HOW I LEARNED TO PLAY BY EAR

THE DOWNBEATS

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 .

4 thoughts on “HOW I LEARNED TO PLAY BY EAR

  1. Wow…1963! That year I was an Army trumpet Player touring with our Soldier Show throughout the southern USA. Then I knew absolutel nothing of jazz theory……just adding whatever embellished notes that seemed jazzy. After discharge began nearly 50 years of geological work without playing at all. Today, after joining our Port Townsend Summer Band, I bought your New Ears Course where I’m just into its first few pages. If only it was avaliable back in 1963 I may have been inspired to continue playin. Back then it seemed jazz was a total mystery…….beyond my wildest dreams for sure because of the different keys and fingerings needed. I’m sticking with your course to see if jazz today is possible for my playing level. Thanks for creating it! Oliver ( Ken ), Harper.

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    1. Hi Ken,
      Of course, you can learn to improvise. Even though you laid off for several years, the foundation is still in tact. It’s like riding a bike. Once learned, you never forget. After you have “dusted off” your chops, you will find that the techniques of “New Ears” will begin to reactivate those early synapses. 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.

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