
Christopher: I see. When you started learning the lead sheet method with your friend, it was more a matter of finding a song you liked and constructing your own way of playing it based on the lead sheet. Is that right?
Ruth: Yeah, of course. Yeah. Also, that opens up the whole ball game of being able to play parts within a song that you know that aren’t the piano part as well, which makes things really interesting. With her, it was just chords and playing off a lead sheet, but from there, everything I learned after that point just completely changed the game.
Christopher: Mm-hmm (affirmative). Well, I don’t want to jump the gun too much, but thinking about this phase of your story, I do want to ask you one particular question, which is about the interplay of learning the serious technique of playing piano and learning these more creative, expressive activities on the keyboard. I think adult learners in particular, we often get our knickers in a twist feeling like we should do one or we should do the other. Particularly, if you’re at the very beginning stage of both, I think it can be quite tricky to know how to balance those two. Should you master the technique before you try this playing by ear thing, or should you just go with the playing by ear and the technique will figure itself out?
I’ve always found it interesting that at Piano Picnic, you offer a Super Basics course that addresses the technique side of things. I’d just love to hear a little bit about your experience juggling those two in those early years, and also how you think about it now for say an adult beginner.
Ruth: Technique, I’m not the most technical pianist. I say I did all the recitals and competitions. I wasn’t the one that was taking away the trophy all the time by any means. I think maybe my left hand is still a bit heavy.
I think that the technique, I used to have a love/hate with it because I’m not the type of person that likes to get something perfect. I’d just rather be able to play the song and jam it and have fun with it. That’s what I like to get my students to do as well.
I think the whole, the pursuit of perfection is sort of a different approach to playing your instrument. I also think that to a certain extent, learning the technique of your instrument allows you to have more tricks up your sleeve for when you want to improvise.
For instance, I think a lot of my go-to rhythms when I’m comping with chords or writing a song, are rhythms that I learned from a piece that I learned at some point. I think the balance is good, a little bit of technique, and a lot of learning by ear.
Christopher: Very good. Yeah. I think that’s a really good way of putting it. I was thinking that this week, myself and my own musical life, I was returning to playing bass a little bit. I was just sitting down and playing what I felt like playing, but I was quickly conscious that my fingers were not as fluid as they once were on base, and my left hand threading technique was not quite up to it, which meant, even though I knew which notes to play, and I knew exactly what I wanted to play, my left hand just wasn’t quite keeping up. I was thinking, might need to do some scales and exercises and try and get this fluidity back.
Of course, there are ways to make that fun, and maybe we can talk about that a bit later on, but it just really, I think that’s why it stuck in my head to ask you about this, because I think it is a tricky balance sometimes when we feel obliged to do one or excited to do the other, to try and find a way to combine the two and make sure you have the requisite technique to empower you to play by ear.
Ruth: Yeah. I think developing technique, I think my attitude is based on the way that I learned technique when I was younger. There’s so many different things out there now, different resources that you can use to make learning techniques fun. For instance, you mentioned the scales. There’s so many cool apps and backing tracks even within Musical U, and I do backing tracks as well, that you can use to play your scales.
You’re playing scales, but you’re playing along to a funky blues track or something. It’s not as boring as just going, “Duh, duh, duh.” You can make it into something cool. You can reward yourself once you’ve played the scale perfectly. Then you can just jam on the backing track for a while or whatever you want to do.
Christopher: Absolutely, yeah. I was really enjoying a conversation I had recently on the podcast with a pianist called Josh Wright who has a course that digs into piano technique, but he takes it a step further. He’s like, every time you play a scale, you should be consciously working on something more interesting with that, whether it’s dynamics or phrasing or rhythms, you should use it as a vehicle for learning something else. That stuck in my head, because like you, I’m a proponent of this idea that even the technique practice should be musical in some sense, it should feel like playing music. I had never really thought of structuring it in such a conscious way, and I thought that was a really neat way to approach it.
Ruth: Yeah, that is cool.
Christopher: Talk a little bit more about your Super Basics course before we continue with the Ruth Power story. Tell us, how do you approach it? I heard you say something interesting on a podcast episode recently about a modern landscape of learning music. Again, I think this is something that adult beginners often struggle with, is, is it okay to just learn online, or is it okay to study with an app, or should we really be doing it in person with a teacher the way they’ve done it for hundreds of years? I wonder if you could just talk about your Super Basics course in particular, and how you approach this idea of learning with internet resources?
