Hi Anteros! People usually fall into one of two categories. They either play by ear easily, or they read music easily. It’s probably related to brain networks that develop over time from a young age. But to be a well rounded violinist, we should try to do both.
Music is learned like a language. When you start young, you learn a language one word at a time. You hear it, you imitate it, you build on that. You mispronounce words, you refine as you get older and have more practice. Not until you are 4 or 5 years old, speaking your ‘mother language’ for 2 or 3 years by ear, do you begin to learn the abstract meanings of letters and, finally, to read.
Young students play by ear wonderfully. We can all do this in learning violin by using the same method. Hear it lots of times, try to repeat it on your instrument. If the violin itself is a new thing, it will take time to become comfortable with learning to play by ear because you have to first become comfortable with the instrument.
My point, listening is key. You should hear what you want to play many, many times, if you want to play it by ear. Anything you can sing, you can find on your violin. I have watched 5 year olds learn this skill. They can pick up any tune they want to play by listening to the notes and picking the ones that sound right, then redoing it to correct the melody. They usually come from a family where older siblings have played violin while they were babies, so they had early exposure to music.
I also think it’s really important to memorize your work pieces. It builds neural networks that reading music does not. If you play memorized exercises and music without looking at sheet music, you can watch what you’re doing better, and improve the quality of your playing. If you’re always stuck to the written page, it is too easy to forget to check bow grip, watch the bow arm and even listen to the sound you’re producing.
Two examples in my own life that illustrate the permanent nature of this type of learning by listening. When I was in high school, I took French as a subject. The teacher made us sing in French, every day, over and over. To this day, I can still sing the French National Anthem, every word, in French. I don’t remember much else about the language!
When I was in graduate school, my professor challenged me to learn a piece without looking at the music AT ALL. Just listen to a recording and learn the piece totally from sound. This would teach me how my students who couldn’t read music had to learn. The piece he chose for me was J. S. Bach Courante from Suite I in G Major. It’s in Suzuki Violin Volume 7. I also have never forgotten this piece, nor any piece I have learned by listening.