To play something by ear has two meanings. One is the musical meaning: when you play a song by ear, it means you play the song without any sheet music, so you’re not looking at the notes. You know the song, it’s in your head, so you can play it without needing to look at written music.
The second meaning of “play it by ear” means to do something without much practice or preparation. If you give a speech to two hundred people and all you bring to the speech are a few notes, then you are ready to “play it by ear”, to give the speech knowing only the general outline of what you plan to say. In essence you are confident in your ability to speak extemporaneously, making up the speech as you go.
“To wing it” means the same thing as play it by ear: to proceed without much preparation.
John: “Did you study for the exam?”
Mary: “No, I’m going to wing it.” So Mary feels confident enough to take the exam without studying.
Podcast Text. The conversation repeats three times. The “Listen and Repeat” section follows after.
When you prepare a speech, do you write everything down in advance?
—Yes. I write the speech, then I read it aloud to myself. Then I revise it till I’m happy. What about you?
My approach is the opposite. I just write down the points I want to make, and then I play it by ear.
— You’re kidding! You just stand up in front of an audience and wing it?
Yep. I like to improvise.
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Intro & Outro Music: La Pompe Du Trompe by Shane Ivers - https://www.silvermansound.com