Playing piano by ear has always been essential in a pianist’s tools-of-the-trade.
I had to play by ear many a times in my pianistic life; for example, a day before a concert when I was requested to accompany two traditional songs for a singer, or when I was asked to accompany a ballet dancer to the music of “Blue Danube” on the spot, or, when a student of mine came in class once and hummed a tune, demanding I should find the left hand accompaniment for it. The examples are plenty.
However, the question is: do we need to play by ear? Is it an essential musical skill? Can it be taught? The answer to all of those questions is of course, yes.
I believe that, in a way, we have an inherent ability to play music by ear; we always did. In order to instill the playing-by-ear skill I use a very simple method with my students. Firstly, I ask them to name a simple tune that they are familiar with; for instance, the “Jingle Bells”. Then, I tell them to hum or whistle it a bit. After that, I ask them if they could clap the rhythm and state the time of the piece, if possible. The next part, is to play the first couple of notes rhythmically with the right hand, assisting them by asking if they think the next note is ascending or descending. Of course, there’s the left hand as well; so after a while, you start by playing simple chords, then moving to broken chords and then slowly learning how to play different patterns and rhythms as well. Gradually, students manage to built confidence and start finding the next part of the piece by themselves. The secret here is to start the training by using a simple piece with a distinct melody.
I think that playing by ear is an indispensable tool in pianism. Composers use it to express their musical ideas on paper, and it has helped pianists to lead a more “complete” pianistic career. Unquestionably, playing by ear should be taught in every stage of a musician’s life, from the elementary lessons to conservatoire level.
Playing by ear can also help a pianist out-of-the-woods in a concert setting; when for instance the muscular, or visual memory of a piece let us down, we can resort to just play along and save an otherwise difficult situation.
Now, can you just play by ear and still be considered a good pianist? Well, I think yes, you can. Play by ear in itself will eventually assist one’s practical side of musical performance. To put it simply, by “understanding” how a melody sounds it will eventually show us the way to physically express it (play it). However, sound knowledge of technique, with the help of a professional piano teacher, will undoubtedly make things much easier and can accelerate one’s musical potential.
So, little by little, start to teach yourself, if no other way is available, to play by ear; anyone can do it, we shouldn’t be intimidated. The benefits of it will show sooner or later.