Lora Staples - beginning violin and fiddle expert

Playing by Ear - Part 2

Learn more secrets of playing by ear on the violin

In this second video of a three-part series, Lora approaches the typical practice of identifying and playing a tune from your head. What's the easiest, most effective way to do this?

Released on August 6, 2014

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DISCLAIMER: The views and the opinions expressed in this video are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Virtual Sheet Music and its employees.

Video Transcription

Now, let's talk about picking out a tune from your head.

So, when you're learning a tune just out of your head...It's a tune that you've sung your whole life. You know it really well in your head. You just want to figure out how to play it on your instrument.

The tricky part with doing it that way is knowing what note to start on. That's probably the biggest obstacle of playing a tune by ear from your head. Because if you just start on some random pitch, you could end up in a really weird key.

Kind of like when I sang the interval of the major third. I just picked a note out of my head and I sang a major third above it, and I ended up with B and D sharp. So, I was in some sharp key.

So what you need to do is just start, and learn the first phrase on your instrument, and then stop and ask yourself "Am I able to play any open strings in this. Or, do I feel like every note is flat, has a flat sign by it? Or, do I feel like I have to sharp every note?"

Are you in weird finger patterns, or does it feel pretty normal to other pieces that you've played? That's pretty basic, but you'll know. If you're in a crazy key, you'll know.

The general rule of thumb is you want to be able to play open strings if you choose to. If there's no open strings in any of the notes that you're playing, you're probably in a weird key. And, if you find that you're in a weird key, you're going to have to shift what you're hearing in your head by a half step and try starting a half step higher or a half step lower.

Or, just try starting the tune on an open string - sometimes that can help - or on just a really common note like a third finger, one of your ringy third fingers. Just try starting on a really normal, comfortable note and change key in your head.

That can be a little difficult after you've been hearing it in one key, so here's what I'd do. Pick a new pitch. If you were starting 'Happy Birthday' on...let's say you started it on second finger... And, it's feeling really weird but you can't help it. That's how you hear it. And, If you start on this note, you can't hear 'Happy Birthday.'

So, what you'd do to change keys is play this note and then sing it. That'll help you change keys in your head. And then...

That's still an awkward key. I can think of a better key that I could play that in. You'll get better and better at isolating and figuring out whether you're in a good key or not in a good key. It just takes practice and, unfortunately, trial and error.

Okay, I don't know of a better way. If anyone out there knows a better way of settling on a beginning key, please share with us.

One other way that you could help yourself to start on a good note is to listen to a common recording, preferably one of fiddle. Because if you listen to trumpet, or clarinet, or saxophone, or some other instrument playing your piece, it's likely that it's going to be in a key that's comfortable for that instrument, not so much for the violin.

If you can, find a violin recording and just get your starting note. And then, you can play it. You can figure it out from your head from there.

So, with that in mind, there's been a song that I have been wanting to learn for a while. I took a long drive to Flagstaff and back listening to it, studying it, kind of doing my ear training thing. I've sort of got it in my head. The rough draft is in my head.

I don't have perfect pitch, so I have no idea what key Dixie Chicks play this tune. But, I'm just going to go based on what feels comfortable on the violin. And I'll try to pick a good key, and then, I'll go back to the recording and compare and see how I did.

Okay, the song is 'Ready to Run.' It's just one I wanted to learn for a while, so I started it. This is cold turkey.

Okay, I know it's something like that. When you're figuring out a tune, try to find the beat and let the beat guide you.

You can sort of tell I'm kind of faking it, because I haven't really listened carefully to all the specific notes. I'm just trying to get the skeletal structure there with the main beats meeting on the right notes. That's the beginning part with fiddle and whistle.

There's a surprise note in there that throws me off every time. I'll show you where it is.

Right here. It's just odd. It's going to take some practicing for me to get used to that. That's why I keep hesitating every time I'm on that note. It's just surprising to me every time.

Okay, so that's the fiddle whistle. Then, the singer comes in. If I'm in that key she comes in. Ready, ready, ready.

Then, there's that...The main singer holds this, and the upper harmony goes...

Okay. Let me go listen to the recording really quick. We'll see how I did and what key they're actually playing it in.

Okay, so, violinistically, I had the fingers correct because I know what's comfortable on the violin. I just had it on the wrong string. I should've known that, because it was too high for that vocalist to have sung that comfortably. I should've known that I was in a key that was too high. They were in this key.

It's the same fingers. It's just a string off.

All right. Most of my work is done. I just have to move it over a string.

That's the basic approach to learning a tune from your head. Like I said, the hardest part is settling on what key you're going to be in, which translates to what your starting note is. Because your starting note will determine what key you're in.

