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Garth E.

Learning to play by ear.

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To say I know the violin is a very complex instrument to play would be an understatement. What I don't get are fiddlers playing wonderful jigs and square dance music...like Don Messer, and have never taken a lesson in their life. They don't even hold the bow or the violin correctly. Now I know one shouldn't compare the violin to a guitar, however many great guitarists can't read one note, yet are very successful playing professionally. My question is, is it possible to play well structured classical violin by ear. Can gifted violinists jam classical music together without sheet music in front of them or outside of what is memorized just by ear? I'm actually quite serious about this as I would really like to play a little classical violin. I have a very good ear and with some rudimentary lessons is it even possible? I also have a decent musical background going back to pre-Beatles. 

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Garth, you might want to post this over on the "Fingerboard" forum, since the "Pegbox" is the violinmaking part of Maestronet.

If I can chip in my point of view, though, it all depends what you want to do. If you want to "jam" with friends in a "classical style," of course, why not? If you want to play Mozart string quartets with your friends, I imagine it's totally possible to learn your part "by ear,"  but that would be a bit like learning a role in a play by memorizing the sounds of the words, without really understanding what you are saying and how your lines interact with the other characters. It might actually work ok, and might even sound decent, but you'd be frankly missing a whole lot of enjoyment by not being able to read and understand the score.

Playing a "little classical violin" is a bit hard for me to understand. What's really interesting to me is being able to tap into centuries worth of musical tradition, that has been handed down to us because of the amazing and unique fact that a system of notation was developped in Europe starting in the Middle Ages and that has been able to document some of the most beautiful and moving musical ideas that great artists have had through the ages. One doesn't have to be a musicologist or a professional musician to appreciate the genius of Bach, Mozart, Beethoven et. al., far from it, but I feel that the more one puts into trying to understand it better, the more one gets out of it, and learning to read music is really not that tough!

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Some people have innate musicality (I'm not one of them, and I remain eternally jealous).

But, other than 'easy' classical tunes, you can't just pick up and jam classical music, especially not the melody line.  You might be able to harmonize though.

Classical music is rather rigid and subscribed. It is open to interpretation - but in a very narrow sense.

Soloists show off their skills by memorizing pages (endless pages) of music, but no one else does.  And even for very talented classical musicians, all that memorizing takes a great deal of time.

So, it's not the musician playing a complicated instrument, it's the complicated classical music itself.

Fiddle music, on the other hand, is relatively simple and repetitive.  4 bars of this, followed by 4 bars of that.  Play part A, then play part B, repeat...etc.  Not hard to pick up on.  Short and easily retained.

Same with much of the pop/folk guitar rep.

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My music memory is terrible, so learning to read music was a godsend. Reading music is much more intuitive on the violin than on the guitar because of the way the 5ths are layed out.

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1 hour ago, Garth E. said:

To say I know the violin is a very complex instrument to play would be an understatement. What I don't get are fiddlers playing wonderful jigs and square dance music...like Don Messer, and have never taken a lesson in their life. They don't even hold the bow or the violin correctly. Now I know one shouldn't compare the violin to a guitar, however many great guitarists can't read one note, yet are very successful playing professionally. My question is, is it possible to play well structured classical violin by ear. Can gifted violinists jam classical music together without sheet music in front of them or outside of what is memorized just by ear? I'm actually quite serious about this as I would really like to play a little classical violin. I have a very good ear and with some rudimentary lessons is it even possible? I also have a decent musical background going back to pre-Beatles. 

Only Canadians will know who Don Messer was.  However, he did in fact have lessons in classical violin technique.  When  he was 16, he moved to  Boston where he studied for about  four years before returning to Canada.  No matter what he played, he had very good technical skills.

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17 minutes ago, Ron MacDonald said:

Only Canadians will know who Don Messer was.  However, he did in fact have lessons in classical violin technique.  When  he was 16, he moved to  Boston where he studied for about  four years before returning to Canada.  No matter what he played, he had very good technical skills.

I lived in New Brunswick for 5 years, loved DM and there are so many other fiddlers I could have named. Don't know why he came to mind... 

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50 minutes ago, Michael Appleman said:

Playing a "little classical violin" is a bit hard for me to understand.

I would have loved to play violin from an early age. I chose the guitar at 9. Now almost 70, time is a consideration. I love listening to those violinists that have put the effort in to being very good at what they do. When I say a "little classical violin" that's really what I mean.

 Michael how do I transfer this thread to the Fingerboard forum?

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Many people have done the opposite, they learned classical playing over many years and then decided the want to do a little fiddling. So they learn a few tunes.  Can be hard to pull off though, and fit in with others.

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I would love to be able to play like Martin Hayes. Predominantly folk but with some other elements at times.

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1 hour ago, Rue said:

So, it's not the musician playing a complicated instrument, it's the complicated classical music itself.

So true Rue, when I first started learning to read pipe music with the Queen's Own Camerons I was terrified. Semi Brev's 1/64th notes are difficult to even look at. However after 6 years of long hours practice I could play with the band at the Legislature. Pipes are still complicated, just not as complicated as the music.