Ruth: Yeah. I think it’s totally reasonable with the piano being such a traditional and very, very old instrument, for us to think that, well, that’s the way it’s always been learned, so that’s the way we must continue to learn it. We’re not playing piano for the same reasons that necessarily people used to play. We’re playing it in different ways as well. It makes sense to me that as technology advances and there’s more fun ways to play the keyboard, things that we can use a keyboard to contribute to as well, with using the keyboard as sort of a mini-instrument that you can plug into your iPad, there’s so many possibilities that I think the learning of the keyboard can also become more contemporary as well.
My approach with Super Basics is that it’s all online, it’s all prerecorded and there’s video lessons and cheat sheets and backing tracks and all that cool stuff. The main thing is that it’s accessible online anytime for anyone in any country whatsoever. You can do it in your own time. Also, the other thing is the lessons are on average two minutes long. You’re consuming new information two minutes at a time, and then I encourage you to stop.
I do this with my in-person students as well. If they sit at the piano bench every day, then I’m happy, even if it’s for two minutes or five minutes. I think it’s the same with learning through my Super Basics course and my Songs By Ear course as well. You’re just making the habit to get on the piano, and you’re just learning from a short lesson, and then the next day you do the same with the new lesson, then you’re building on, every day you’re building on that new information, rather than, the tendency traditionally is to have a weekly lesson, and then jam an hour long practice session the day before your lesson because you feel guilty for not practicing. That’s not the best way to progress in my opinion.
I’ve had loads of students go through Super Basics, and they say they didn’t realize it was that easy to start. It didn’t have to be this big deal basically. Yeah.
Christopher: Fantastic. I’m reminded, there’s a quote I think is often attributed to Mark Twain where he is writing someone a letter and he began by saying, “I would’ve written you a shorter letter, but I didn’t have time.” I think there’s such a skill in condensing something down to be brief.
I think you are particularly good at this, and I’m sure people listening would be surprised to hear that you can have a two minute piano lesson. You are very, very good at this, and I think it really does your students a service, because as you say, they’re probably better off spending two minutes getting familiar with a new concept, and then 10 minutes playing around with that, then it’s a short practice session, they can keep up day after day, and that’s where they’ll really see the progress.
Ruth: Yeah. And you’re just so much more likely to actually keep it up long-term if you’re like, I just have to make two minutes. Even some of the lessons, particularly in the Super Basics course, you don’t even have to have a piano for, but you can start the course and just be watching the videos and going through the cheat sheets, or you can even download a little keyboard app onto your phone, and that’s enough to actually start, which I love because so many people are like, “I want to learn piano. I don’t want to buy one before I’ve started.” That solves that problem a little bit.
Christopher: Very cool. You said something else really important there, which is the difference in how we can learn piano today is mirrored in the different reason we might have for learning piano compared with a traditional, I think that is such an important thing to stop and ask yourself if you’re embarking on learning a new instrument is, what do I actually want this to look like?
We inherit so much in terms of assumptions and expectations, and particularly with piano, because it has such an amazing history in the classical world of note perfect performances and recitals. I’ve met so many people who have clearly just assumed that is what learning piano is, and they have this desire to play the keyboard, but actually if they stopped and asked themselves, probably what they wanted to do was play pop songs, or just sit down and play and make something up. They start lessons with a teacher, the teacher gives them their Hanon and their first Mozart piece, and they’re off and away, and they assume that’s all there is to it.
Ruth: Yeah, yeah. That’s really, those are my people, the people that … even people that maybe don’t realize it just yet, but the realization when you’re like, you know what, I just want to play a song. I just want to write songs, and I just want to compose or improvise, or I want to jam with my mates. I like those people, because I can definitely teach those people a thing or two, yeah.
Christopher: Obviously playing by ear is something we special in teaching at Musical U, and so I’m not going to go as far as to say playing by ear is hard. It doesn’t have to be hard to learn. I am going to say somewhat provocatively, playing piano by ear well is really hard. Relatively speaking, compared to other instruments, piano is quite a tricky one to really master playing by ear. You have this initial experience with your friend Bridget, and you kind of got the hang of figuring things out from a lead sheet. How did you take things on from there? How did your playing by ear learning progress?
