Below you'll find the first and only guest post to my jazz blog. I wouldn't normally accept guest posts, but this one is special. The author, Willie Thomas, is a jazz trumpeter and educator with over forty-five years of experience playing and teaching jazz. Over the years, he has performed and recorded with a wide variety of jazz greats, including the Woody Herman Orchestra, the Slide Hampton Octet with Freddie Hubbard and George Coleman, and the MJT+3 which also included Frank Strozier, Bob Cranshaw, Harold Mabern, and Walter Perkins. And in 1994, he was inducted into the International Association of Jazz Educators Hall of Fame thanks to his contributions in the field of jazz education.
On a more personal level, Willie Thomas, is indirectly responsible for my introduction to jazz. When I was learning to play the trumpet, my trumpet teacher was a jazz musician named Bruce Staelens. Bruce introduced me to jazz improvisation and before long I was hooked. Well, guess who introduced Bruce Staelens to jazz when he was a kid? That's right, Willie Thomas was Bruce's first trumpet teacher! He even gave Bruce his first trumpet; the same trumpet that I always admired and finally got to play when I reunited with Bruce in 2009.
Willie Thomas found my website a couple of years ago and sent me some encouraging emails about my playing. I didn't even know who he was at the time (he didn't sign the email with his full name), and I know he didn't know about my connection with Bruce Staelens. Small world, eh? Most recently, Willie and I have traded a few emails regarding his Jazz Everyone website. The site includes dozens of jazz lessons in the form of online tutorials, audio files, and videos. Use this link and you'll get a free ten-day trial: www.jazzeveryone.com/i-was-doing-alright. As you might imagine, when Willie offered to write a guest post on my site, I gladly accepted.
Without further ado, here's Willie Thomas' guest post about ear training.
HEAR IT, FIND IT, PLAY IT - by Willie Thomas
As a young trumpeter in 1945 with a penchant for playing jazz, my ear was glued to every Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie or any other record I could beg, borrow or steal. At 14, I was a respectable player for my age, with four strong years of private lessons and band under my belt. I had plenty of written music for my lessons and band, but back then there wasn't anything written that could help a young or old jazz wannabe. Jamey Aebersold was only 6 years old! So for jazz, it was get it off those records, hope you could find some cats that would let you try it out at a jam session and then head back to that turntable for more listening, imitating and memorizing.
That process still plays an essential role today in the process of learning to play or improvise jazz music. Jazz is a language that has been aurally acquired since its early disciples began searching for the right notes to play with the chords they heard in church. However, a vast amount of material has been researched, developed and published to help the young and older jazz players build their jazz chops. "Ear-training" at some point along the way, became a pedestrian term for the process of learning to play what you hear. As I've experienced in my some 40 plus years as a jazz educator and author of the modestly successful Jazz Anyone Classroom series, it's not so much about training your ear as it is about training your fingers to find the notes to play. (Rick's note: in other words, the goal of ear training is to be able to play what you hear on your instrument. It isn't enough to be able to hear an interval and say it's a perfect fourth, fifth, etc. This is why my ear training tools focus on call-and-response with your instrument.)
For most students at various ages and ability levels, the trouble is not about hearing the music, it's all about finding those notes on your instruments and controlling them at various tempos. For sure, if you can't find it, you ain't gonna play it, dude! So, at the tender age of 80, after a lifetime of playing jazz with some of the best players in the world, i.e. Slide Hampton, Freddy Hubbard, George Coleman, Frank Strozier, Bobby Cranshaw, Harold Mabern, Wynton Kelly and the list goes on, I have discovered that you can listen all day long and not get a lot better as a player until you can quickly and automatically find all of the notes on your ax and play them with good time in every key.
Through continued research, I've discovered that constant repetition with small groups of notes around various tonalities starts building the kinetic responses that make it easier to find and connect notes, ultimately leading to better replication of patterns. It's the fingers that have to be trained to quickly find the notes you're hearing. One of the incredible qualities of Charlie Parker, Dizz, Bud Powell, Fats Navarro and the rest of those early pioneers was their ability to initiate and craft new ideas with a new language (be-bop) as it was being created. This was a result of having certain patterns down so cold that when a new idea came to mind their fingers were trained to automatically find those notes and play them. The neural response that controlled their fingers were so well conditioned they were able to play almost anything they heard. This came through constant playing and experimentation. They lived the music.
This provided the surety of pitch relationships that enabled them to manipulate this basic vocabulary into an endless variety of ever fresh ideas every time they played. This was their genius. I have recently tapped into a system of practicing what I hear or have heard and building it gradually with a practice routine that is continuously varied. I randomly pick difficult things I hear, repeat them over and over until I get each little fragment of a that jazz lick under my fingers once and for all. I practice everything with an Aebersold Play along rhythm section, playing with a metronome is like learning to dance with a broom. Part of the eternal quest is finding and playing everything with impeccable time. My daily routine starts with Cherokee in all keys, Volume 61, then there is a variety of things I do with each tune in every key on Volume 68. I'm very close to putting a series of these hear it, find it, play it exercise on my JazzEveryone.com web site. So, if you're intrigued by any of this, stay tuned. And by the way, the only time you own those fingers is when they get slammed in a car door! Ouch!