034 – How to Teach Students to Play Happy Birthday By Ear

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Episode Summary

Give your students the gift of being able to play “Happy Birthday” by ear anywhere and at any time. Someday they’ll thank you!!


Items Mentioned


Welcome to episode #34 of the piano pantry podcast! Today is a bit of a special day as I have been holding out on the topic of how to teach students to play happy birthday by ear for the past few weeks. I was going to do it back on episode #32 when I realized this episode would get published on Tuesday, August 30 – MY birthday! The stars were aligned too perfectly – I HAD to wait.

This is a topic that is near and dear to my heart because I was one of those people who frequently experienced the crippling feeling of not be able to play Happy Birthday with confidence anywhere and at any time. While I had wonderful teachers growing up, I don’t recall ever learning the tune or even broaching the subject of how to play by ear or improvise. I am not shy to admit that I was WELL into adulthood before I really learned to play the tune with complete confidence.

I just KNEW it didn’t have to be as hard as it felt for ME growing up and was determined to do better for my students. Working through that process of how to teach my students this tune is ultimately what made it click even for ME, strengthening my own skills in the process.

In this episode I will walk you through a progressive approach you can use when teaching students to play this tune but ultimately, the goal is that the process is something you can apply when teaching any pieces of music by ear.

Welcome to the Piano Pantry Podcast where together we live life as independent music teachers. I’m your host, Amy Chaplin. In this space we talk about all things teacher-life related from organizing our studios to getting dinner on the table and all that comes between. You’ll get loads of easily-actionable tips on organizing and managing your studio while balancing life and home.

I don’t think it’s probably necessary for me to spend much time trying to convince you that enabling all of your piano students to be able to play Happy Birthday is an incredibly valuable goal. If your experience was anything close to mine growing up, you know the crippling feeling that comes when you can’t fill an improptu request because you don’t have notation in front of you. If playing by ear comes very naturally to you, that’s amazing but even so we still have to consider the best way of enabling our students to do so in a way that is sustainable. So, let’s just agree that there is value in piano students being able to play this song with confidence without music anywhere and at anytime.

The approach that might seem like the easiest, is for them to learn the song using notation whether that be an arrangement or from a leadsheet, and then memorize it. While that is certainly doable in the short-term, when we commit a piece to memory from notation, it has to be frequently reviewed or eventually they WILL forget it. It’s not exactly a reliable long-term strategy. This makes me thing about the old Proverb I’m sure you’ve heard a million times “If you give a man a fish you feed him for a day, if you teach a man to fish you will feed him for a lifetime.” So, then, how do we teach our students to fish rather than just GIVING them the fish when it comes to this tune and hearing music with understanding in general?

The first important element is to approach the process without using music notation.

Remember, first and foremost we want our students to be able to do this in the future and if they learn it first by looking at the notation, they will ultimately feel like that’s what they need. We’re working toward how to THINK music for easier future recall. Notice I didn’t say to hear music in our heads – that is, recalling the sound of something we already know, but literally hearing the music in our minds and applying understanding and meaning. If you’ve ever heard the term audiation, THAT’S what it means. It’s not about simply replaying or imitating a song in our mind, but about understanding elements that put it together. So, try to work through the process without notation.

The second important element is to approach the process in regards to groups and patterns rather than individual beats, pitches, or invervals.

I remember in my days of young adulthood trying to figure out how to play by ear and literally pulling from what I knew in ear training classes, trying to hear every individual rhythmic beat and every individual interval. OK…

sing start of happy birthday….

up a step and then down a step, up a fourth, down a step, and so forth but if we compare music to speech. We don’t think or speak in individual words but in complete thoughts and sentences.

Music is comprised of patterns whether they be rhythmic patterns such as…

tonal patterns – that is, key pitches within a melody that outline a harmonic function such as…

or harmonic patterns – that is, the foundation of the tune – the chord roots such as…

The third important element is to approach the process by realizing students don’t learn to audiate overnight and it’s OK to give them little non-musical memory cues along the way.

