After contacting Nadje Noordhuis for trumpet lessons two and a half years ago, I still needed to find teachers for ear training, jazz improvisation, and piano, in order to achieve my goal of finally getting a comprehensive jazz education.
Back in 2007, I received an email asking me to add a starting cadence to my online ear trainer. The person explained that a cadence was needed in order to practice an ear training exercise that they had learned from Charlie Banacos. I had never heard of Banacos before, but since the cadence sounded like a good idea, I went ahead and added it to the ear trainer.
Over the next decade, I'd receive several more ear trainer requests from former students of the legendary jazz educator, Charlie Banacos. I now know that Banacos taught much more than ear training, but since he was always mentioned to me in the context of ear training, he was the first person I thought of when I began my search for an ear training teacher.
Charlie Banacos passed away in 2009, but just as Laurie Frink had led me to Nadje Noordhuis, I figured I'd start by contacting one of Banacos' former students. After a Google search on "Charlie Banacos," I ended up at the official Charlie Banacos website, which led me to Banacos' daughter, who then put me in touch with Garry Dial.
When I first contacted Garry Dial via email, I told him that I was a trumpet player looking for ear training lessons. I also mentioned that I was learning piano. Garry wrote back and asked if I wanted piano lessons as well. I responded, "I'm primarily interested in ear training, but perhaps we could add piano lessons at some point in the future." Basically, I wanted to "try him out" with ear training, prior to committing to anything else. In my defense, I knew nothing about Garry Dial at the time, but my lukewarm response to the piano lessons is hilarious to me now -- especially since that's been one of the most rewarding parts of my lessons.
As I'd later learn, Garry Dial first studied with Charlie Banacos in the 1970s, when Garry was a student at Berklee College of Music. After Berklee, Garry went on to play with a variety of bands, including ten years with trumpeters Red Rodney and Ira Sullivan. In 1990, Garry joined the faculty of Manhattan School of Music, where he developed their six-year jazz curriculum and taught for nearly 30 years (coincidentally, Nadje Noordhuis is a former student). Up until Banacos' passing in 2009, Garry remained a student of Banacos' and was specifically chosen by Banacos to continue his teachings.
Although I initially thought Garry Dial would just be my ear training teacher, he ended up becoming my ear training, jazz improvisation, and piano teacher. And thank goodness I found him. I've been studying with him for two and a half years now, and he is without a doubt, the most knowledgeable, demanding, and supportive teacher that I've ever had.
Since Garry teaches me so many different topics, I thought I'd give a brief breakdown of each discipline, as it pertains to my lessons. Before I do, I should mention that I'm not allowed to discuss any specifics regarding the Charlie Banacos exercises. In fact, I had to sign an NDA when I first contacted Banacos' daughter.
The jazz improvisation part of my lessons is done on the trumpet, primarily using exercises created by Charlie Banacos. So far, the focus has been various bebop concepts, with each concept lasting about 3 months. For example, when I worked on approach notes, I'd receive a separate exercise each week, as I worked my way through eleven chord types in all twelve keys. The lessons are thorough, and they tend to be rather challenging. The lessons are also transformative. For the electrical engineers in the crowd, I'd liken the lessons to a schematic diagram. With practice, they seem to rewire my brain to adopt a specific approach.
In addition to a Banacos exercise, the jazz improvisation portion of my lessons will often include a solo transcription that's impossibly difficult for me to play. For example, early on, Garry wanted me to play Freddie Hubbard's "Birdlike" solo AT FULL SPEED! I didn't even come close on that one, but it gives you an idea of the high bar that Garry can set in the lessons.
From time to time, Garry will also have me compose a written trumpet solo that incorporates all of the material that we have covered thus far.
In my two years of piano lessons with Garry, I have learned four different voicing types, which I can now use to comp and solo on any tune (slowly). And thanks to my ear training, I can now pre-hear the next notes in my head before I play them. Interestingly, I can pre-hear notes better on the piano than the trumpet, yet I never took the piano seriously until two years ago. I think that's due to the visual aspect of the piano, and my ability to see all of the notes and their relationship to each other.
As fun as it is to play through jazz tunes on the piano, I've also enjoyed how deeply the piano has broadened my understanding of jazz theory. Jazz theory, which was previously taught to me solely as a concept to memorize, has now become a living entity, as I play chord voicings, alter chord tones, and play through chord progressions. Knowing what I know now, I don't think schools should bother teaching music theory at all, unless it's done on the piano.
