I never even thought about ear training until my freshman year in college, when ear training was required in music school (in college it was called "aural training"... but the goal is the same). By my freshman year of college, I had played the trumpet for 6 years and like most classically trained musicians, everything I had played was written down. I could play all the major trumpet pieces: Hummel, Haydn, Hindemith, Artunian, etc. I was also a great sight-reader. But if somebody asked me to play something simple by ear, like "Happy Birthday", I'd be lucky to get half of the notes right. Sadly, I'm just one of many people who reach the collegiate level of music school with little or no ear training experience.
Since I attended music school at two different universities, I witnessed the lack of ear training skills first-hand with a decent sampling of aspiring musicians. At each school, there were two distinct groups of students: (A) those who found the ear training class easy and (B) those who struggled with EVERYTHING.
During my freshman year at the first university I was stuck in group B, the struggling group. I remember the first time the professor asked us to identify some simple intervals. I was totally lost. I don't think I got any of the questions right. The group A students, however, answered every ear training test correctly with minimal effort. I would later discover that most of the students who excelled had attended a performing arts high school where ear training was part of the curriculum. There were so many of these students that the professor ended up creating an advanced class just for them. Naturally, this made the group B students, including yours truly, feel even worse about their ear training skills (or lack thereof).
I transferred to a different school for my sophomore year (I wanted to live in a big city, so I moved to Chicago). This new school didn't honor the ear training class I took at the first university, so I was forced to repeat the freshman ear training class. Amazingly, I did incredibly well at ear training this time around. All of the exercises and tests were easy for me. In fact, I got a perfect score on every test except for one, where I missed only one question (nerves, I guess). Most of the other students in my class, however, had a tough time with the ear training tests and were somewhat amazed at how easily it all came to me. I'd soon learn, that very few of them had any previous ear training experience. They were just like me, one year earlier!
So, what did I learn from all of this? The most important lesson is that a good ear can be developed through ear training. With some dedication and effort, I went from having non-existent ear training skills to being the best in my class. Just because your ear is weak today, that doesn't mean it has to stay weak forever!
ADDITIONAL EAR TRAINING RESOURCES
- My ear training tools - I've created a couple ear training tools which are freely available for anyone to use. Each ear training tool contains more information about the importance of ear training and tips for getting started.
- Learning to Improvise - Introduction - This article discusses my jazz education and the odd absence of adequate ear training.
- Learning to Improvise - Ear Training - This article discusses the importance of ear training in jazz improvisation.