Confronting a Mystery: Defining the Inexplicable.
A couple of weeks ago, the family that I caregive for had friends over and I treated them to live piano music. Into the mini-concert, one of the women asked a question that I’m all too familiar with: "I notice that you’re not playing with any sheet music, so… do you just memorize all of that?". And even though this is one of the most common and time-worn questions asked, this time it just… rung different. Something just… switched. All I could think to say was, "You know what. After having played a piece for so long, I can’t really say it’s ‘memorized’ anymore… I’m sorry, I don’t really know how to explain it." I’ve meditated on this conversation since, and I think I finally have a grip on my shifting understanding of what it means to play music "by ear".
As I was telling her, after you’ve played a piece for so long, you can’t really call it "memorized". It’s more like you simply just know it. I guess it would be like the difference between learning the definition of a vocabulary word, and then being able to use that word properly in an original thought in many different contexts. After getting so intimate with a piece, you tend to stop playing it the way you learned it. You improvise, you rearrange, you embellish or minimalize, you lengthen or shorten, you play it or work it, etc. etc. etc. At that point, you’re not even playing from memory. You’re playing from your understanding of the direction of the music; Or, your desire of that direction. I believe that this is what it really means to play music by ear.
I’ve talked with hundreds of musicians, over 2 decades now, about the concepts of playing by ear and improvising; And no matter how much more I felt like I had learned and came to understand, by the time the next conversation came around I would always find myself stumped, again, at some point, in explaining what these things mean. Now I think that maybe I can finally begin closing the case on this mystery. How have you come to understand what it means to "play by ear", and to "improvise"? How would you explain these things to someone who isn’t versed in music? How would you explain these things to another musician who carried these questions?