My father employed a lot of sayings, some of which are worth repeating, if not for their wisdom, then for their frequency of use.
He used to play the piano. He loved playing La Paloma, and sat a tall graceful player with just enough flair to show off and be a spectacle when playing. He went to piano lessons, and had memorised this and other pieces of music. Although he had a musical ear I do not think he could play by ear. None of his children inherited a musical ear, so none of us play a musical instrument.
But playing pieces on the piano by ear was not what he was talking about. He would play many other strategies by ear, and offer free advice to others when faced by co-ordinating events. I remember arranging holiday meetings and visits to Tripolis by ear with my father. Sometimes when events were not going to unfold his way he hid behind the saying allowing for fate to dictate events in favour of others.
So did he really mean it or was it just wallpaper over his face to hide his emotions if things were not going his way. When the dies were cast in important life decisions he never said “let’s play it by ear”. When we attended university our career choice was never left to the winds of fate. When we chose marriage partners he certainly did not anticipate anything else than love and hard work, with no room to play it by ear. He expected commitment in those matters. But once the foundation was laid and the roof over our heads, then I suppose, we could play things by ear.
If ever we faced a serious decision and I offered immature advice that “we can just play it by ear, like you always say” he would frown at me and I would wither under his bushy eye browed stare. So in fairness the saying had a place in playfulness, but not in serious times.
What if it was the other way round? I might have been a game ranger who wrote books and sold photographs. I might have been a dope smoking Bohemian divorced and living with my fifth partner. I might not even be alive, although the serious path of life has its own price to pay in terms of personal health.
My father loved to fall back on Ancient Greek philosophy and he used Aristotle’s concept of achieving virtue by balance between excess and deficiency, to correct the path chosen by playing things by ear. Achieving balance is far more important than playing it by ear.
Both have a place in life. Balance in life allows for some things to be played by ear, and playing by ear allows for life to unfold as fate would choose.