Which is better: reading music or playing by ear?

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I got an email today that highlights a problem I see all the time in church music.  Here are some excerpts:

Our church pianist plays ONLY by written music and couldn’t play “Happy Birthday” unless it was printed and sitting in front of her. I can run circles around her on the piano and both she and the music minister (who plays no instrument at all) are baffled at how I can sit down and play anything I want with just a lead sheet or nothing at all and reharmonize hymns on the fly with no printed music. At the same time however, they look down their nose at my skills and count them as worthless because I struggle to play written music exactly as written note for note.

While I can read the notes on both staves, I have never been able to find anyone who can explain to me how to “read” the notes quickly enough to be able to play written music at any accomplished or efficient level. I don’t play at my church anymore because I’ve been made to feel that my playing is inadequate. Is there any hope for me at this point?

The tension between musicians that play by ear and those that read is common in many churches.  It should not exist.  Both skills are important and both are valuable.

I think a lot of problems could be solved with showing a bit of respect.  An easy way to do this is to ask for help.  If you play by reading, ask for help from those that play by ear.  If you play by ear, ask for help from those that read.  The best way I know to make friends with a musician is to ask for their opinions and advice (within reason of course).

I am reminded of an email I got a few years ago from a woman who went to church with another pianist who played by ear.  She admired the pianist’s work and wrote me asking if I could help her play like that pianist.  I told her that if she wanted to play like that pianist, she should ask for help not from me but from that pianist.

When she responded, it became very clear that pride as well as an interpersonal problem kept her from asking for help.  That is a shame.  If she could get over her pride and ask for help, she would likely have a new friend.

But don’t just ask for help to show respect.  Ask for help to actually learn the other skill.  I firmly believe that all church pianists should learn to play by reading AND by ear.  And I am convinced that both are possible.

I do have a question though.  Does anyone know of a good resource for teaching people to learn to read music better?  I don’t focus on that here, and while I am aware that various methods exist, I don’t have enough experience with them to make recommendations.