Eyes or ears for jazz improvisation?

A trombone player recently wrote me describing his struggle with improvisation. He’s recently acquired my books and is working on the ear strengthening exercises. After watching one of my videos on playing melodies by ear, he wrote, “I’ve been playing Happy Birthday in all 12 keys and trying to speed up a bit so I don’t have time to think the numbers. In reflecting on this, I realize that I rarely, if ever just “feel or know” where the notes are.”

We had shared some prior emails so I’ve come to know that he has a very analytical mind and tends to think his way through changes and admittedly is much more comfortable using his eyes rather than his ears when playing over changes. I think that it’s pretty common for players to be more comfortable looking at the changes or written music rather than diving in with only their ear to guide them. One comment I made to this player was that I think jazz players eventually become comfortable jumping out a window and determining how they’ll land on the way down. Some people are born with this comfort and skill–others aren’t.

So is playing by ear a learned skill or totally left to nature? You’re either born with it or not?

From what I’ve seen of me and others, I am convinced it can be developed. Certainly some people are more natural at hearing something and being able to recreate it on their instrument. Think Mozart. But life is full of many skills that can be mastered, and I don’t see a reason that this application of musicianship isn’t one of them. Michael Jordan wasn’t always a great or even good basketball player, and I hear he ended doing pretty well for himself!

I recently asked a Psychologist (who happens to also play trombone) about how ear strengthening exercises like the ones in my books and videos effect the brain. His answer confirmed my theory that they build new neural pathways and networks within the brain. Hearing a note or phrase and then playing it on an instrument builds new connections as does thinking of a known melody and playing it in various keys on the instrument. It makes sense that repeatedly exercising and practicing something makes you better. We all pretty much believe that about the physical part of playing our instrument. Why wouldn’t the same be true about strengthening the connection between your mind’s ear and your instrument?

Now, this skill we are discussing isn’t just so that you can imitate notes you hear or rattle off melodies in all keys. Those skills are the means, not the end. The end, it seems, is to reflect through your horn the music you create in your mind as you hear a musical/rhythmic context. That context could be the rhythm section, the rest of the band, the others within your small instrumental ensemble, or just what is on your mind as you improvise as a solo performer. The goal is a fluidity of your imagination as it is reflected through your instrument.

That is why I am a proponent of singing. Our voice is a reflection of our inner musician and singing gives us the chance to experience what we hear inside us. Among other things, it gives us the chance to test how well we know a piece of music. When we sing, we are never thinking about the key (except for questions of range). Quick, sing Oh Danny Boy in F#! No problem. But to play it on the trombone may not be quite so easy.

The comparison between singing and playing an instrument brings me to an important topic. Call it putting the music first.

I believe that one reason people struggle playing by ear is that they lead with their instrument. They think primarily about playing notes on the horn. Thinking about key signatures, positions, intonation, range, speed all get in the way of the natural flow of the music inside. It’s like trying to walk by thinking about which muscles we should use, keeping the center of gravity balanced, how far one leg should extend, how the toes are functioning, etc. As an infant learning to walk, we never considered any of that. We just walked, fell down, got up, walked, fell down–until we mastered it.

Now I’m not suggesting that playing Moment’s Notice is easy and that all you need to do is forget about the horn and it will flow like Coltrane. But I am suggesting that the more we focus on the mechanics of the horn and the technical nature of the music, the less our music will flow from our inner musician.

I’ve experienced this when I’ve played a solo on an unfamiliar tune in a band with whom I’ve only minimally rehearsed. When it came time for my solo, I wanted to look at the changes and mechanically operate my horn so that I lock into the harmony and the form of the tune. But then I stood up, pointed the horn straight ahead and realized that I can no longer see the music. Oh Oh…  Now I have no choice but to trust my ears and musical intuition. In those moments, I realize that letting go, trusting myself, and not thinking about “difficult changes” coming up allow me to be at my best, musically. I improvised better music.

In those moments, I’m putting the music ahead of the instrument. The focus is on hearing everything going on around me and happily “singing” along. I’m jumping out that proverbial window and gliding down for that soft landing.

My advice is to put on a Jamie Aebersold recording or during a rehearsal in which you have a solo, say to yourself, “F#@k it. I’m just going to listen to everything going on around me and play what feels right.”

I’ll even give you a rhythm track on which to try this out. This is a track called Deep Cheese Movement and I created it for my book Jazz Ear Savvy for exactly this purpose. It’s made up of four sections of various keys, rhythms and tempos. Without knowing the keys, just play it through your sound system and dive into creating the music that comes to mind. Without anything for your eyes, use your ears. Don’t overthink it. Just play. There are no wrong notes, just harmonic context.

Oh, and have fun with it!!


1 Comment

  1. John on January 25, 2018 at 8:23 am

    Hello Again, I’m “that” trombone player and want to say thank you Michael for your books and thoughts. As an update, I’m regularly practicing the melody fragments from Jazz Ear Savvy and that seems to be improving. Additionally, I’m continuing with the listening exercises and they also seem to be improving, albeit slowly, but that’s ok. Another question came up from practicing the circle of fifths exercise. Playing the roots through the circle, no problem. Root then down a whole step (Bb to Ab etc.) also fine. When it came to the 3 notes Bb-Ab-G etc. it become more problematic in the sharp keys, as one would expect. My question is: if I practice getting more familiar with those “patterns” (and any others for that matter), will I stop training my ears and resort to muscle memory? I wonder if this isn’t part of what makes the trombone a bit “special” because the patterns don’t always use the same movement of slide and lips, whereas on the piano, the relationships are consistent. My guess is that we need to develop some muscle memory to be able to access some patterns but I wonder if there needs to be a balance. More analysis! Best, John

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