Foundational Ideas of FiddleQuest

What are the limits of ears in learning the violin?

15 years ago I had a conversation about pedagogy with a cello teacher. (This was before I even knew what pedagogy — the methodology and practice of teaching — meant.)

We discussed the value of ears in learning music. But, she insisted, there is a limit to what you can learn without notation. Bach, for example, would be too complex to learn without notation. I nodded in agreement and deferred to her experience as a teacher.

As strong as my ears were as a young player, I always kept the notation in front of me as a security blanket. As the music became more complex and I was learning pieces that my brother had not played (leaving me no one to mimic), I became a hybrid player — I used both my eyes and ears.

Since that conversation, I have pondered the question ‘What are the limits of learning by ear?’

When I stumbled upon Chris Thile’s album of Bach Partitas and Sonatas, I decided to find out.

I selected the first movement of the G-minor Sonata. It is beautiful, slow-paced piece filled with complex chords. Unlike droning chords that happen in folk music where the root note stays put, both notes of the chords in this piece continually move. The result sounds like 2 violins playing a duet.

Even though I had the notation for the music on my shelf, as a proof-of-concept, I wouldn’t allow myself to look at it.

Over the course of a month or so, I learned the piece phrase by phrase. When I finally got to the end of this 4 minute piece, I felt like I had climbed a rock wall without the help of any ropes.

That success led me to learn other classical pieces by ear. It is definitely harder and requires problem-solving, but it is also incredibly satisfying.

Over the years since that conversation with the cello teacher, I’ve had many conversations about the role of ears in the violin pedagogy. I sometimes share the results of my proof-of-concept with other teachers.

And I also share an unexpected outcome from this experiment. I’ll talk more about that tomorrow.