Some of the little tips I use are the kinds of things that helped me remember as well. If teaching students to play by ear is new to you, it’s OK to stumble along the way. I applaud you for taking the step to do so. Ultimately, the end goal is to begin making our best efforts to guide students in how to hear music and apply meaning to what they’re hearing. So, no shame in non-musical tips and clues.

What I want to do now is talk through the process as if I were doing this with a student.

Key of G – F#

Doesn’t have to be in the exact order and we don’t actually sing the song as many times as it probably sounded like we did in this example. It’s very easy to quickly recall a tune in quick time

The start of the school year is a great time to build a habit of working on this tune studio-wide. I’ve been faithfully incorporating this tune into our first week of lessons for 3-5 years now and each year I get even more excited seeing students remember how to play it. Even the ones who didn’t think they remembered it…once they started to play are able to pick it out pretty quickly.

I will say that even when I have students who remember how to play it, I think it’s still important to always take the time to quickly talk through and review what they’re hearing. It only takes a few minutes to talk through the meter, tonality, resting tone, starting tone, phrases, repeated rhythm patterns, up beats, tonal patterns and melodic outline, and harmonic patterns.

Once students can play the melody with chord root accompaniment – that is, a single note – the doors can come wide open.

The next step I like adding in is an introduction and ending, of course always talking through why we use the dominant chord to start (because it’s “alive” and needs to go somewhere) and the tonic chord for the ending (because we want it to sound finished).

I keep telling my kids over and over. You are some day going to thank me for making sure you can play this song. Believe me – when the moment comes you will be thankful.

This is such a wonderful enrichening activity to include in your studio annually, if you have never done, so I hope you will consider taking the step toward teaching this song to all of your piano students. Even if you don’t teach the melody, but simply teach them to chord along in sing-along fashion – it’s wonderful. Have them play root position or close position chords in the right hand and chord root octaves in the left hand. Add in some pedal, and introduction and an ending on the dominant and tonic chords and they have a solid accompaniment to pull out of their back pocket anywhere and at any time.

If you would like a little more tangible help incoporating this into your studio, I do have a resource available in the shop at Piano Pantry.com that will walk you and your students through this exact process we’ve talked about today. It even includes some lead sheet notation as a reference if that makes you more comfortable to start.

As a thank you for listening in today, for one month only – that from now until September 30, 2022, you can get 10% off my Happy Birthday By Ear product over at PianoPantry.com by entering the code 34TAKE10 that’s in all caps 34TAKE10 and I’ll put that in the show notes for you as well.

Stay tuned clear to the end of the episode for a funny story related to our topic at hand today. I promise it’s worth your time.

Next week on episode #35 I’ll bring you the 7th Teacher Talk episode. Who will it be? It’s a surprise!

If you enjoy and want to support the podcast, taking a moment to rate and review is the best way you can say thank you back to me. If you need help with how, jump over to pianopantry.com/podcast/ and I’ll show you.

If you’re online, you can connect with me instagram at amychaplinpiano or on facebook at piano pantry.

Visit the blog at PianoPantry.com where you can find several resources on playing by ear including Happy Birthday By Ear, Christmas By Ear, and 147 Tunes to Harmonize.

Today’s fun fact is a funny story related to the topic at hand – birthdays.

When I turned 31, I looked at my husband and said with kind of a sad voice “I’m offically in my 30’s”. Of course, he looks at me in confusion and says “babe, I hate to break it to you but you’ve been in your 30’s for an entire year already.”

“But no” I said, “you see when I was 30, the number was still touching the 20’s so I felt like I was still in my 20’s but now that I’m 31 I’m fully into it, no questions asked.

My husband thinks this is absolutely hilarious, frequently recalling the story of how I like to reimagine my age to people when he has the chance.

So, I don’t have troubles with the 0 numbers, 20, 30, 40. It’s those pesky 1’s 21, 31, 41.

Please, someone sympathise with me. It’s a valid argument, right?!