In 2002, when I started playing the trumpet again, I couldn't play anything accurately by ear. If I wanted to play something simple, like "Happy Birthday," I'd either need to have written music in front of me, or I'd have to work my way through the tune, picking out each note through trial and error. Mostly error.
During the next year or two, as I continued to rebuild my trumpet chops, I read several jazz interviews and jazz biographies, hoping to gain some insight that would help me to become a better jazz improviser. I learned a lot during that period, most of which you'll find distilled into my learning to improvise series. The most important lesson, however, was the importance of being able to play by ear. To help improve my ability to play by ear, I eventually built some ear training tools and I added at least a few minutes of ear training to my daily practice routine, which I've stuck to for the past nine years.
Over the past nine years, I've made noticeable progress in my ability to play by ear, but until recently that progress wasn't especially evident in my playing. That's because I couldn't do much with the earlier stages of my development. For example, the first time I could play "Happy Birthday" by ear in any key, I could only do so very slowly and with an unsteady rhythm (i.e. hesitating between notes). That was a major accomplishment for me, but it wasn't something I could really use in a jazz setting where I have to play at faster tempos and in time with a band.
Within the past few months, however, I feel like I've made a huge leap in my ability to play by ear. I can now listen to a jazz recording, and more often than not, I'll pick up my horn and accurately play the tune's melody or a phrase that I heard during somebody's solo. I can also listen to the rhythm section and enough notes will jump out (either from the bass or piano) that I can land on a chord tone or play something else that sounds good over the chords. I still need to improve my consistency and overall accuracy, especially at fast tempos, but I'm finally at a point where I can hear something in my head and confidently play it by ear while improvising.
PATAGONIA JAM SESSION
I recently traveled to Chile, where I spent five weeks, culminating with seven days at Torres del Paine National Park in Patagonia. Traveling is still relatively new to me, but so far Patagonia is the most mind-blowing place that I've visited. It's so beautiful and remote that I felt like I was on a different planet.
Adding to the beauty of the region, we met several other travelers and guides who made us feel like we were at a home away from home. One day, while hiking to the base of the towers (torres), I told one such guide that I play the trumpet. He asked if I had my trumpet with me, and when I told him it was at the hotel, he said, "We should have a jam session! One of the other guides plays the guitar!"
Normally, I might have panicked or made excuses to get out of the jam session. After all, I'm not that good, I didn't know what kind of music they were going to play, and I hadn't been practicing that much during the preceding weeks in Chile. Any one of those excuses would have gotten me out of the jam session, but at that point so I was inspired by Patagonia that I said, "OK, let's do it!"
I don't know about you, but I'm a view guy. I'm captivated by beautiful views, and I can gaze at them for hours without a care in the world. With my pocket trumpet in one hand and a glass of wine in the other, I emerged onto the hotel's outdoor patio, took one look at the mountains you see in the above photo, and any fears I might have had about the jam session instantly vanished.
As we settled into our places, I introduced myself to the guitar-playing guide and another hotel guest who had brought his ukulele. I was still looking at the mountains when the guitarist asked us what we wanted to play. Transfixed by the view, I replied, "Whatever you want," to which the guitarist replied, "How about a blues?" I didn't pay attention when he mentioned the key, but once they started playing, I relied on my ears and played a passable solo over concert E blues. The ukulele player had a tougher time with his solo, but he hung in there and made it through the tune.
After the blues, the guitarist started to play a Chilean song that neither the ukulele player nor I had ever heard before. The ukulele player asked the guitarist for the chord changes and they spent a few minutes going over them. Once we started playing, though, the ukulele player was having difficulty remembering the chord changes and we had to stop once or twice. When we did finally get going again, I just closed my eyes and played another decent solo by ear.
By the start of the third tune, I was feeling confident about my ears and had decided to just play everything by ear that night. Unfortunately, the ukulele player wasn't faring as well. He struggled with the changes again on the third tune and I could tell he was getting a little frustrated. It didn't help that by this time we had a small audience of hotel guests and staff watching us! After three or four tunes, the ukulele player decided to call it quits and he took a seat next to his wife in the audience.
What began as a trio had now become a duo. The guitarist and I continued playing for the next hour or two, never discussing keys or chord changes. He'd start playing, I'd listen for a few measures, and then I'd accompany him, playing everything by ear. I don't know if I actually sounded good that night, but our audience clapped after every tune and everyone seemed to enjoy a wonderful evening in paradise.
The next morning while strolling along the shore of a nearby lake, I saw the ukulele player and his wife. After exchanging pleasantries, the ukulele player mentioned how he was struggling to keep up with us at the jam session. His wife then chimed in, telling me that her husband was feeling discouraged about his playing. After three years of playing the ukulele, he thought he was getting pretty good, but he was totally unprepared for the jam session. And then he said, "Yeah, I can't play by ear..."
I smiled and said, "Please allow me to introduce myself." Ok, so I didn't say that. I did, however, tell him that I too couldn't play by ear at one point. I've worked on it over the years, and I've developed the skills over time. I then told him all about my site and my ear training tools. He was so excited that he downloaded my Play By Ear iPhone ear training app as soon as we got back to the hotel.
I have to say, it was amazing enough to experience the culmination of so many years of ear training practice at a jam session in Patagonia. To then have the opportunity to get somebody else started on their ear training journey -- wow, how cool is that?!