I distinctly remember my first solo driving experience. It was dusk. It was disconcerting to be the only person in a moving vehicle for the first time in my life. Much about the experience was foreign to me, to be sure, but I was not worried about getting lost. I was headed to a youth symphony rehearsal, and it was a route I had ridden at least a hundred times before. I knew where to turn, I knew when to signal, and I knew when to change lanes.
Thank goodness I knew the route so well, because while I had had plenty of practice driving on my learners permit, the actual skills of driving - how much weight to apply to the pedals, how soon to apply the breaks, how to keep a safe following distance, how to turn on the wipers - while I could execute them successfully, were by no means second nature. They required quite a bit of mental energy.
If instead I had been unfamiliar with my destination, and had to remember a complex set of directions in order ("Turn right at the second stop sign. When you see the bank with the purple sign turn left. Get into the center lane." etc.), in addition to thinking about basic driving skills, in addition to being distracted by the eerie silence of a car that doesn't have other people in it, I might easily have gotten lost, or worse, had an accident.
The route to youth symphony rehearsal was one I knew by heart, because I had lived it many, many times, even if not in the sense that I had driven it myself. I was therefore able to focus on my driving and to arrive safely, and without incident. I was also able to enjoy my new-found independence.
A child learning by ear to play a piece of music, should have a similar experience. While it might take a lot of concentration (a tremendous amount in the beginning stages of learning the piece) to execute the technical skills that the piece demands, it should not be difficult to remember how the piece goes.
Unfortunately, people often confuse the concept of learning by ear with the concept of learning by rote - a misconception of which I too have been guilty in the past. Too often a teacher will say "this week please learn to pluck first phrase of Go Tell Aunt Rhody," and then the parent in the practice session at home sits down with the child and says "okay, play F-sharp, F-sharp, E, D, D . . . " or worse "play '3, 3, 1, D, D." This is completely understandable of course. For one thing, at first such an approach can seem very successful. If you say "play 3, 3, 1, D, D" and your daughter plucks the = D string, with the correct number of fingers down for each note, then she got it right. For another thing, she did it without reading the music, and after all, isn't that what it it means to learn by ear?
The process of learning by ear is one in which the child uses the skills and knowledge available to him to figure out how to play on the instrument a piece that he already knows by heart. The child figures it out. The child does the work of discovering the right answers. The parent's role is not to provide the answers, but to help guide him to it with helpful questions ("is the next note higher or lower or the same?", "does that match the song in your head?", "is it a step or a skip?"), and of course to provide encouragement. Then it is the parent's job to say, "Great job! You figured out how to play the first five notes. Now let's see if you can do it six times in a row."
In the first days (and sometimes weeks) of learning a piece by ear, the process looks much messier than learning by rote. Trial and error often generates a lot of frustration on the student's part, and it is often hard for a parent to watch. Again, it's completely understandable when a parent just wants to give a kid the answer, because that seems easier for everyone. The problem is that when we do the work of learning for the child, then the child doesn't learn, at least not as well.
When you find yourself saying to your child "come on, Suzie, you had this yesterday," ask yourself how you worked on it with her yesterday. Did she figure it out herself with your guidance, or did you feed her answers? If she's having trouble remembering it today, it could very well be that she simply needs a lot more repetitions of it (24 hours is a long time for a small child - plenty of time to forget things). But it is easier to remember something one has figured out for oneself than to remember a set of instructions that came from someone else.
That struggle, even the frustration of getting it wrong, is important. It's where the bulk of the learning happens. Kid's need support and encouragement as they go through the process of struggle, and then once they've arrived at the solution, they need plenty of opportunities to repeat their success (a child whose practice consists of only struggle and no progress will eventually not want to continue). But they also need to struggle to figure it out. As Dr. Suzuki famously said, "A child can fail at 500 times, but succeed at five thousand."
So the distinction between learning by ear and learning by rote is a simple one: learning by rote may seem easier, but it isn't actually learning at all. It may consist of giving a child information (though not nearly enough to be as successful as he can be) but it does not consist of developing a skill that the child can use again. Learning by ear is about skill development.
What can you do to make the process of learning by ear go more smoothly and easily?
1. Listen several times in a row to the reference recording of the piece right before starting to figure it out in a practice session.
2. Allow your child to start listening way ahead of time to pieces that he will learn in the future (at least a year ahead is ideal).
3. When your child has figured out a little bit, give her the chance to play that little bit several times, so that it starts to become easy.
4. Be patient, especially when your child is not being patient.
5. Be willing to say "We've figured out enough for today, and we'll work on it some more tomorrow."
You don't have to learn the whole thing all at once.
The bottom line is, when a child knows a piece by heart and then learns to play it by ear, she can play more beautifully and more successfully because she does not have to worry about how the piece goes, and can therefore focus on the skills needed to play it well. She also knows more about the piece. She knows what it sounds like when played in tune, with a beautiful tone, and elegant phrasing, and she can work toward those things when she plays it herself.