When I was in college, there was a girl in my class who was known for her amazing piano skills. She was absolutely astounding and wonderful to hear as her fingers flew across those keys effortlessly. Her eyes never left that sheet of paper that was in front of her. I praised her for her talent and asked her to play a different known song. She asked me if I had the sheet music. I said no, but I hummed the melody line to remind her. She looked at me dumbfounded as if she had never played the piano before.
I have a student who can play any song that she hears. In fact, she comes in almost every week with a new melody that she has figured out on the piano. One week it is “Sweet Home Alabama” and the next week it is Bach’s “Minuet in G”. An incredible ear for her instrument! However, I put a sheet of music in front of her and you would have thought that she had never played the piano before either.
Musicians will argue back and forth all the time about whether it is more important to work on ear training or if it is better to work on sight-reading. I have observed both techniques and have found both to be very effective. As such, I have concluded that it is not an either/or. It is most definitely an “and” situation. Every student should learn ear training AND sight-reading because both will make better musicians out of them.
It is very common for teachers to focus on sight-reading and not so much on ear training. However, by doing so, we limit the student’s musical abilities. What if they don’t have sheet music for the song they want to learn? What if we don’t want the student to play the song exactly as it is written? So, I have decided to share some ideas that I have found effective for learning both sight-reading and ear training.
Have a simple book with some simple melodies that you can work through week-by-week that will challenge you but not be too hard. Figure out where you are on sight-reading and choose a book accordingly. If you haven’t had any experience, you will need to start from the beginning. If you have had some experience of sight-reading, take a look through a book and see if it looks too easy or hard. If it looks like something that might take a little work, but that you could figure out, then that is the book you need to use. Don’t be afraid to start with the very basics, even if you are a skilled player. Learning to sight-read can be a real challenge!
I have found the “Adventure” series to be a good tool for sight-reading on piano. They also have theory workbooks and performance books to enhance your sight reading experience. They start with primer level and work up.
For guitar sight-reading, I use the guitar method series. They address sight-reading, chords, and strumming patterns.
Sessions Music is also working on publishing our own set of books to help with sight-reading.
A lot of ear training needs to be done with your teacher such as learning the different between a high note and a low note. I like to play a game in which I have them close their eyes while I play a note on the piano. They then have to search for the note; remembering the sound of the note is part of ear training. I also have my students figure out simple melodies such as “Mary Had a Little Lamb”. These simple melodies are already in their head and thus easily figured out on their instrument. The hard part though is finding a way to practice ear training at home without your teacher.
These might help too.
The below website is a good tool to work on your own at home.
I have found this website to be very helpful with having students work on ear training. It works by level and addresses a variety of ear training disciplines such as intervals, chords, and melodies. It logs your work so you can see yourself improve.
You don’t want to be that person who requires sheet music to play an instrument that they have so much talent for, and you don’t want to be that person who can’t play a song because they see it in written form. So, quit arguing over whether ear training is better than sight-reading or vise verse. Recognize that they are both important and start learning!