By Carley Stavis

Members of the Abbott family insist they’re not much different from most families, though their truly unique family business, distinctive and quaint house on Lincoln Street, and always-bare feet seem to hint otherwise. “Mama” Leslie Abbott, “Papa” Carl Abbott, and their sons, Luke and Kyle, help people who think they can’t think again when it comes to making music. Their “Playing by Ear” method, which focuses on feeling music rather than reading it and listening rather than doing, has helped countless people tap into their own stifled musical talent. The family sat down with City on a Hill Press (CHP) to talk about their business, their family, and what it means to play by ear.

CHP: So how did you all begin getting into music?

Carl: I always wanted to play music. I’d pick up the guitar maybe once a year and play for a week, and then just quit. When the kids came, we had music all around. I wanted the music thing to happen.

Leslie: My dad played the banjo and guitar, and introduced me to the ukulele. Music was on a lot in my house, and my dad was in a band, so I’d often hear them rehearsing.

Carl: The boys started very early with music. They were raised around it. They’d bang on the pots and pans and play on a little piano we had.

Leslie: Luke used to love the water in the glasses, you know, making them ring.

CHP: What made you start with the Playing By Ear method?

Carl: When the boys were young, I saw that they just took to it. It was clear they were doing something I wasn’t. I just had to figure out what the boys were doing.

Luke: When I was probably 13 or 14, in 2000, Dad and I began trying to work out how it was that Kyle and I were learning to play.

CHP: And what did you figure out?

Carl: It’s hard to articulate! That’s been the hurdle, taking what we figured out and relaying it to people.

Luke: Basically we figured out that kids approach music differently. They don’t worry about making mistakes or think about right and wrong. They don’t think so much; they just do what they feel. So you have to approach music like a child does.

CHP: So how would you summarize the Playing by Ear method?

Carl: There are five “commandments” of Playing by Ear.

Luke: They are: feel the melody, keep the beat, use the pattern, make mistakes, and play with others.

Carl: All of the elements have to be there, but people have a really big problem with the fourth one – people freeze and end up getting in their own way when it comes to making mistakes.

CHP: So how do you help them get past that?

Carl: That’s the secret! You want us to share our secrets? No, it’s really just about feeling it. The whole process is extremely simple, simpler than you can even think, which is why sometimes it’s hard for people, because they naturally want to think.

Luke: Music comes from your feelings, from your gut you might say.

Leslie: There are some patterns, though, that you need at the beginning, the chords and such. Knowing where to put your fingers.

Carl: Yeah. But that’s not really what it’s about. You have to see music as similar to language. You have to become fluent in the language.

Luke: You have to hear and not do so much.

Carl: Like for a chef – looking at the food you’ve made doesn’t do anything. Eventually you have to taste it.

CHP: What about your family do you consider unique?

Leslie: We really aren’t that different from most other families – although we’re still together, which sadly isn’t all that common anymore.

CHP: What’s the best thing about the family business?

Carl: My greatest pleasure is playing as a family. We’re very tight as a family in playing music. When we do it, it just flows out.

Leslie: I have to agree. It feels so fulfilling playing together, and even with other people. Fulfilling in a way that other things don’t. Almost spiritual. It really feeds the soul.

Luke: Connecting with other people is so important to people in our society and playing music together is unique in a way in that, and I think we all share this feeling in a certain sense; it’s nonverbal, social connection. You don’t need talk and yet you feel a very deep, honest, immediate level of connection.

Carl: I’ve traveled all over the world, to most countries, and everywhere people just love music. It’s so important to them, indescribably important, and so universal. For some people they’re blasting rap or whatever from roofs, for others it’s simpler. But it’s absolutely universal.