Can’t Help Falling In Love

Elvis with an ukulele

Despite your first thought, the title of this post is not describing my feelings toward the ukulele. Yes, it’s kind of fun, and it’s fairly easy to learn & play, but I don’t find it nearly as enjoyable as piano was. I rarely have an urge to play it, which has caused me to fall behind a little in my playing, with only ten hours of practice in so far. It’s definitely fun if I’m in the right mood though, and I have gotten one song fairly well memorized!

Here is my meager performance of the song with the same title as this blog post’s title:

I still have ten days left in the month, and ten hours left of practice. I’ll have to step up my game. Hopefully I’ll soon hit the point where everything becomes easier, more fluid, and more enjoyable, as happened with piano near the end of last month. To make my playing more interesting, I believe I’ll also have to add some variety—learning some picking methods, perhaps. Working on being able to do a traditional, brisk ukulele strumming rhythm would also be good for some of my songs.

I’m Sitting High On A Hill Top

Dale Hill

It’s been nearly two weeks since the last update, and I just missed five days of practice in a row, because of travel, and no readily accessible piano. But! But! But! I have made excellent progress since the last post! I’ve practiced another 6¼ hours, for a total of 13 hours and 37 minutes. I’ve now past the two-thirds mark!

This practice has been very focused on direct, noticeable progress. Some of the time has been spent just playing little bits of melodies that I know, but the largest portion of the practice time was spent working on the song ‘Throw Another Log On The Fire’, sung by Richard Diamond (Dick Powell). The recording I have is rather poor, so I couldn’t really decipher the chords by listening along, and instead had to just try different things until it sounded about right. It’s not quite perfect, and I’m playing it fairly simply, but it sounds pretty good!

By learning skills through working on one song at a time (starting with the melody, followed by discerning the accompanying chords, and then making it all sound nice), instead of just generally doing things, I make real, noticeable progress, I enjoy playing piano more, and learn a song that I can play whenever I want! I’ve now developed the skill to the point that it’s really kind of fun to do!

Playing piano by ear is really a combination of many skill sets, each of which is fairly daunting on its own: ear training, relative pitch, piano technique, rhythm, and likely a couple of others. Because of the complexity of it, you’d expect progress to be slow. And yes, progress is somewhat slow, but it’s really not too bad at all. I’m really very pleased with the progress I’ve made so far, and am looking forward to where I’ll be on the 31st.

Coming up next I’m going to learn a new song or two, which will likely take me to the 20-hour mark, at which time I’ll give a full review of the month’s skill, with everything I’ve learned.

Things Are Bound To Pick Up Pretty Soon

Small FailureI started off with high hopes. As soon as I began, I was surprised & pleased by how well I could play a tune the first time through. My accuracy was at a good 85% or so. But I also instantly realized something else. I don’t listen to music enough. My ability to recall the entire melody of a song is sadly lacking. I can remember the opening, or some little bit in the middle, but there’s really no song that I know all of perfectly.

To really do well playing piano by ear, I’m going to need to memorize some songs in their entirety. Which shouldn’t be too hard, once I make the effort to do so. At this point though, not knowing entire melodies isn’t a huge hindrance. Even just playing the parts I know helps me to get used to transferring music from my brain, to my hands, to the piano.

As I write this post, I’ve practiced a total of 7 hours, 22 minutes—more than a third of the way to 20 hours. Which is disheartening, because so far I can’t tell that I’ve made much progress at all. And that needs to change, fast! But before you can fix a problem, you have to first figure out the cause.

Problem 1: My recorded time of 7 hours, 22 minutes isn’t all practice.

In going through The Jazz Piano Book, there’s a good chunk of reading, some piano scores demonstrating the things being taught, and a few recommended practice items. Very little of the time with the book actually counts as practice, so my total actual practice time is more like 6½ hours, or possibly even less. With as little progress as I’ve made so far, it’s encouraging to know that I have a somewhat lower amount of practice time in than I’d been thinking. But only marginally.

Problem 2: Going about things in the wrong order.

In my skill breakdown, I determined that the three most important parts of learning to play by ear were:

  1. Play the melody
  2. Identify the accompanying chords
  3. Make those chords sound nice

What I forgot, in my practicing, was to do those things in that order. Most of what I’ve been learning in The Jazz Piano Book (besides reviewing things that I already know) applies mostly to the 3rd step, with a dash thrown in for the 2nd. I’ve been neglecting the foundational parts. I have to play the melody, and figure out what chords go where, and only then work on making it sound as lovely as possible.

Problem 3: Not focusing on one thing.

My final main issue is that I haven’t been focusing enough on any one thing to be able to make real progress. I haven’t been playing a melody over and over until it’s perfect, and I haven’t been following that with figuring out the chords. I haven’t worked on mastering—or even improving—my ability to play a specific song by ear.

Solutions:

The Jazz Piano Book says I ought to practice everything (like the II-7 V7 IΔ progression) in all 12 keys. This is definitely good in general, but for my goal of progressing as much as possible in 20 hours, it may be wiser to stick to practicing in just a few different keys.

To make noticeable progress, I’m going to have to focus on one or two songs at a time. To play the whole melody, I need to have it fully memorized. After that’s done, comes the chords. The first step in identifying the accompanying chord will be to play just the bass note of each, until I can go through the entire song with the those. After that’s finished, I go about filling in the rest of the chord, which is where the jazz book will help: at the very end.

Key Insights So Far:

I haven’t learned a whole lot so far as far as piano playing goes (besides the II-7 V7 IΔ progression, which is completely totally awesome: You play the root of the chord with the left hand, the 3rd & 7th with the right, and forget about the 5th. You then drop the 7th down a half step each chord change, which switches it to the 3rd in the new chord, with the old 3rd turning into the new 7th!!!). What I have learned, is to remember to stay very focused when learning, and to stick to the plan. If you find out the plan isn’t perfect, you don’t stray from the plan. You change it.

And on that note…

I think my Target Performance Level was a little too optimistic. A lot. Playing piano by ear involves a lot of different skills, each of which has to be built up to a reasonable level. Therefore, I’m revising my goal: Be able to play any song I know, fairly smoothly, by ear, with both hands, on the twentieth try. I think this is actually feasible (unlike my original unrealistic goal of 5 tries), and something I can still be satisfied with, but still a challenge.

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