Ruth: Yeah. I said that Bridge taught me chords. Prior to that, my learning via poking out the notes to Fur Elise or … it was mostly about melodies and baselines for me, so I was picking out one at a time, and I’m like, ooh, I figured out this melody, I’m pretty cool, which is pretty cool. There came a point when I was introduced to chords that I realized that there was this whole undertone, that sort of … I don’t know, guts of music that I was not getting when I was playing songs by ear.
I didn’t actually learn about chord progressions until I went to university, which is pretty late in life for a musician possibly. When I did and I noticed that you could get chords to do things for you basically, you can order chords around and be like, “Hey, you do this, and you send us back home and give us this feeling,” and they’re like, “Okay, got it.”
Once I realized that, I thought that was a really cool thing, and that’s how most songs work. A songwriter has put them chords together to tell a story or make you feel something. That was opened up, me being able to figure out songs based on the effect that they had on me, if that makes sense. Yeah, it’s the sort of listening, internalizing what that listening is making you feel, or what feeling it’s given you, put with your training skills, and that’s how you can play a better version of it on the piano. Yeah.
Christopher: Very cool. In practical terms, did that mean you were no longer starting from a lead sheet, you were going purely by ear?
Ruth: Yes. Able to, yes. Sometimes I still go back. It’s being able to, and having that skill is worthwhile, mainly for the fact that you’re able to figure out a song without the internet, which is always a good thing. Not every song has a lead sheet, and not every song has sheet music. In a way, you’re opening up your possibilities as a musician to play anything that you can think of.
Christopher: Got you. When you said there that at university you learned about chord progressions, could you explain a bit more what you learned? What were they teaching you that in your head suddenly helped you with playing by ear?
Ruth: Yeah. It’s harmony really. The functions of various chords and where they can lead you and bring you back from all that sort of thing. Yeah. Basically, you add that to your baselines and your melodies, and you’ve got a full arrangement, which sounds really impressive when someone else hears.
I think that’s what Songs By Ear, which is my course, tries to tie together as a little bit of chord knowledge, a little bit of how to find a baseline, and a bit of how to find a melody, and then putting that together in a way that gives you options for which rhythms to play with those chords, and ideas of how to riff further with a melody, and basically building an arrangement for it for any song that you want to work out and play.
Christopher: Great. Yeah. This is kind of the answer to my provocative question about piano being harder than other instruments to play by ear, and it’s why we invited you a while back to come and give a master class on arranging by ear, because if you’re playing say a trumpet solo by ear, you’re trying to figure out some cool jazz solo and you want to play it by ear, essentially what we found is you need to learn the ear skills for pitch recognition, so some kind of interval recognition or solfa approach so that you know what the note pitches are.
Most musicians most of the time can pick up the rhythm instinctively by ear, they can mimic back the rhythm fairly easily, even if they wouldn’t be able to transcribe it, write it down in notation. That kind of pitch recognition is enough to get you going playing a melody by ear.
As you just painted a picture of, on keyboard, even melody plus bass line is going to sound a bit like a skeleton. It’s going to sound a bit empty. Throwing some chords in there, just playing block chords on quarter notes is not going to sound too amazing. You really do need more of a tool kit, more of a palette, and the corresponding chord recognition skills to make it work.
Ruth: Yeah, totally. You’ve just succinctly said it like I couldn’t.
Christopher: Well, I think part of why I was able to is because I was looking again at your Songs By Ear course, and because you structure it so nicely there, you have exercises to help people get just the melody down, and just tune their ear into the bass line.
One thing I wanted to pick up on there is you have them hum as a way to find those notes. Could you talk a little bit about that? How you have your students use their voice to help them figure out the notes by ear.
Ruth: Yeah. I do with my in-person students as well, despite them being sometimes not so keen to be singing in front of me, I try. Basically, it’s the idea of … when we know how a song goes in our head, and we’re like, I’m going to work that out on the piano, you go to the piano, and you start playing notes. As soon as you do that, it’s all over in a way, because whatever it was in your head is gone, because now the louder noise is of course the piano, the piano is going to be louder than whatever was happening in your head.
The idea of humming a note is hearing that in your head, humming it out loud, so that when you press a key on the piano, the note that you’re humming is as dominant as the piano note, so that you can actually try as hard as you can to hold the note that you’re humming, and not be swayed either way by the note that you randomly find on the piano, and that way you can start playing a few more notes, and eventually get to the one that you’re humming. That’s the idea behind that.