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4 minutes ago, rudall said:

No Irish musician refers to their music as ‘folk’.

Sorry traditional music then

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3 hours ago, Garth E. said:

... I'm actually quite serious about this as I would really like to play a little classical violin. I have a very good ear and with some rudimentary lessons is it even possible? ...

I forgot to mention...

Why not take a look at the Suzuki Books?

It is classical music, in easy bits. There is a CD that goes with the books; you can learn by ear and/or work on music reading skills at the same time.

Book 1 may be too easy. But Book 2 and 3 are a good start. Watch out for Book 4 - it's an anomaly (it gets "too hard" too quickly).

I've memorized a few of those early pieces and play them as a warm-up or if I'm focused on some technical issue and need to play without looking at music, or if I am just noodling.

I am even playing them on my bass guitar...lol...I know them that well...^_^

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I think it depends a bit. A fiddler could theoretically play the notes, but it seems classical music is more than the right notes (proper bow hold, proper violin, right attire, good musical interpretation, etc.). It all comes down to the purpose of playing. Classical music is meant to be played as a group, where there can't be any individualism (aside from maybe the soloist). Each member has to work precisely with everyone else, otherwise it sounds like a train wreck. Whereas trad/folk music is about improv, solos, and standing out in your proper time.  They're both just different mentalities.

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8 hours ago, Garth E. said:

My question is, is it possible to play well structured classical violin by ear.

I imagine that after 10,000 hours of intense work at playing by ear, assuming some talent, you could get pretty good.  

I am a fiddler, and learned almost everything I know by ear, playing in groups or otherwise learning tunes directly from other people.  I do know enough about music to painfully translate blots on paper into where my finger is supposed to be... but it is no where near reading.  I did learn the opening of the Bruch concierto specifically since it is used so often for testing violins, and I learned it by ear (and eye).  I watched a video of Pearlman playing it, so I could see the hand positions and bowing.

I think a major difference between violin music and fiddle playing is that basic fiddle tunes almost never get to higher positions. So unless you want to spend the practice time necessary, it would be difficult to get decent intonation in the upper positions of violin playing.

 

7 hours ago, Rue said:

So, it's not the musician playing a complicated instrument, it's the complicated classical music itself.

Fiddle music, on the other hand, is relatively simple and repetitive.  4 bars of this, followed by 4 bars of that.  Play part A, then play part B, repeat...etc.  Not hard to pick up on.  Short and easily retained.

While I agree that your basic gathering of amateur fiddlers is most commonly going to play simple "square" tunes so that everyone can join in, the upper levels of the craft I think can be as demanding as classical playing, although perhaps in different ways with rhythm and bow movements that would be totally foreign to classical music.  Here is an example (one of my favorites)  of "4 bars of this, followed by 4 bars of that" that is anything but simple:  Fiddle Tune

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1 hour ago, Don Noon said:

I imagine that after 10,000 hours of intense work at playing by ear, assuming some talent, you could get pretty good.  

I thought I'd mention that in the end, we're all "playing by ear," whether we got our "mental recording" from listening to others, or from reading written music. In the end, most "classical musicians" are "learning by ear" by listening to Heifetz/Oistrakh/Perlman/Hahn/etc. etc. They may not be learning the notes that way, but they are "mentally recording" tone, dynamics, phrasing, articulation, rubato...all those essential things one can't put on a printed page of music.  

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7 hours ago, Michael Appleman said:

They may not be learning the notes that way...

I thought I'd mention that I HAVE written down notes and bowing to assist memory; not everything is by ear.  If there is a particular recording of a piece I want to play, I'll listen to it at slow speed, one section at a time, and write it down.  It's not in official music form with all those flags and stuff, but dots on the right lines, and time as a horizontal axis, with bow direction noted.  It's easy to forget the details if you don't write them down, and it's a pain to work it all out again.  YouTube can play something slowed down, but "The Amazing Slow Downer" program does a better job, and you can diddle with pitch as well.

At least for fiddle music, it's extremely helpful to be familiar with the bow licks and patterns of the genre, so you know what you're hearing even if you can't see it.  Otherwise you can get the bowing screwed up, and in good fiddling, bowing is 90% of what's important.

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1 hour ago, Don Noon said:

At least for fiddle music, it's extremely helpful to be familiar with the bow licks and patterns of the genre, so you know what you're hearing even if you can't see it.  Otherwise you can get the bowing screwed up, and in good fiddling, bowing is 90% of what's important.

Clearly there is a lot of preparation and studying a bit before just picking up a violin and playing by ear. For me that is all very interesting and challenging. I have a Yita T19 I purchased 10 years ago that has been a good learning instrument. 9,999 hours to go Don. 

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Nothing done well is 'easy', even with the 'easy' stuff ^_^...it all takes practice.  

When I'm talking about easy versus hard (especially in the context of this thread), it's about the easier material, not the advanced material.

When I mentioned fiddle tunes, I'm talking about the basic tunes, not the advanced Natalie MacMaster or Isaac MacAshley level of playing.

