I want to emphasize that when we play by ear, it doesn’t mean that we throw away all the music score. Music score has its place. Learn how to make good use of it but at the same time to steer clear of its pitfalls. I’ve fallen into the pitfall for so many years that I didn’t even know they were there. My brain was totally preoccupied with translating symbols into actions on the piano. I just sight-read the music and trained myself to think faster to play the notes. With more notes on the score, I pushed myself to think ahead. With more sharps and flats, I tried to think even faster. With changing keys at the bridge, I made myself to think even faster. So in this whirlwind of mental activity in calculating and translating symbols, I was teaching reading fluency strategies exhausted mentally without ever listening attentively to the sounds I was playing. So without music scores, I would be totally lost at the piano. Does this sound familiar to your experience?

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I have now discovered an effective way to use scores and I want to share it with you. Please understand that music is a vocabulary. Even when you play tunes from score, you are expressing yourself with that vocabulary. You need to realize that music sheets are unable to express the whole dynamics of a song and all its possible embellishments. Experienced players know that we can never play a tune the same way twice. We will add in ornaments, grace notes, trills for extra effects. We will vary the timing and play subtle variations to express different moods. Score sheets cannot show everything. They are simply snapshots of notes written to give you an idea of what can be done. Sometimes the most important element might be left out because it is hard to notate. It is simply impossible to notate the huge number of possible variations even for a simple tune.

We sometimes confuse reading music with being musical. The ability to read music is very useful but it is not the same as being musical. Reading is a totally different skill. Notes are just a series of symbols. These symbols look deceptive because they give us the impression that this is music. Music is not a constant series of stop-and-go from notes to notes. Rather, music is what happens in between these notes. That part, you can’t read. There is a saying that goes, “read between the lines.” Yes, that’s what we need to do when playing from music score. Now, I always “play between the notes.” Music has a flowing property. How to put in the flow? This is where the ear plays an important role as you connect these notes into beautiful musical expressions in your playing.

I am trying to put the emphasis on developing our “SEE, HEAR & PLAY’ reflex rather than the “SEE & PLAY” reflex. Fixing our attention on the visual aspect of the score freezes our flow of creativity. Simply playing what we see without deep listening makes our music stiff and mechanical.

We are brought up in a visually centered culture. We look at the notes intently and our whole being is totally involved in the written notes in front of us. It is as if learning takes place on the sheet music in front of us rather than inside of us. So when you use sheet music, train yourself to hear the music you see on score sheets. Do not confine yourself to play the notes you see.

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