Christopher: That is a terrific answer. I’m going to take this little clip from our interview, and immediately give it to some of the students in our foundations course, because this subject has come up a lot, the singing. In the foundations course, we’re teaching the Kodaly approach, and there’s a lot of singing to train your ear.
People have been asking, “Is it okay to sit at my keyboard or sit with my guitar, and find the notes that way?”
My answer has been, “Well, not really. You should do the singing thing, because it helps you internalize it, and it means you’ll know the notes and then play them, rather than always relying on trial and error to find the right notes.”
That I think is a nice complementary answer to what you just said, which is fantastic, which is, as soon as you play a note on the keyboard, your audiation, your mental image of what you’re trying to play by ear is completely shaken, it’s completely ruined.
I know a lot of people watching this, listening to this, will have had this experience where as soon as they play that first note to try and find the right note, they’re like, “Wait. I know it’s wrong, but where was the right one again?” You can immediately lose your sense of the tonal center, you can lose the melody you were trying to remember. I think that’s a really fantastic point, and an important one.
If it’s not a matter of just sitting and trial and error, could you explain a bit more about how you get them in to finding the notes of the melody or the bass line by ear? Is there a lot of drilling interval recognition or that kind of thing? How do you approach it?
Ruth: I actually haven’t stepped into interval recognition yet within the course. It’s somewhere that I’ve wanted to expand to. I think to keep my lessons short, the course starts out here, and then it comes out and I try and get to these two minute lessons, so I haven’t gotten to interval recognition as yet.
At the moment, it’s the humming method for finding the melody. It’s following, we go through a lesson specifically about following the bassline, also using the humming method, and then using the bassline as a starting point to find what the chords are. It’s kind of that sort of style with humming the melody, then go to the bassline, use the bassline to find the chords. Once you’ve got the chords, then that’s where all the fun begins and you can start trying out some different rhythms and things like that.
Christopher: Very cool. Well, I was asking partly to make sure we made the point that you don’t need to do a lot of interval recognition. One thing I really admire about your course is that you get people doing this without them needing to master a ton of ear training.
I think a lot of people who go down the route of trying to play by ear discover something like interval recognition or solfa and while those are fantastic tools, well worth learning, they do not need to be step one. You don’t need to master all of that before you start playing by ear.
I really love the way your course, it just gets people doing it, and I think that’s something we don’t have enough of in music education is, just try it, see what happens, and you can improve your skills and add these tools as you go, but don’t feel like you need to master all of that theoretical abstract skill before you sit down and actually do the thing you want to do.
Ruth: Yeah. I’m a massive advocate for being able to play a song as soon as possible. To me, that’s biggest when I try and get people through the course, I want them to learn their first song by ear straight out the gate. You’ve got to have that quick win to realize that you can do it, and then have the motivation to maybe go further and do your solfege and all that.
I think a worthy point is that despite the fact that I didn’t learn about chord progressions and chord functions until university, I also didn’t learn about interval recognition and solfege until university either. I was just sort of a pet pianist who liked playing songs by ear. I think that says something about the volume of, even with the skills I had, was able to learn lots of songs and enjoy playing by ear.
I definitely wouldn’t rush people into having to learn everything there is to know. Yeah.
Christopher: Yeah. I think something else you touched on there was that your course is about getting them to playing their first song as quickly as possible. Your course is not playing by ear, it’s not piano playing by ear, it’s songs by ear. You do structure the whole course as let’s play a song.
Could you talk a little bit about what goes into that? We’ve mentioned melody and bassline and putting some chords on. What more is there to having a song you could perform by ear, versus just knowing a few of the notes in the melody?
Ruth: Yeah. I think it’s having, as you were saying before, having those sort of tools in the toolbox, knowing your basic chords, how they work, how to recognize them, being able to pick out your melody and your bassline, and then having the tools to be able to take chords and be able to play along with the rhythms.
For instance, if someone was like, “Let’s play this song,” and there was a drummer, then you’d be able to play with the drummer and the rhythm that he would be playing. It’s that sort of idea of maybe playing with a band, or even if playing solo on a piano, being able to replicate the idea of a band, having that rhythm there.
Another thing that we go into in the course is breaking down riffs. By a riff, I mean … quite often with piano songs, particularly ones on the radio that have a really pretty intro, you know, piano part or something like that, or maybe in the chorus there’s a really recognizable bit that sounds a bit complicated, and that’s always the bit that people want to learn, because it’s the kind of cool or complicated bit.
