I'd like to share my philosophy on teaching music and why I do it the way I do.
I believe strongly in the intuitive process of learning music by ear. I also believe in the beauty and the positive power of traditional, cultural roots music. How many people do you know who grew up going to piano lessons for years express that they cannot play, or feel frustrated that they can't enjoy playing anything without "the music" in front of them? I have met many, many, of these people and I was one of them myself! I grew up reading music notation exclusively, without developing enough ear skills to enjoy playing fluently without sheet music, but as a young adult I discovered a different way. Now, I am passionate about spreading the joy of playing fluently by ear to musicians who already read or to budding musicians who are just beginning their musical adventure.
Something else I discovered as a young adult is the beauty and power of traditional roots music (also called "trad" or folk music). Learning roots music by ear is incredibly rewarding in and of itself and is also a strong foundation on which to build more technically complex musical skills later, like classical or jazz if the musician so desires. Roots music is something that is so enriching, fun, simple in its form but complex in its style, that it naturally builds confidence and enthusiasm in a budding musician. Also, learning a tune by ear is an almost certain guarantee that the player will not forget how to play it.
Traditional songs and tunes are not just great for ear training. They are a magical way to connect with one's cultural heritage and with any culture that one finds fascinating or beautiful. I celebrate my Irish heritage with my Celtic fiddle tunes and songs, but I also greatly enjoy the music of my homeland, the US, with Appalachian tunes, Cajun tunes and gospel songs, as well as European and Mediterranean folk dance music. At some point I ask my students "What are your family roots? Would you like to explore the traditional music of your heritage?" There are distinctive nuances in every cultural music which are impossible to convey in music notation, and ear skills are crucial in clearly understanding and re-creating these beautiful subtleties.
Learning roots music by ear does not sabotage a student's ability to develop music literacy, it helps it. Take my current student, Megan, 14, for example.
She glided into first chair, first violin in her middle school string program after 3 years of fiddle with me. In addition to developing good tone and intonation in her lessons with me, skills which serve the fiddler and the classical violinist, her well developed ear skills helped her become a strong reader rather quickly. She knew the language of music, so reading the notes was a comfortable next step for her. Similarly, children who are fluent in their native language learn to read it without great hardship. Megan was able to enjoy playing in school orchestra AND enjoy the fun of jamming on fiddle tunes at house parties and family celebrations- no sheet music in sight! Our current project in her fiddle lessons is exploring the amazing and rich Scandinavian music of her heritage.
Reading music is an essential skill to anyone who wants to be a classical player or professional jazz musician, but ask anyone who is accomplished at these genres and they will tell you that ear skills are incredibly important to being a fluent player. Once a player learns how to use his ear effectively, learning almost always becomes very self-directed, passionate, and rewarding because of the self-confidence that is developed. Some people aren't aware of the many, many brilliant musicians who never read music at all: Django Reinhardt (Jazz), Dewey Balfa (Cajun), and Joe Craven (Jazz/Roots), Wes Montgomery (Jazz), Ray Charles (R&B), to name a few.
Both of my sons, Mickey (18) and Moses (17) play a technically complex form of music, Gypsy Jazz. But their dad and I started them out, and they continue to grow, as roots musicians who play by ear: Blues, Appalachian and Irish roots music have combined to make a fantastic foundation for their jazz playing. As a testament to our teaching methods, as well as his own dedication, Mickey was recently accepted to the Berklee School of Music in Boston, one of the premier jazz music schools in the nation, which, incidentally, recently started a roots music program. This esteemed and highly regarded music college understands the value of traditional music, and so do we!
I know I do things a bit differently than a lot of music teachers, but learning by ear is FUN, traditional music is rewarding, and both are great foundations for (or additions to!) more sophisticated musical styles and music literacy.