An aspiring jazz trumpet player's blog about jazz improvisation and ear training.

March 23, 2014 Ear Training 8 Comments

Ear training breakthrough

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.


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 I was so 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. To be honest, 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, however I greatly improved my ability to play by ear after several years of ear training practice. 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?!

Comment by Chris C

Fantastic! I found that to be very Inspirational! I have not read even half of the articles on your site, but a couple things jumped out at me as I read this. 1) So much for not having enough endurance. "....continued playing for the next hour or two," (!) and 2) you decided to "just play everything by ear that night". Have you done that before? Do you usually discuss keys/changes? Interesting development, and I am curious how that will carry over to your regular performances. I just loved reading it! I quit the trumpet in 1985 after one year of college and fired it up again in the summer of 2012. Just play at church but the leader likes for us to improvise at times and I am enjoying that whole process after a youth spent playing in band and orchestra and only listening to jazz. Great site! Great Jam Session! CC.

Comment by Jeff Hsu

Wow, I was transported to the hotel in Chile. What a beautiful, romantic tale! I aim to get there one day, playing by ear, participating in an impromptu jam, with my guitar. Thanks for the blog and of course, your ear trainer! I believe in ear training!

Comment by Rick

To answer your questions, Chris, endurance wasn't much of an issue since I wasn't playing the melodies of any of the tunes. In a jazz setting, just playing the melody of a long tune like "All The Things You Are" can tire me out. By the time I take my solo, my chops are only good for one or two choruses (even if I'm not the first soloist). During the Patagonia jam session, however, everything I played was in a comfortable range and I left plenty of space in my playing so I didn't get tired.

As for playing entirely by ear, I do frequently play along with jazz recordings, improvising and mimicking what I hear. As my aural skills have improved, I've been getting better and better at this. The "breakthrough" is that now I'm occasionally extremely accurate. That was the case during the jam session. My ears were so good that night that there wasn't any point in asking about keys or progressions. The guitarist started to play, I'd hear a melody in my head that sounded good against what he was playing, and I'd pick up my horn and the notes were exactly as I intended. This is pretty new to me and there were definitely a couple of times when I thought, "did I really just do that?!" Now I need to work on consistency since I still have "bad days" where my ears aren't that strong.

Thanks for the comments!

Comment by Saddiq

After playing violin for four years now I'm just getting to the point where I can pick out simple melodies on my instrument. I wouldn't say that I have a bad ear but it could be much stronger, I never had any formal training and it shows occasionally. Do you have any tips for a string player just starting a jazz Journey?

Comment by Rick

Hi Saddiq,

You could start by reading my "Learning to Improvise" series (there's a link in the second paragraph of this blog entry). After assessing your current skill set, if you're still searching for direction, it might be best to find a teacher in your area. Of course, nowadays you could find a teacher online and/or learn a lot through youtube videos.


Comment by Scott

Hi Rick,

I haven't been by your site in a while until today. Loved this post! Stories like this should be spread more, to get the word out that with ear training, playing by ear is achievable for all of us!



Comment by Hernan

Excellent post. I can play by ear but have problems with accuracy and foremost in a band situation. I would like to ask, you noticed that "breakthrough" just after years of doing the same excercises or were you at the time doing something different as an ear training excercise or practicing in adifferent kid of way. Can you pinpoint it? I would love to know!

Comment by Rick

Hi Hernan,

I think the "breakthrough" is simply the result of many years of consistent ear training practice. With my online ear training tool, I've focused mostly on random melodies (popular songs, jazz licks, scale patterns, and chromatic melodies). I've also spent a lot of time playing along with jazz recordings, trying to play bits of melodies and solos by ear.


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