LEARNING TO IMPROVISE - ARTICLE LINKS
- Listening To Jazz
- Ear Training
- Rhythm & Phrasing
- Motifs & Cohesive Solos
- Vocal Improvisation
- Jazz Theory
JAZZ EDUCATION - THEN AND NOW
Formal jazz education was fairly limited until the 1960's. The first Aebersold play-a-long wasn't even released until 1967. By the time jazz education was in full swing (1970's-80's), jazz had already progressed through New Orleans jazz, 1930's swing, be-bop, cool jazz, hard bop, modal, free jazz, and soul/funk-jazz. In short, jazz had essentially run through its entire evolution BEFORE the advent of formal and detailed jazz education.
Before formal jazz education existed, jazz flourished as an aural tradition. While some things were written down (e.g. Downbeat transcriptions in the 1940's), the vast majority of what people learned and played was done by ear. You'd listen to a recording or live performance and you'd try to play what you heard on your instrument, with only your ears to guide you. This method of learning jazz ensured that all jazz musicians developed the ability to play by ear.
Today, if we want to learn jazz (or music in general), we learn mostly from written instruction. We have hundreds of books to teach us scales, chords, chord progressions, patterns, and jazz theory. Everything is structured and organized in straightforward pieces. And, of course, it's all written down.
While it's great that we now have so much information at our fingertips, the shift from aural to written instruction has unfortunately lead many students to have poorly developed aural skills. These students sound good when reading music, but if you take the music away they're lost. I'm quite familiar with this issue because I used to be just like that. I recall many times where I was playing a tune that I had played dozens of times before. I could sing the melody perfectly, yet I either had to consciously memorize the tune or I had to read it from a book in order to get the notes right on my horn. I couldn't even play simple songs like nursery rhymes and Christmas carols by ear. I was totally dependent upon written music. This is a serious problem if you're trying to play a creative jazz solo!
Looking back, it makes perfect sense that I couldn't play by ear. I couldn't play by ear because I never had to. Throughout my entire musical education, everything I had ever learned was written down...
OBSERVATION: FAILING TO PLAY BY EAR
I recently rented "Wynton Marsalis - Blues & Swing" from Netflix. In the video, there is a clip of Wynton talking with a group of high school students. While students play Ellington's "C Jam Blues", Wynton sings a simple 6-note melody and asks the saxophones to play the phrase by ear. He also gives them the starting note. Their first attempt is a mess. Some of the students didn't even get the starting note right. Wynton then sings the melody again and tells the students the notes to play. They try one more time and the results aren't any better. It appears as though Wynton just gives up on them (it's hard to tell due to editing), as it's clear that they are unable to play a simple phrase by ear. Unfortunately we can't chalk this up to a run-of-the-mill high school band program. This took place at the Duke Ellington School of the Arts.
A similar event occurred during the Heath Brothers master class that I attended during the 2004 Atlanta Jazz Festival. During the brief jam session, Jimmy Heath tried to teach the jam session participants (mostly high school and college students) a relatively simple tune by ear. He played the tune a few times on his horn, but it was clear that most of the dozen or so participants didn't get it. Fortunately, they had about 10-15 minutes to warm up and try to figure out the tune. With help from each other, I'd say enough people learned enough parts of the tune that there weren't gaping holes. There were a few people, however, that clearly weren't playing at all because they couldn't find the notes.
OBSERVATION: BUT, I CAN SING BY EAR
I was driving home from the store a few days ago, while listening to a bluesy jazz tune that I hadn't heard before. Before long, I was humming along to the tune and singing my own improvisational lines. As long as you've got some familiarity with what a blues or jazz solo sounds like, you should also be able to sing an improvised melody, or at least a few phrases, while listening to music. The next time you do this, ask yourself: Do I know what key this is in? Do I know the note names for every note I'm singing? Do I know the chord progression? Do I know the mode of the scale used for each of those chords? Do I know if the chords are altered? If so, which notes are altered? Hopefully you can see where I'm going with this.
Even if you're totally unaware of notes, key, chords, etc, you can still sing a decent solo. Depending upon your skill level, your vocal solo might even be better than anything you can play on your horn. If that's the case, it's easier to sing because you can effortlessly sing by ear. You simply think about a melody and you sing it. In fact, it's so easy you probably don't even have to think about it! Think about the last time you sang along to the radio. Did you have to think in order match the pitches you heard? Of course not. Could you pick up your instrument and play along with similar ease? Guess what... all great jazz musicians can.
