Playing by ear is not just about replicating a phrase. It’s also about memorizing a melody which is half of the battle. That is why many students find it difficult to learn by ear at a workshop. You are hearing a tune for the first time. Think about when a new song comes on the radio. Initially, you don’t have all the words. But as you hear it more and more, you start singing the entire tune without even realizing that you’ve learned it. The same thing works for learning by ear on an instrument. Having the tune in your head for a while is a much easier way to learn.
In my workshops, I usually have my classes sing the tunes before we play them. Singing through the whole tune, as opposed to learning a small section at a time tends to help commit it to memory faster because you have the context of the whole tune. This is helpful when you do learn smaller sections becasue you will know where you are in the tune.
It’s interesting to think how our perception of a tune changes each time we listen to it. I was just teaching at a workshop this past weekend and something very interesting happend. As we were singing through the tune, I heard a few people singing the tune differently then what it was. What they were singing sounded like a variation. Their perception of that phrase was different than the actual melody. And of course when we played it through, they played it the way they sang it. So singing the tune and getting it into our heads is sometimes more difficult than it seems. So after you’ve had a tune in your head for a while, listen to yourself very closely against the melody when you sing it to see if you are hearing something differently. If you hear something different, then fix it in your voice first. Then you will most likely get it right when you play it on your instrument.
Also, when you make more time to listen this way- without your instrument-you allow yourself to listen to more things about the music itself; phrasing and articultion, grace notes, etc- because you aren’t concentrating so hard on getting the notes right.
So the next time you feel pressed for time to practice, try listening on the go. It’s just as valueable practice time.