In case it isn't already obvious, I absolutely love playing the piano. Even if I never make things happen on trumpet, the piano is enough.
Speaking of the trumpet, I have finally reached a point in my playing where I actually want to play jazz with other people. This is a big deal for me, because in the past, whenever I played with others, it was always with a sense of obligation and dread. I knew that I *should* be playing with others to improve, but I also knew that I wasn't really prepared. Now, however, I do feel prepared. And I'm happy to say that, as of a few months ago, I've been playing every week with a piano and bass player (I pay them to come over and play). They are both quite a bit better than I am, but I'm able to mostly keep up, and I'm playing better than I ever have in the past.
I've already had a couple of requests from people about the ear training portion of my lessons, so this section is a bit more detailed.
During my first year of ear training with Garry, almost all of my ear training assignments revolved around singing. One of the benefits of singing is that it requires a greater degree of precision than simply identifying something by ear. For example, when I started my lessons, I could easily identify a minor triad by its sound, but I couldn't accurately sight-sing each note of a minor triad against a reference pitch. When I tried, at least one of the notes would be a little sharp or flat and it wouldn't have the correct "minor" sound. Now that I've used singing to fine-tune my ear training, I have a much stronger grasp of the sound of each interval, chord, etc., than I ever had before.
After my first year or so of singing exercises with Garry, he gave me some very challenging listening exercises. In part, they were challenging because the exercises had me listening to piano voicings with root notes in the octaves below middle C. In all the years that I had been doing ear training on my own, I typically focused on notes above middle C (the primary range of the trumpet). Since I neglected the lower pitches, my ability to hear them was much worse than my ability to hear notes in the staff. Similarly, I wasn't very good with notes above my playable trumpet range. All of that is stuff that I'm working on now, though, by incorporating higher and lower octaves when I use my online ear trainer (you can change octaves with the ear trainer's Key Center option).
Some of you may be aware of Charlie Banacos' exercise of a cadence followed by a single note. I had actually learned about that exercise long before my lessons with Garry, and long before I signed the NDA. It's mentioned in several of other web sites and ear training methods, so it definitely isn't a secret anymore. Although I have become very accurate with that exercise, I still use it each day as a warmup before moving on to more challenging ear training exercises. It's an exercise that I'd recommend, especially to anyone who has trouble identifying interval sounds. I even turned it into a sample exercise for my online ear trainer (Sample Exercise: Intervals: Cadence + Note).
I'd say the most important lesson I've learned about ear training is in regard to practice time. Obviously, ear training has been a major focus of mine for many years. I built the first version of my ear trainer back in 2004, and have practiced ear training ever since. I was often so busy with work, though, that I was lucky if I could sneak in five or ten minutes of ear training practice each day. While that was better than nothing, it just wasn't enough time to get significant results.
Since studying with Garry, I spend at least an hour on ear training every day. I break that up into three sessions. The first session is all listening, which occurs while I do yoga and other activities. That session will include hands-free ear training exercises, like the cadence followed by a note, which I mentioned earlier. Other exercises include singing notes over a chord progression (similar to sample exercise: Outline Chord Tones: Single Key). In my exercises, however, I practice singing non-chord tones as well. For example, while listening to a C-7 chord, I'll sing a major third (E natural), as well as all of the other intervals.
My second ear training practice session of the day is all sight-singing. When I started with Garry, we focused on singing intervals by relating them to a C reference pitch. From there I moved on to chords. I still practice some of that each day, but now I also sing a wider variety of things like four-part Bach chorales (a suggestion given to me by Dave Douglas), as well as jazz chord progressions (I take a page of the Real Book each day, sing the melody, outline the chord progressions, sing a solo, etc). I originally used solfege in my sight-singing, but since all of my exercises at that time used C as the root, my solfege became fixed to a C key center. To break myself of that, I started using "ba" or "da" for all of the syllables. As of a couple of weeks ago, Garry has had me return to solfege, but this time I'm using moveable "Do," as I sing the melodies of jazz standards.
My third ear training session of the day is done on the trumpet (and sometimes piano). Most of that uses custom exercises that I created, based on the Charlie Banacos material in my lessons. I can't share those exercises, but I can recommend things like playing jazz licks and random melodies on your instrument by ear around the circle of 4ths/5ths (Sample Exercise: Melodies: Play by Ear in 12 Keys). You can also try to outline chord progressions by ear, after you've established a key center and/or listened to a reference pitch (again, Sample Exercise: Outline Chord Tones: Single Key). I also practice playing jazz licks over random chord changes by ear. For example, if the lick starts on the 3rd of a chord, I listen for the 3rd of each random chord and start with that note.