What I try and get people to recognize is that even those complicated bits are still basically, we strip it down. It’s teaching people, there’s a whole chapter in Songs By Ear about how to break down those riffs into their chords and make it seem easy in your head so it’s easy to actually play.
Christopher: Got you. That was something I loved in your masterclass at Musical U on arranging by ear, was that point that if what the listener is conscious of is the hook or the guitar riff or something, that’s something you want to factor in to your arrangement. Your arrangement doesn’t necessarily start from melody plus chorus plus chord progressions. It can start from whatever the list there is thinking, oh, that is the catchy bit of the song or the distinctive part of the song.
Ruth: Yeah. Also, I mean, especially, as you said, especially if it’s in a different instrument, there’s nothing … I get really frustrated, especially when I see sheet music for a piano arrangement of a song, and that piano arrangement has got the melody and it’s got the chord.
Then there’s that cool layers like, dun, dun, dun, dun, guitar riff or something. It’s the piano solo arrangement, but it hasn’t got that thud in it. It’s like, what? That’s the funnest part of the song. If I don’t have a guitarist with me, you can bet that I’m going to be playing that. It’s thinking about that sort of thing as well.
Christopher: Yeah. That maybe touches on something else I wanted to ask you about, which is … we’ve talked about how your course takes an ear-first approach. You are having people rely on their own ear to figure this stuff out, but not in the kind of formal structured, I am doing ear training, I have mastered these intervals kind of a way. It’s much more, not instinctive, but it’s much more tied to their understanding of the music they hear and their own judgment about what the notes are or what the important bits are.
You’ve built on this in an ear bootcamp course that really focuses on what we might call active listening and waking up your ear. I’d love to hear you a talk a bit about that, and how you think it relates to this overall skill of playing or arranging by ear.
Ruth: Yeah. It was through the process of doing the Songs By Ear course, and I actually, as I said, I had thought it was going to be this huge thing with their training and everything. Then I realized that I could actually get people to play a song with this much information, which was the major driving force behind the idea of Piano Picnic actually.
It was after I had put the course together that I realized that if I really am talking about taking people from zero piano experience, which I do say, I actually need to get them just listening properly. Anyone that’s not a musician, and even so many musicians, we are used to listening to music as a background activity. We’re used to going shopping, and just being musical at the mall or in the grocery store. We’re used to having the music while we’re doing the vacuuming.
Probably the majority of the music we listen to is just passive in the background. Even when we have headphones and we’re only listening to music, sometimes we’re not even thinking about what we’re hearing. There’s this sort of initial step before learning by ear where we need to actually just bridge the pathway between our ears and our brain. That’s why my ear bootcamp is. It’s daily lessons, daily training, I do a live video and some assignments. Assignments is the wrong word, that sounds like school work, but some activities.
We go step by step from complete passive listening, through to every day making new observations about the music we hear. By the end of the bootcamp, I send people on with a new appreciation for the music that they listen to every day.
Christopher: Terrific. I think this is a big part of why I was so keen to bring you on as our new Resident Pro for piano at Musical U. We’re sadly saying goodbye to Sarah Campbell who’s been our pro up to this point. She’s getting busy focusing on other projects.
I was so delighted when you agreed to come on board, because what you just described is, I think, such an important outlook on how to approach playing by ear. If you go online and look for play piano by ear, you’ll find a lot of stuff that immediately puts you on the keyboard, trying to trial and error your way. It assumes you have good technique.
There’s so much that’s wrong with it from my perspective, compared with an approach that says, let’s begin by waking up our ears, and making sure we’re hearing what we should be hearing, and listening to music as a musician would, and then let’s start deciding for ourselves where are the right notes, and using our voice to find the right notes, and giving ourselves the tools without rushing to master every abstract skill.
I think it’s such an elegant and effective outlook. I’m sure that’s why you have so many happy students with your Songs By Ear course, because you’ve made it not just bite sized and manageable, but actually effective and delivering the result of being able to play a song by ear, which is no small thing. That’s something most musicians can’t do.
Talk a little bit about coming on board at Musical U? We’ve been so delighted to have you as our new resident pro for piano. What kind of stuff are you working on there?
Ruth: Wow. I mean, thank you for all those lovely compliments right after each other. That made me feel really excited. Coming aboard Musical U has been really cool, and I’ve just been so excited about it, because it allows me to reach even more people, and I just am so excited to be involved with Musical U with anything.
