Learning to Play by Ear: A 1958 Perspective

DOWNBEAT 10 2 58 COVERHow does a musician learn to perform thousands of songs in any key without looking at music sheets?  How can you improvise over a set of “changes” you’ve never heard or seen before in a live performance?  “New Ears Resolution” has made this a daily reality for me during a 40-year career of recording dates and live performances.   But I cannot claim to have created this revolutionary approach to ear training.  I learned it during high school while studying with Alvin L. “Al” Learned, founder and president of Hollywood’s legendary Westlake College of Music “one of the most important educational institutions for the study of jazz in the post-World War II era.”

A Portuguese gentleman who uses “New Ears Resolution” discovered the following article from the October 2, 1958 edition of Downbeat Magazine.  In it, Mr. Learned describes the purpose and theory behind his method as taught in public schools.  I further developed these ideas and adapted them for use by individual jazz musicians.  Here is the article in its entirety.  (Thanks to Sue Hagan for transcribing this piece.)  Bear in mind that this was written way back in 1958, long before our era of ubiquitous jazz education programs.

As music teachers stop opposing Americans finding jazz music satisfying to their spiritual and emotional needs, our American heritage will be identified in the repertoire of world music. Concerts in Europe a century ago featured a dozen top musicians, such as Beethoven, prepared to play extensive cadenzas improvised on the spot. Singers also improvised, and composers expected them to do it. Through the years this tradition was lost to us. Jazz musicians are giving it back to us.

Europe sees evidence of our spirit of individualism and freedom in the manner in which our musicians can perform on their feet and “speak their musical mind without having before them ‘a prepared speech’.” Our jazz music is winning people’s hearts because it meets their moods and sentiments better than any other music.

The great vitality of jazz undoubtedly comes from the fact that the early American jazzmen had no pretensions to maintain. Early American jazzmen played without music. Ear training skills were highly developed. Today, our students should be helped and taught to play with this independence. This is the time to teach improvisation (if you can’t say “jazz”) in the public schools.

The bottleneck has been two-fold. Many teachers lacking experience in playing jazz, or leading the jazz band, are searching for a way of teaching jazz.

The most experienced teacher can benefit by leading the group and furnishing much needed advice. Dance band clinics have sprung up in many places in America and the movement is well advanced.

Teachers generally can fill out their group with adult professional musicians from whom they can get advice and direction. The need for education in this field has been definitely felt by teachers, because it springs right from the insistence of the students themselves.

Teachers are hired to meet the needs of the students—students are not reared to make jobs for public school teachers.

AL LEARNEDThe second part of the bottleneck was lack of knowledge about ways of teaching jazz in regular music classes. Some students have responded to the procedure of starting with a melody played as written. They then alter the rhythm. Next they try adding notes to the melody that fit between the melody notes, or adding tones from the chord or harmony. The last step was leaving out the melody, resulting in a new melody that might pass for improvising. This method leaves much to be desired.

The best jazz player is a composer who has the ability to conceive of a melodic idea in his head and who knows exactly how to play it on his instrument. Many of the top musicians – such as Billy May, Bill Holman, and Meredith Wilson – have this vital ability, derived from training. They are true composers having the ability to write or play immediately any musical idea that comes to mind.

Except for less than one percent of the musicians who have absolute pitch, musicians must rely on developing relative pitch as a basis for playing by ear.

Ear training involves hearing with your eyes and seeing with your ears.

This means that a musician should hear the music he sees on paper, even before he plays it on an instrument, and he should be able to write down on paper or play accurately (the first time) any ordinary melody he hears. To acquire this skill – which is the basis of playing jazz – the student must associate each sound to a position in a scale. However, before this can be done, a feeling for tone center or scale root must be felt by the musician. If all the music we had to play was in the same scale, we should have no ear training problem. However, changing keys obliterates the relationship of each note we play to the scale degree name going with it. It is essential this relationship be built.

The teacher can start by putting a scale chart in front of the band. The first step is having the band play a scale in unison. Next, simple tunes can be dictated to the band by the teacher pointing to the scale degree steps that make up the melody.

The next step is to teach the students to play the notes in each chord belonging in each scale or key that is commonly used in a dance band arrangement. Chords should be called out to the class until all the four-part chords used in a key in an arrangement are easily played by memory by the band. Every member would be playing in unison at this stage.

Once the chords are well known this way, the teacher can then write out eight-measure jazz chorus chord patterns (using letter names) for all three keys needed for the different instruments in the band.

The students, by this stage, are ready to play merely the chord pattern they have learned, or they can start making variations, which will more and more resemble improvised jazz as freedom and skill are individually acquired.

To help the students with other arrangements with ad lib choruses with no notes to read, the director can write in after the chord letter names the scale degrees in the chord, making it easy for the student to know what notes of the scale to use as a basis for his jazz. Keep in mind it is relating the scale degree name with the same musician effect that builds ear training, which is basic to good jazz. Merely knowing the letter names of the notes in a chord is not sufficient.

This procedure should open up the ability of high school students to meet with confidence the eight or 16 bars of ad lib with no notes showing—only chord symbols.

Music is a wonderful, fascinating study because it goes on forever, no one ever really mastering all the keys. Jazz training gives the student the freedom to make up his own melody, to express his own concept of beauty.

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