How to improve your musical instrument playing much quicker

I think I have a somewhat unorthodox method of teaching trombone and improvisation. Instead of telling students what they sound like and commenting on the things I’m hearing them do wrong, I ask them what they hear.

I’m of the belief that if I tell you what something sounds like, it relieves you of the effort and responsibility of hearing it yourself. I’m then enabling you to not listen deeply to yourself and therefore, hurting your ability to self-correct.

Most lessons with me start off with the musician playing something followed by me saying, “What do you hear?” Most of the responses consist of either, “I don’t know.” or a stab at something somewhat superficial. I’m not sure I’ve ever had a response that identified the key elements of what was just played.

The conclusion I’ve drawn  has been that far too many musicians don’t listen well to their own playing. And this ties into the title of this post.

Yes, part of the value of a good teacher is to provide feedback for the student. But I think the other value is to train the student to hear things for him of herself. After all, think of how much time you play on your own as apposed to the time you’re in front of a teacher. Much more time on your own. So, it seems like a core skill is to hear yourself and self-correct through your own exercises and methods.

I may be particularly sensitive to this given the recent publication of Jazz Ear Savvy, which is dedicated to ear strengthening as the means to improve one’s improvisation skills.

Try this: play the first phrase of Rochut #1. What did you hear, good and not so good? If you’re having a hard time coming up with things, let me ask a few question:

  • How was your intonation?
  • How was your articulation on that very first few notes? Was it a consistent legato or was it a variety of articulations?
  • Did your dynamics follow the flow of the lines or was it fairly static?
  • Did each note a have a nice round tone to it or was there inconsistency, especially as you went up or down between partials?
  • Did it sound musical? That question subsumes the above questions, but in the final analysis, did it sound musical?

If you had to go back and replay the phrase in order to answer the above questions, it could be a sign that you’re not listening as well as you could be. Do you find yourself playing through exercises and going one to the next instead of stopping at problem spots and working them out?

When you perform or practice with a group, do you sense that you are out of tune, but not sure if you’re flat or sharp? That is a sign that you need to work on your intonation.

All of this points to the answer of why you might not be improving as rapidly as you’d like. You see, practice doesn’t necessarily make perfect. In fact, practice can make you worse if you’re not practicing the right things. How do you know if you are practicing well? by being able to answer questions on your own like those throughout this post.

Try this: with the following sound file, play a C major scale and listen to your intonation, tone, articulation and rhythm. Better yet, record yourself playing with the track and listen back. does the recording uncover aspects of your playing that you didn’t hear live? If so, you’ve learned that you need to record yourself much more, didn’t you?


As you practice and play with others, strive to hear deeper than you have been. Record yourself at every opportunity. I believe that the fact that I record myself almost every day, I am more self aware of my strengths and weaknesses than many.

And if you want a state of the art tool for training your ear and developing a stronger connection to your trombone, take a look at Jazz Ear Savvy.

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