I’ve developed a simple technique that has determined my ability to play by ear. No, I don’t “read music,” as such, but, from many years at the keyboard, I’ve learned to distinguish one note from the other. As for reading music, I wish I were fortunate enough to have taken lessons. It just wasn’t in the cards, I guess. I admire those who can. I admire, even more, those that can do both. Most of the “greats,” can.
My name is: Rick Testut . My Monica? Mr. Rick The Piano Man. My lament? “Have Piano Will Travel!”
I play the piano — by ear — and have done so for as long as I can remember. I was born into an Italian/Catholic family in Brooklyn, NY. My kid life was filled with mandolins; clarinets and an enormous ebony black Steinway concert grand piano harbored in the second floor music room grandmas’ three story house. Thanks to my aunt Jessie, (more about her later) I was immersed in the music of : Chopin; Bach, Brahms and Beethoven, masters of their trade, immortals, if you will. Unfortunately, my parents couldn’t afford to give me piano lessons and I certainly wasn’t allowed to even LOOK at that Steinway, let alone play it — at least not while anyone was around! I yurned to emulate the sounds of the piano I heard on the occasion that Aunt Jessie came to town. I was told she was a child prodigy. She toured the world, entertaining fans far and wide, from the age of about seventeen until her tragic death in Europe while on tour, from consumption (tuberculosis) in those days. (Commonly known as “The Black Plague.”) She was twenty – six.
On her infrequent visits to Brooklyn, I would sneak into grandmas’ bedroom separated from the music room by a set of glass handled pocket doors, and quietly inch them apart, trying to get a peek at whoever was making those wonderful sounds. Unfortunately, all I could see from my vantage point were a pair of white cloth shoe’s stepping up and down, back and forth between three golden pedals. Truth be known, I never knew the feet belonged to a “she” nor did I know they belonged to Aunt Jessie until many years after her untimely death. However, I DID notice, the absence of the sounds of the piano after they stopped. After that, all I had going for me were the sounds (harmonics) running around in my little kid head. Toward that end, whenever grandma was out of the house, I’d tip-toe into the forbidden zone, as it were, reach up to the keys and try emulating the sounds I heard in days gone by — playing by ear. The rest is history, as they say.
In the ensuing years, I became an entertainer, eventually playing far and wide from New York to Florida to Oregon. I played for the “boys” in many USO stations when I was in the 82nd. Airborne. I even did an eight day gig in the Chrystal Lounge on one of the Carnival Cruise Line ships, a temporary replacement for a vacationing piano player friend of mine. Now THAT was a great gig! Not bad for a guy that can’t read music, huh? What’s my mission now a days? To help guide people in ways of possibly learning to play by ear, like I do, my way of “giving back”, if you will. I’ve detailed one of my “secrets” below, for you to “test” your potential, if you’d like. Who knows? Maybe, you, too, can fill your life from stem to stern (no pun!) with the joyous wonders of music, just like me. You might say, I’m passing the baton. My legacy?
Got a keyboard or piano of any kind? Grab a chair, pencil and paper and a helper. Seat yourself about five or six feet from the keyboard, — with your back to it! (Yes, that’s right!) Get your “helper” to strike a note somewhere in the middle of it–black or white, their choice. Listen, closely. (No peeking, now!) You might wish to identify two coluums: one as “higher” the other, “lower” on your paper. Next, have your “helper” strike a DIFFERENT note, higher or lower then the last — listen carefully. Determine if it was, either a higher or lower sounding note then the last one. Repeat the exercise several times. Keep score. How many times did you “get it right?” If you got 75% or more–you’re on track! Start connecting various notes. Keep it up and you will soon know what “harmonics” can do for you. It works for me.
Although there are different levels of achievement and application of this theory, you’ll have a pretty good idea if you’d like to pursue them.
By the way, before I leave you, I have one question. Can you sing, whistle or hum Happy Birthday–in TUNE? (another clue!) If so, you’re on your way! Mr. Rick (Thank you, Aunt Jessie.)