I find that my move into looking for payment has involved a move both into and away from the classical sphere in one sense. This is the sense in which classical = played as it’s written on the page. A bad definition but a strong association, particularly I think for non-classical players and writers.
On the way in, dep jobs, if I get them, require learning music which may not be recorded anywhere in the form to be played, from music, by yourself, quickly – so as to be ready to perform after one fairly short rehearsal (well, short compared to the length of the gig anyway). I haven’t done much of this for a while and I’m more or less new to it on viola (with its different clef to violin or anything else I previously played!), so it’s a bit of a step up compared to either more flexible self-written gigging band parts or scored music with much longer rehearsal times and recycling of material between performances.
But moving into the money world also involves learning songs from demos in advance of practices, because rehearsal time is precious and you don’t want to spend it repeating chord progressions to each other. That’s even in originals bands, where as a fiddle player I generally have the luxury of making up my own parts and so only needing to grasp the bare bones of a song. Head over to the (on average) rather more lucrative world of function/cover bands, and you’re in a different world. Here you can get sent a Youtube link and asked to learn the song – implicitly including at least fairly accurately fiddle lines if there are any and breaks/solos if they’re quite melodic and integral to the song, as they often are in folk – in order, again, to practise it from a prepared place. In other words, it involves what I think is the real meaning of the often loosely used phrase ‘playing by ear’. If you’re looking at function gigs and also doing a couple of projects (even if you think they may not all work out), you can also need such a repertoire in such a time period that the learning speed needs to be not that different to that for written classical parts (even if the technical standard is usually less demanding).
I’ve thought of myself (with others’ general agreement) as a good sight-reader for a long while. But until fairly recently I would have said that I didn’t do playing by ear at all – from memory yes, from chords yes (including playing follow the rhythm guitarist’s left hand), writing my own parts yes, improvising yes, but relying seeing or being told the musical structure somewhere near the start of the process.
Well, I suppose you learn to do what you need to do. (Provided you have quite a ‘young’ brain that’s still used to learning anyway.) There are shortcuts such as chords to practically every song imaginable sitting around the web, and databases of traditional tunes – but either may be in the wrong key, or inaccurate, or the version to be covered may diverge from them in one way or another, particularly with rocked-up folk songs. Also if there’s a violin / instrumental line that isn’t a traditional tune, you can pretty much guarantee there’s no transcription for free, if anyone’s done one at all.
So I’ve been learning from recordings (well, mostly Youtube actually, unless it’s other people’s originals in which case they may use Soundcloud for demos), and getting there. Even getting gradually quicker (practice, as always, may not make perfect but certainly makes plenty better). Bizarrely the biggest hurdle is still often working out what key something’s in (capo guitarist songwriters can come up with strange ones, Amy MacDonald’s This is the Life is in C sharp minor) – pinning down lead licks can be relatively straightforward if you get your head into the right set of melodic habits.
Which all goes to show the challenges aren’t necessarily the expected ones. I’d have been unlikely to get taught, or practise, learning songs from recordings alone as a skill to get paying work. But I’d be fairly screwed if I hadn’t been able to develop that ability now I need it.