Even many accomplished musicians never learn the fine art of playing by ear. A strong ear is a “must” for those of us musicians with visual disabilities. I owe my ear to a uniquely inspired teacher. The story begins in 1963.
In this early photo of “The Downbeats,” with our matching red blazers, I’m the towhead on the right with the clarinet. Our pianist had an unnerving habit of calling off complex Broadway arrangements he had worked up at home. During this show, he started playing “I Could Have Danced All Night” (from My Fair Lady) in C. I was doing all right, until we got to the bridge. It modulates into the key of E major, which put my clarinet in F#. Suddenly, i was awash in a sea of 6 deadly sharps, like an accidental waiting to happen. I felt about as graceful as Charlie Chaplin on ice skates. I wished i had skipped the gig and gone surfing.
Three days later, i met Alvin “Al” Learned, the founder of the legendary Westlake School of Jazz. Al promised to arm me with the tools i needed to calmly navigate those crazy situations. In the ensuing weeks, Al walked me through the 9 exercises now comprising Unit One of New Ears Resolution. He also showed me how to learn standards such as “All the Things You Are” and “Body and Soul” in an innovative new way. Rather than tediously memorizing tunes as before, Al encouraged me to study their underlying logic with the same insight the song writer brought to the piece’s original conception. My repertoire mushroomed, my confidence multiplied.
I soon purchased my first $25 Conn alto sax and started gigging with “The Viscaynes,” a surf band formed by Mark Turnbull. Their material was largely in the unwieldy guitar key of E, which put my alto in the unthinkable key of 7 sharps. Because of Al’s revolutionary approach, this no longer posed a problem. I told Mark about Al, he too started taking lessons, and to this day, we still converse in “Al speak.”
All of the music you have ever heard in your life is stored away in your brain, and you will be able to access it through your horn by exercising the synapses you tap into with “New Ears.” Transform your own improvisational approach today with New Ears Resolution .