These observations along with other experiences tell me the following:
- Playing by ear is an expected skill amongst *real* jazz musicians. Jimmy Heath and Wynton Marsalis wouldn't have asked students to try and play by ear unless they believed the students should have been able to do so. Furthermore, the ability to play by ear is displayed in just about every jazz recording, particularly when you hear a solo beginning with a motif just played by the previous soloist (there are examples of this in my jazz listening guide). If the musicians couldn't play by ear, they'd have no way of instantly reproducing a spontaneous musical phrase.
- Many young players (those that learned from written notation) have either poorly developed aural skills, or none at all. This, no doubt, stems from the fact that everything they learned was written down. They never had to try and play by ear. The opposite, however, was the case for early jazz musicians, who had to learn most of what they played by ear. The skills that they developed playing by ear helped them to quickly learn from each other and develop jazz as an art form.
- Most of us can easily sing along to a tune without knowing any of the tune's theory. Yet, when we pick up our horn, we're unable to play the same ideas as we struggle to find the correct notes. It's not that we're unmusical or that we lack sufficient training to play music; we just can't play well enough by ear. To succeed as jazz improvisers we must endeavor to play by ear as easily as we can sing by ear. Only then can we truly play the ideas in our heads.
- John Murphy, a jazz educator at the University of North Texas, compares having strong aural skills to being fluent in a language. When you're fluent in a language, you can easily communicate with others as you express your thoughts without hesitation. Similarly, when you're able to play music by ear, you can effortlessly play the ideas in your head in real-time. The lack of fluency, whether it's in language or music, requires us to use written materials (translation books, written music) when we communicate our thoughts. And when we don't use written materials, we sound slow and awkward as we stumble through each phrase.
It should be clear by now that strong aural skills, especially the ability to play by ear, are REQUIRED to be a good jazz improviser. It should also be clear that the inability to play by ear prevents us from accurately playing the music we have in our heads... and isn't that what improvisation is all about anyway?
HOW DOES ONE IMPROVE THEIR AURAL SKILLS?
Let's face it, some people are born with great ears (or as Suzuki suggests, they develop the skill while they are children). They have perfect pitch or perfect relative pitch and music just comes naturally to them. If you're fortunate enough to be one of those people, then you have no trouble playing by ear. Heck, why are you even reading this?!
The rest of us will have to rely upon ear training to improve our skills. The good news is that through effort and dedication you can definitely improve your aural skills and your ability to play by ear. To this end, I've created a few ear training tools which I use to improve my own skills:
My interactive ear trainer is a program designed to help identify intervals, chords, and melodies by ear. The random melody feature allows you to work on call and response ear training. It even includes a rhythm section feature to help with jazz improvisation.
The ear training song randomizer has a library of hundreds of common songs. With the click of a button, you'll get a random song and starting note. Just pick up your instrument and try to play it by ear.
And that's not all... I also created an iPhone ear training app!
BUT I THOUGHT PLAYING BY EAR IS BAD
You may have heard that playing by ear is bad, or that it's a lazy approach to jazz improvisation. And most likely, you've also heard that you need to learn jazz theory in order to be a good jazz improviser. Both of these statements are wrong... but they might be true for you! It all depends on your aural skills.
If you can hear a chord progression and effortlessly play music that fits over that progression by ear, then you'll succeed with or without formally studying jazz theory. That's because you've internalized the sounds which jazz theory attempts to explain. On the other hand, if your attempts to play by ear are fraught with mistakes as you search to find the right notes, then you don't actually have the necessary skills to play by ear. You're just "winging it," and that is a bad and lazy approach to jazz improvisation! If you are in the "winging it" category, theory can help bridge the gap between what you can and cannot hear. Your primary goal, however, should be to improve your aural skills so theory serves as a bonus rather than as a crutch. For more information, be sure to read my article on jazz theory.
MY EXPERIENCES WITH EAR TRAINING
As I've written elsewhere on this site, ear training didn't come easily to me. When I first started ear training, I thought it was tedious and terribly frustrating (that was before I built my ear trainers). It was painful to realize that after years of playing an instrument, I still couldn't play a simple nursery rhyme by ear. That realization, however, was one of the most important discoveries that I've made along my musical journey. It inspired me, or should I say it shamed me, into taking ear training seriously. And boy am I glad that I did. Nothing, and I mean NOTHING, has singularly improved my ability to improvise as much as ear training.