Play it by ear

Or how I learned to play the piano by ear – I didn’t.

My daddy’s oldest sister, Aunt Myrtle, sponsored my piano lessons as a little girl. She had been a pianist for silent movies in the early 1900’s and loved any and all types of music. I dearly loved to hear her play, especially sitting close to watch her nimble fingers. Runs up and down the keyboard, crashing chords or delicate trills, it was all thrilling to me!

Myrtle still played for her own family, friends, and her own enjoyment too. Occasionally she accompanied someone who sang a classical-type solo at church, especially near Easter or Christmas time.

Mrs.WescottOh, how I wanted to play like Myrtle! And so, Myrtie Berry Wescott, a classical piano teacher, was chosen to instruct me. During the regular school year I would go to her house twice a week after school where for fifteen minutes per lesson she drilled me in music theory, scales, finger exercises, proper hand position, and practice, practice, practice!

I can still see her baton at the ready, threatening (but never actually rapping) the knuckles when your hands were being lazy, i.e. not properly lifted, fingers curled to strike – not mash – the keys.

Ms. Wescott was a stickler for playing music exactly it as written. She didn’t like her students playing anything she hadn’t approved… which meant no hymns, no sheet music, no “silly little ditties” such as Chopsticks, Three Blind Mice, or She’ll be Coming Round the Mountain When She Comes.

In her studio, only classical composers such as Bach, Beethoven and Chopin were used for memory work, especially end-of-year recital pieces. Difficulty increased, of course, as the years went on. Imagine playing 13 notes per measure with the right hand, to 12 notes per measure with the left hand. One of the Russian composers, my mind has kindly and lovingly blanked out that name and that piece – but I did learn to play it to her satisfaction, when I was about 15.

Well, while classical piano study was school-year work, summers were wonderfully filled with big band music, movie sound tracks, Hits of the 50’s etc., folk music, hymns and choruses, books and sheet music purchased by my parents as rewards for good work for my violinist brother and me.

I learned a great deal studying with Ms. Wescott. But what I didn’t learn was how to transpose keys. Whoever heard of changing the key on a Beethoven piece? Unnecessary! Unthought of! Unallowed.

Well, my lessons with her were completed when I was 16. After a few summer months of organ keyboard instruction sponsored by my church, I began playing the organ for Sunday services. (They had an excellent pianist but a fine organ with nobody to play it, until I came along.)

All went well for quite a while, until I joined Christian Assembly Church in the 1970’s and began playing the organ for services there.

The choir leader would sometimes say, “This hymn is pitched too high, let’s lower it a couple of steps.” I just looked at him in dismay – I had no idea how to do that. But the pianist did, so she would play and I would just sit there, feeling like a dummy.

After a few times like that I was disheartened. I loved playing. I loved the hymns, the gospel songs, the Easter and Christmas cantatas, all the praise and worship music. If it was written on paper, I could play it. If it wasn’t, I couldn’t.

It really bothered me. If I knew about the change of key in advance, I could write out the notes and practice at home and then things would go fine. But those occasions were rare. My heart almost grieved, not being able to play everything they needed. Should I resign as church organist and let them find someone who could do it? I was debating with myself.

One night I prayed about it – and woke up the next morning able to play by ear, in any key. (Only Christian music, oddly enough; anything else I still have to memorize as always.) It was amazing.

Not long afterward, a gospel quartet came for a special service one Sunday night. All their songs were lively and upbeat pieces they had written and as none of them played instruments, they sang with accompaniment tapes.

Then the pastor asked them to sing something slower, softer, more worshipful while people came forward for a time of prayer. Unfortunately none of their tapes contained that kind of music. One of them looked over at me and said, if we begin, can you just follow along? My heart pounded but I said, I’ll try.

And I did. Every song, even though none were familiar; they were all original pieces they themselves had composed. They sang and I played for over 30 minutes. No-one but me knew what a miracle that was, but it was.

Transposing choir numbers was no longer a problem. I just heard the melody and harmony in my head, found the key they needed and played.

Since that day I have played the piano in many places, sometimes with written music but more often without. Sometimes song leaders rotated from tenor to bass (Full Gospel Businessmen’s Fellowship), or from soprano to alto (Women’s Aglow). I found that I could follow the leader in whatever key they needed. Our own church where I have played piano for many years uses chord charts, because the other musicians don’t read music. No problem.

So, whenever people ask me how I learned to play by ear, I just smile and say, I didn’t. Let me tell you about a miracle – did you know the Holy Spirit can play the piano?

 

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