Lucinda Mackworth-Young: “Piano by Ear”

Lucinda Mackworth-Young’s new book “Piano by Ear” fills a massive gap in the market. Here’s my review :

Quite simply this is the book that I, and no doubt many other thousands of pianists and teachers, have been waiting for. For years!

I even considered writing something like it myself at one point, back at the time my own Keyquest books for electronic keyboard were just out. But thank goodness – Lucinda Mackworth-Young has saved us all the effort, and has certainly done a far better job of it than I would ever have done!

“Piano by Ear” promises that the reader will “learn to play by ear, improvise and accompany songs in simple steps”. It comprises a large format 128 page ring-bound book, but (somewhat surprisingly for a book which aims to teach pianists to play by ear) there is no CD or accompanying audio material. It is one of those books where every single page manages to cram in loads of information without appearing crowded.

The quality and diverse appeal of the musical content, the concise and clear explanations, and general presentation throughout are faultless.

The first lesson page could I think be attempted by literally anyone. The player is encouraged to use the black keys only to work out the simple tune “Mary had a little lamb”, while musical concepts such as pulse, rhythm, upbeats and downbeats are introduced in their wholly musical context. Within a couple of pages, the player is able not only to play this melody by ear, but also to accompany themselves with the left hand.

The complete beginner would be unlikely to find a better place to start, while the seasoned classical musician who formerly depended on notation will find that the simplicity with which one can start playing by ear is incredibly refreshing.

Within a few pages however, conventional notation makes an unannounced entrance, and it becomes clear that the player really needs to be a music reader, or else be working with a teacher who will help them understand the written music. Lucinda’s introduction suggests the book is particularly aimed at those with some music reading ability, and I would say it is a perfect fit for that target market. There are of course many, many pianists who are confident readers, but who lack the skills to play by ear or from chord notation.

It is at this point that an included CD or online video content demonstrating different renditions of the same song would perhaps further broaden the appeal and use of the material. However, I am pleased to hear from Lucinda that to this end she will be creating a discussion page where further resources can be developed and shared on her webpage here »

As the book progresses it is, as promised, packed with easy and creative ideas to get any player improvising using pentatonic and blues scales, and using simple chord progressions to vamp accompaniments in a range of musical styles. By the second half of the book the player will have been introduced to modal scales, secondary chord substitutions, chromatic passing notes, modulations … even Arabian and Klezmer scales make an appearance.

This is material to be lived with and explored in depth. I can see that many of my older students in particular will enjoy working through the many songs and exercises alongside their notation-based learning over a period of months or even years. The joy of the approach is that with growing confidence one can revisit any part of the book and apply newly developed skills to previously learnt pieces.

This isn’t the book that will turn you into an accomplished jazz pianist overnight, but it does fulfil its clearly stated aims with clarity and aplomb. Indeed, I have never come across another book that covers this ground anywhere near so well, and Lucinda must be highly praised for an extraordinary and ground-breaking achievement.

Perhaps the most genuinely useful and important piano education resource published in a while, “Piano by Ear” is an absolutely essential purchase for every pianist. Be sure to get yourself a copy and dig in – you won’t regret it!

Published by

Andrew Eales

Andrew Eales is a pianist, writer and teacher based in Milton Keynes UK. He runs a successful independent teaching studio and music education business, Keyquest Music.

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