I'm also not talking about 'colour'.  The colour that flavours any music played well comes with practice, immersion in the genre, and living the life, to a great extent.  But that's all way above a beginner level.

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9 minutes ago, Garth E. said:

Clearly there is a lot of preparation and studying a bit before just picking up a violin and playing by ear. For me that is all very interesting and challenging. I have a Yita T19 I purchased 10 years ago that has been a good learning instrument. 9,999 hours to go Don. 

Its certainly not going to kill you to try, I suggest doing what guitar players do which is to play along with records. Get some slow Vivaldi stuff like the concerto A minor Adagio, practice the melody and play along, when you get better you can improv a line over the tune. You can even get apps that will slow music down yet keep the right pitch.

I think the key is that the tempo is adagio/largo  so it does not go by too quickly, fast passages are always the hard part, because they go by too quickly for one to process, where as nice slow drawn out melodies give you time to adjust your pitch, find the positioning and remember what you did through repetition. I would say that what Don described is about where I'm at with my classical playing, I'm much better at writing and improv of my own stuff via constant noodling 

I do believe in the 10,000 hour 10 hours a day for ten years thing, whatever it may be, basically I am a firm believer in autodidact Trivium method learning where if you are one who can become obsessed with something in a healthy way, that with just a little help from outsiders that you can teach yourself to do anything at a high level,basically you just have to want it , keep at it, and don't quit.

I am a firm believer in what is now a rare "bird" in this day and age, that being a Renaissance "person" One should have many pursuits, passions, interests and hobbies, one should pursue each of them as if it were a profession and become as good at and as knowledgeable as possible in all of them. Some may be retired over time , but then new ones can be picked up, and over time old ones can be revisited.

For example I set up my speed bag, I haven;t hit the bag in almost 20 years, in my prime I was very good at it, lots of tricks and such, and as "there" as all the moves are in my mind,  my physical constitution  has dramatically dropped off, somewhat unbeknownst to me, or I would have never thought I'd be sucking at it this much based on being too weak to really push the bag. So I'm totally stoked to have my bag back up and in only a week I'm getting much better and stronger and am glad I have that "passion/hobby" to retake up so I can improve my condition and would have never known how bad things got unless I had the bag there to show me.

So you never know what benefits you can get from perusing an interest, the pursuit of/art/ musical endeavors is generally never a bad thing.

 

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3 hours ago, jezzupe said:

Its certainly not going to kill you to try, I suggest doing what guitar players do which is to play along with records. Get some slow Vivaldi stuff like the concerto A minor Adagio, practice the melody and play along, when you get better you can improv a line over the tune. You can even get apps that will slow music down yet keep the right pitch.

I think the key is that the tempo is adagio/largo  so it does not go by too quickly, fast passages are always the hard part, because they go by too quickly for one to process, where as nice slow drawn out melodies give you time to adjust your pitch, find the positioning and remember what you did through repetition. I would say that what Don described is about where I'm at with my classical playing, I'm much better at writing and improv of my own stuff via constant noodling 

I do believe in the 10,000 hour 10 hours a day for ten years thing, whatever it may be, basically I am a firm believer in autodidact Trivium method learning where if you are one who can become obsessed with something in a healthy way, that with just a little help from outsiders that you can teach yourself to do anything at a high level,basically you just have to want it , keep at it, and don't quit.

I am a firm believer in what is now a rare "bird" in this day and age, that being a Renaissance "person" One should have many pursuits, passions, interests and hobbies, one should pursue each of them as if it were a profession and become as good at and as knowledgeable as possible in all of them. Some may be retired over time , but then new ones can be picked up, and over time old ones can be revisited.

For example I set up my speed bag, I haven;t hit the bag in almost 20 years, in my prime I was very good at it, lots of tricks and such, and as "there" as all the moves are in my mind,  my physical constitution  has dramatically dropped off, somewhat unbeknownst to me, or I would have never thought I'd be sucking at it this much based on being too weak to really push the bag. So I'm totally stoked to have my bag back up and in only a week I'm getting much better and stronger and am glad I have that "passion/hobby" to retake up so I can improve my condition and would have never known how bad things got unless I had the bag there to show me.

So you never know what benefits you can get from perusing an interest, the pursuit of/art/ musical endeavors is generally never a bad thing.

 

Great post!!  :)

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9 minutes ago, Violadamore said:

Great post!!  :)

I'll second that. Really nice to read. Life is a long time, use it to get good at something. When I'm between passions I tend to fade a bit. Thinking people are incredibly uplifting. Thanks again.

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28 minutes ago, Garth E. said:

.... When I'm between passions I tend to fade a bit....

I feel like that too.  That's why I got myself a bass guitar a couple of months ago.  It's something different, but still within my interests.  It's something new to explore, so I'm both excited (so much to learn) and still relaxed about it - since my goal is to see how far I get, but with no pressure to get there...if that makes sense?

Other interests have more pressure...like learning a piece for a concert, recital etc.,  if I have to learn/improve technique in order to perform.

So far...no bands have been knocking on my door to have me play Handel's Bouree on the bass...^_^

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