Ear-hand coordination

Insightful multi-instrumentalist Don McFall refers to the issue of playing from sheet music or playing ‘by ear.’

…I have a “pet peeve” with people — let alone “musicians” talking about “Playing by EAR”!

1st of all, I have never seen someone strumming their guitar; playing glissandi on a piano; nor blowing a trumpet with their “EAR”!!! (literally, it just doesn’t make sense!)

And it doesn’t make sense cognitively either.  When I play my instrument using sheet music — I still have to ‘use my ear’ to hear whether I’m playing the right stuff or not!!!

But when I don’t play with music — I’m actually using my “mind’s ear” (much like using one’s “mind’s eye” to SEE something which doesn’t exist to the naked eye).  I have developed what I shall term: Ear/Hand coordination = much like Eye/Hand coordination, which is why ‘sports people’ get good at what they do.


Not only was I given the gift of music by my parents; but I was also raised with so much music in our household to the point of being taken to musicals as a child; and my sister and I would sing the songs we heard in ONE performance of that show.  As children, we would be swinging in our backyard; an singing at the top of our lung capacity because those musicals filled us with MUSIC.

As a boy soprano in an all men and boys choir, I would learn the music we had to sing for the Sunday services by going over and over it with the choir.  And that was a combination of hearing it as well as looking at the music as written.  I learned to sing in Latin by rote memory — although I didn’t have much of a clue as to what the words meant!!!

Years later in the State College Choral Society, it was quite easy for me to learn the musical performance we were doing in Russian; and I didn’t even need the book to sing from since I had memorized the music from having taped it at rehearsals; and then listened to it daily while working for Centre Builders.  (The boss, Dan, was the one who literally “paid my way” into the Choral Society, i.e., he paid my dues and for my music just because he enjoyed singing so much).

Now, I mainly consider myself a “string” player = violin; viola; cello; bass; mandolin; goardolin; banjo 4 or 5 string; bowed psaltry; you name it — I probably own/play it!  But I started ‘instrument-wise’ with the drums.  Had 6 months under my belt when my Mom said: “Son, drum lessons are $5 and violin lessons are $2.50 — you’re taking the fiddle!”  Yet in school, I was going through all the brasses = trumpet; cornet; E flat mellophone; baritone horn; tuba; and sousaphone.  And I also own and play several different kinds of flutes; but not ‘professionally’ yet.

My Mother said that I could sing before I could talk.  And all the relatives in either her or my Father’s side of the family played an instrument.  In fact, my Uncle’s family would play every weekend; and the local phone operator would call around to the other families on her switchboard to tell them the Kokagee family was about to play; and they could leave their phones off the hook in order to listen to the concert!!!

My theory is: “If you can hear the melody in your head, you can play it on your instrument; but it takes practice!” (And everyone knows how to get to Carnegie Hall — Practice; Practice; Practice!).  One of the most difficult to teach students I ever had the pleasure to teach was a fellow who thought EVERY song sounded like “America.”  No one played music in his family — neither instrument nor radio, nor phonograph — nothing!!!  He had a “tin ear.”  Yet he was able to play at every performance with the band I formed — because he practiced with passion.  The second year he played in my band, he said: “You know Don, last year it was so much easier to remember songs.  Someone would say ‘Play something’ and I would go through the 12 songs I knew.  But now that I know over 200 songs, it’s difficult to remember what song to start with.”

I’m willing to bet that if a guy with a “Tin Ear” can learn to play an instrument and sing — that a person who reads music can, more easily, learn to PLAY without the aid of written notes.  But that person has to ‘want’ to do it; and take a lot of ‘baby steps’ before it will actually happen; and sound like “what they want.”  It doesn’t happen IMMEDIATELY.  Yet given the chance, can grow!  And also remembering — “What you ‘say’ IS.”  That is, if you DO NOT believe it — it can’t happen — since you Get what you Think you Get!

—  submitted by Don McFall

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One Response to “Ear-hand coordination”

  1. Ear-hand coordination Says:

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