To my amazement, I'm now at the point where I can wake up each day, go to my ear trainer, and sight-sing 10 random notes (using an exercise like this). I don't use a reference pitch and I'm correct nearly 100% of the time. Note, there's nothing wrong with using a reference pitch. After all, reference pitches are the backbone of "relative pitch." I just don't seem to need them when I get up each morning. I do, however, use reference pitches throughout the remainder of the day. That way I can check myself and make sure I don't get thrown off, especially if I've been working in a specific key for a while.
My ability to play the trumpet by ear has also improved a lot, but not quite to the level of my sight-singing. That's partly due to my old habit of doubting myself as I play. In the past, I'd occasionally hear a pitch and I'd think it's one note, then wonder if maybe it's a different note, then change my mind again and get the note wrong. That process has become so ingrained into my trumpet playing, that it's hard to break free and actually trust myself. The good news is that, more often than not, my initial belief is now correct. Hopefully it's just a matter of time before I can build confidence and trust my ability to play by ear on the trumpet.
THE LESSON PROCESS
If you're thinking of studying with Garry Dial, you might like to know a little about the lesson process.
Initially, my lessons with Garry took place at his apartment in NYC (the same apartment where Bill Evans celebrated his 50th birthday party). At the end of each lesson, Garry would give me a written assignment, which I would then practice and demonstrate at the following lesson.
At the onset of COVID, my lessons with Garry shifted entirely to a correspondence format. For the correspondence lessons, I pay for four lessons up-front. Each lesson comes via email, and a week later I respond by sending him recordings of myself doing the various exercises. Several of Charlie Banacos' students took lessons via this same correspondence method -- although back then they used handwritten instructions and cassette tapes.
During COVID, Garry also added the option for one-on-one Zoom lessons. If you decide to take lessons with Garry, I'd definitely recommend Zoom for the first handful of lessons, since you'll probably have a lot of questions. Zoom might also be your preference if you'd rather avoid the wait between submitting a correspondence lesson and receiving an email reply from Garry. Sometimes Garry responds on the same day, but most often it takes a few days before he replies (I use that time to review some of the older material). Also, while Garry is extremely knowledgable when it comes to music, he isn't exactly the most computer savvy person. Between his typos and cryptic descriptions, it can be a bit of a challenge to decipher a lesson via email. Thankfully, Garry also includes a recorded audio file that explains each part of the assignment. Unfortunately, those instructions are sometimes hard to understand too! Personally, I enjoy the, "can I figure this out?" aspect of the correspondence lessons (it's like a lesson *within* the lesson!), but it might be frustrating for some.
If you do end up taking lessons with Garry, maybe you could avoid mentioning the part where I make fun of his computer skills :-)
Thank you so much for this, Rick. It's truly appreciated. best, Jeff
This is awesome. I've been contemplating piano lessons for ages and everyone... I mean EVERYONE says learn piano regardless of your main axe to improve your improv. What you've shared has me strongly considering adding lessons to my routine. I will say moving to double bass has really helped me see functional harmony in a new way and understand what's going on much better than I used to. A walking bass line is essentially an underlying solo outlining tune changes for the entire song performance. It's challenging but a lot of fun.
Question - does playing an instrument in Bb and piano being in C cause any confusion with your ear training?
Hi Eric. Historically, all of my ear training has been in Bb, since (for those who don't know) I play a Bb trumpet. When I started taking lessons with Garry, I felt I would be better off doing *everything* in Bb, in order to avoid the confusion that you mentioned switching been Bb and the piano's concert key. I even went so far as to change my piano keyboard so it was also in the key of Bb. Garry knew I was doing that and tried to talk me out of it, but eventually he gave in and for the first year and half, all of my ear training, piano, and trumpet were tuned to Bb.
About nine months ago, Garry persuaded me to finally stop doing this. At first, I panicked, but I knew I'd be better off playing the piano in C concert. If for nothing else, because once I developed the ability to retain the sound of various piano notes in Bb, I had a hard time using normal pianos in concert key.
Currently, I do most of the listening portion of my ear training in Bb, but all of my singing is in concert key. It was very confusing at first, but over time I have learned to switch back and forth between hearing things in Bb and concert key. And best of all, I can now sit down at any piano and feel right at home.
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