Save yourself some trouble and listen to a recording and start on a good solid beginning note. Or, if you want to go through the pains of trial and error, you know what? You'll learn a lot from doing it that way as well.

All right. Next video we'll talk about learning from a recording, and learning to copy and imitate that recording. I'll see you there.
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Comments, Questions, Requests:

Jarl * VSM MEMBER * on August 27, 2014 @6:51 pm PST
In your second vid you ask how we decide on a starting note when playing a tune that's in your head. I find the first interval in the song. If it is a half step, I start on a high two position on whatever string sounds right. If it's a whole step or more, I start on either a third finger or an open string. Then if I need to switch keys (e.g., I want the string drones, or I have to know it in a key that others play it in), I listen to the cd and match the notes they are playing. I know this part is weird, but I have to have the fiddle notes softer than the notes in my head. So usually I pluck the notes until I have them down. If I start by bowing, I can't hear what's in my head.
Lora * VSM MEMBER * on August 28, 2014 @10:21 am PST
That's not weird, Jarl, it is very interesting that the notes in your head have "volume"! LOL...I never thought about it, but it's true....we can drown out the volume in our head if we aren't careful!

I really like your idea of identifying the intervals in the first few notes, and allowing hand position to help find a good key. Brilliant!
Jarl * VSM MEMBER * on August 11, 2014 @10:23 am PST
I'm just a beginner, so if I have the music on cd, for example, I just listen to it with fiddle in hand and play some chords until I find the key. Then note finding is pretty easy. If I don't have an audio, I start in my "go to" keys (easiest to play): G, D, A, C or their related minors.
Lora * VSM MEMBER * on August 12, 2014 @7:16 pm PST
Hi Jarl!
That sounds like the approach of a competent guitar player! I bet you have guitar background? Anyway, it's a great way to try to figure out the key! This is great to get other people's tactics!
Jarl * VSM MEMBER * on August 13, 2014 @6:00 pm PST
Yep, guitar. It's a stretch for me to be trying a primarily-melody instrument like the fiddle. That's another reason why I love the chord stuff you teach - it helps thte transition a lot.
Al Colombo * VSM MEMBER * on August 6, 2014 @5:53 am PST
Hi Lora,
You have a very complicated way of finding a comfortable key to play a by "ear" piece. It is not very difficult.
Try this approach: Think in terms of Do Re Mi, etc.. The song melody usually ends on "DO," so all you need to do is find the relationship of the starting note to "DO"...the key of the song. (It could be an interval of a 3rd, 5th, 2nd, same pitch, etc.)
After you determine the interval, you simply the key that "you want.'
Example: The song--"You Are My Sunshine." Hum the ending phrase: (Doesn't matter what pitch you start on, not important now) "Please Don't Take My Sunshine Away."
Simply retain the last pitch ( the "way' pitch of "Away."Winky Face, hum it if you like. Then start humming the beginning of the song. The pitch to the word "YOU" is held momentarily, and then the other pitch for "way" (the prior pitch for "DO"Winky Face is compared. The result is the syllable "SO." In other words a perfect 5th.
The rest is a piece of cake.
You decide which key you want. Start on note D for the key of G. If you don't like the way the finger patterns feel, try another key. Perhaps start on C for the key of F.
You can try as many keys as you like and the one that feels most comfortable to you. You know the song starts on "SO" or the 5th tone of the key scale.
Actually, when I'm gigging, I like to play a song in a couple of keys, for variety of sound and range. Knowing what interval to start on makes it easy to modulate to another key.
I know the above sounds "wordy" and looks like a lot, but it really isn't. Try it, Good luck.

Lora * VSM MEMBER * on August 8, 2014 @1:48 pm PST
Hi Al!
Hey! I really really like your idea! Thanks for taking the time to describe it!
Marvin Conrad * VSM MEMBER * on August 27, 2014 @3:46 pm PST
Ah, to know the reasons "Why!" Anyway, You can play in any key that suits you. The very last note of the song is almost always the "Key note." Like Al says, hum the last phrase once or twice. Then hold the last note. If you want to re-key the song, stroke the pitch that you want, and adjust the last phrase to end on that pitch.
If you have a score of the piece and want to transpose it into a better place, count the number of steps (up/down) away from the last note to where you want to play it; and adjust the first note to start that many steps away from the place it's currently scored. I'm sure this doesn't always work, but it always has for me with religious music. I don't know why, but so far, sharps and flats in the original key signature can be ignored so long as you know the melody.
Lora * VSM MEMBER * on August 28, 2014 @9:58 am PST
I love these ideas. Thanks for your input! :-)
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