Below are three things that I look for during lessons to discover if a student is predominantly an ear player:
Ask the student if he or she likes to make songs up. Sometimes students are excited to show what they can play by ear but others won’t offer that information until asked because they are shy. Ask a parent if their child likes to play around on the keyboard at home, whether by composing original music or by playing familiar tunes. If the answer is “yes,” there is a good indication that the child has a keen musical ear.
(Note that memorizing sheet music is different that hearing something from a cd or the radio and copying it on the piano without any helps. The child that memorizes may not be an ear player, but the child who copies songs without music is most likely an ear player.)
Discover how a student learns his or her pieces. If a student struggles and struggles through a piece until they hear it played from the teacher (at which point the student plays amazingly better!), they most likely are relying on their hearing rather than on the printed music. I once received a good piece of advice: Do not play an ear player’s musical piece for them as an example. Force the students to discover how the music sounds for themselves without any helps!
Be on the lookout for rhythmic deficiencies. Although ear players tend to get creative in their rhythms, I tell students to play exactly what is written on the sheet. Playing precise rhythm is very important and students need to have a good understanding of note values, time signatures and strong/weak beats. It is all right, however, to sometimes change the note durations in method books to suit a student’s rhythm. For example, sometimes an ear player adds a dotted rhythm. The teacher can make two crotchets (quarter notes) into one dotted crotchet + one quaver (eighth note) by adding a dot to the first crotchet and then adding a quaver line onto the other crotchet. This should only be an occasional variation, however, and it is a good opportunity to explain the theory of dotted rhythms.
If you are a parent and notice that your child enjoys making pieces up, develop this skill by encouraging the child to play pieces by ear and to learn theory very well. If you are a piano student and you notice that you have an aptitude in hearing the intervals that make up songs, continue playing by ear and getting more proficient in this area of music. If you are a teacher, feel free to comment below on ways that you’ve discovered ear players during lessons.