All music is played by ear.
This statement is very profound to me. For many years I let myself believe that I had “bad ears” and there was nothing I could do about it. From an early age I was able to “think” fast enough to get by, making good choices often enough that I was never forced to work on my ears. I just accepted the excuse that I had terrible ears and admitted defeat.
Then something profound happened that totally changed me. I had been teaching for a couple of years and I was teaching one of my classes an exercise in all 12 keys. I spent probably 2 months singing it with them while they played it, listening intently to make sure they were playing it accurately. It was maybe 5 minutes of intense time with it 2 or 3 times a week.
So, one day I’m practicing at home and the exercise popped in my head and I thought, what the hell? and decided to try and play it. I executed it perfectly. I was stunned. I stopped and looked at my horn like it had somehow decided to do it all on it’s own. I tried it again and found out that as long as I could clearly hear it in my head, I could play it.
This is when I discovered that that old adage “if you can sing it you can play it” really isn’t a bunch of BS. I also had to come to terms with the idea that maybe I didn’t have “terrible ears” just a terrible excuse.
What reminded me of this story was a conversation that I very recently had with my dear friend Adam. Adam and I love to talk about new practice ideas, books we found that work, and music that connect to us. I feel so fortunate to see Adam every day because we almost always have something cool to share with each other. Anyway, he was talking about re-reading Hal Galper’s book Forward Motion (From Bach to Bebop) and how he got to the last chapter and really started thinking about it. I immediately grabbed the book and started looking thru it, grabbed a post-it to mark the chapter and continued to talk to Adam.
Since that conversation I have been really thinking about hearing what you play. I’ve been working with my jazz band kids on 4 note ideas over Impressions (trying to impliment one of the concepts that Mike Crotty taught the Jazz Band kids back in November) and developing riffs and one of my students mentioned that they couldn’t think with so much going on. Well, shit, I’ve inadvertently taught my students how to think about improvising….
But it’s not about thinking. The following is a master class by Hal Galper where he talks about this same idea: Hal Galper’s The illusion of an instrument
So, what am I doing to practice it? I’m starting real simple. During my long-tone warm-up, I don’t go on to the next note until I hear screaming at me. I often improvise my long tones anyway and use it as a way to slowly work on ideas in my head without any pressure. (I’m just warming up, right?) I get this huge thrill out of playing what’s in my head and I find my ideas are getting more logical. I’ve also started to do the exercise with scales… try it. Play the first 7 notes of a major scale and then stop. What note is screaming in your mind? Play it. Is there any way you could play anything else?
I love this idea and I can’t wait to see what I hear (and ultimately play) in the future! If anyone else has any experience with this I’d love to hear about it. Leave a comment below!