As you say, we had the same sort of, a really similar approach and a really similar attitude to non-exclusivity in music, and everyone can have a go, and everyone can do it, they just need those keys to the city. It makes me sad when people think that playing by ear or being a musician is just this thing on the other side of a brick wall, and they’ll never get there. I think that Musical U is just opening the door and saying, “Come in, everybody. We can all learn by ear.” I just think that’s so cool.
At the moment, I am working on the December resource pack, and that is about chord progressions I think. I’m actually filming it tomorrow, but I wrote it last week, so I’ve been concentrating on one thing at a time. I think it’s about I–V–vi–IV minor chord progressions, and the different things we can do with that, which there’s so many different things. I got sent the topic, and I was just like, wow, this is a can of worms.
Christopher: Well, for anyone listening or watching who hasn’t come across this idea of resident pros before, at Musical U, we have a lot of training modules on different topics. For example, we have modules that teach you the ear skills for recognizing a I–V–vi–IV chord progression.
Where our resident pros come into the picture is developing video tutorials for specific instruments. Ruth is working on piano for us. We also have guitar, bass, and singing. The idea is to bring it to life on the instrument, and give you the specifics to paly around with those ideas on your instrument.
Ruth, I’ve really enjoyed your videos so far for how you bring that creativity and enjoyment to it, which is really what we’re most looking for in those resource packs, is to bring it to life in a way that makes it all fun. When you’re just looking at a web page and reading or doing interactive listening exercises, there’s the danger it gets a bit dry or repetitive. We love how the resource packs help people get hands on with their instruments and bring it to life.
Ruth: Yeah. It’s awesome. I love it, because it allows me to pick the fun bit and teach that without the responsibility of making sure they have all the background info, which is what you guys do, so it’s great. It’s a great partnership.
Christopher: Tell us a bit more about Piano Picnic. The website is pianopicnic.com. Where can people go to learn more about your Songs By Ear course, or the seven day bootcamp we talked about before?
Ruth: Yes. Songs By Ear is pianopicnic.com/songsbyear. You might want to say Piano Picnic for me, because I know it sounds like pocnoc when I say it with my accent.
Christopher: I am certainly not the person to go for a clear accent. No one has a clue where I come from. Picnic, P-I-C-N-I-C.com.
Ruth: Perfect. Wonderful. I’m going to take that soundbite and put it on everything. For the ear bootcamp, which is run periodically, I should say Songs By Ear is only open for enrollments a few times a year, but you can sign up to the wait list to come on board the next time it comes through. To tie you over, I do regular ear bootcamps. They were five days, but now they’re seven days, I’ve just extended them. It’s free, and as I said, you get all those daily lessons. The link to sign up is my.pianopicnic.com, so just the my in front of it, /ear-bootcamp.
Christopher: Cool. We will save everyone the careful typing and make sure we have direct links to those in the show notes of this episode.
Ruth, it’s been such a pleasure talking with you today. Thank you so much for coming on the show. I would love if we could send people away with a big piece of advice for playing by ear. There’s been a lot of good tactical and mindset stuff in our conversation today. If you had to send them away with one thing that could help them, what would you say?
Ruth: It reminds me of some advice that I actually received when I was quite young, and I saw a guy that was playing by ear performing. I was like, “That’s amazing. Can you give me some advice?” He said, “Just keep playing. Keep playing a lot, and one day you will be a natural player.”
My advice to everyone today is that that’s bad advice. You can’t just keep playing and keep learning pieces and just hope to one day … I mean, it would take a lot of time to one day just be able to play by ear. It’s something that you need to learn about how music works, you need to build your ear skills and your listening skills and all those things that we talked about today. Those are all things that you have to work on in order to gain that skill.
Christopher: I think that’s fantastic advice to leave people with. The bad advice you were given I think is all too often given or assumed, and it doesn’t have to be a lifelong process if you actually give it the attention it deserves. I’m glad we finished with that.
Ruth, it’s been such a pleasure. I knew it would be interesting to hear your own backstory and how this perspective on teaching playing by ear had developed, where it had come from, and it certainly has been fascinating. Just a big thank you for coming on the show today and sharing all of this fascinating info on playing by ear.
Ruth: Thank you so much for having me. It’s my favorite subject. Honestly, I’d talk about it all day.
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