Have you ever had difficulty playing a tune, even though it presented no obvious technical hurdles? Perhaps the problem lies in a hidden harmonic riddle, which, when solved, will unlock your understanding of the song and make it easier to play and to remember.
At a recent gig, pianist Mark Schecter called off Dizzy Gillespie’s “Groovin’ High.” Although Storyville used to play the song, it still made me stumble. However, after deciphering its harmonic implications, playing it became simple.
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. Continue reading “HOW I LEARNED TO PLAY BY EAR”→
Do your solos brim with vitality, gliding across a colorful landscape, as you explore ever deeper into the ocean of sound? Or do you flounder among waves of notes, swimming through a maze of chord changes?
Thematic development will transform your playing, as you weave your exciting, personal story.
The following clips illustrate three powerful tools to stimulate your creative potential and enthuse your audience.
1. RHYTHMIC SHIFT– Example 1 presents a 7-beat phrase that starts on the “and” of beat 3. The phrase is then repeated, but this time, it begins on the “and” of beat 2. Repeating the phrase gives your thought unity, while the rhythmic offset offers variety and surprise. Try playing along with this recording in all 12 keys.
2. DIMINUTION– In example 2, the 7-beat phrase is the same, but a triplet compresses the second statement of the theme. Your motif is still easily recognized, but you have added variety.
3. TONAL SHIFT– In Example 3, the second statement of the theme modulates up a minor third. Tonal shift was a favorite device of John Coltrane. The listener still recognizes your theme, but her ear delights in this fresh new element you have added to the mix.
As you become more comfortable with creating and developing thematic material, your unique personality defines your individual style. You improvise dynamically and coherently.
To master these 3 techniques, play along with the 3 audio files offered here. Contact me, if you need a chart. Or, if you want to learn to play by ear in all 12 keys (as I did while recording these clips), download “New Ears Resolution” and liberate your musical imagination!
How often do we teachers hear students complain about having to practice long tones and scales? Every teacher knows that long tones greatly enhance tonal quality and intonation and that scales are the raw material from which improvised solos are crafted. The problem is that any musician who practices being bored will bore the audience. What you practice is what you perform. Practice joy, imagination, and freshness, and your show will be fresh. Practice dry technique, and your gig will be a desert.
Below is a 4-bar phrase containing a descending major scale (Ionian mode) and an ascending Mixolydian mode. I worked on this exercise until the rhythm and note sequence started to feel interesting to me.
Try playing along with the background track provided below and see if this approach adds a bit of zest to your practice time. Develop your own variations on this idea. Email me for a FREE copy of this exercise in all 12 keys, if you have trouble figuring it out. Better yet, download “New Ears Resolution” and learn how to play any melody in any key by ear.
What a great way to ring in 2015! We watched “Labor Day” on Netflix, and then I revisited Sonny Rollins’ 1998 CD “Global Warming.” Sonny has a wonderful ability to compose simple melodies that swing. And, of course, the unique way he develops motivic material during his solos is legendary. Solos brimming over with life and joy. I just had to pick up my horn and play along. Here is the lick that emerged, Adolph Sax’s new year’s gift.
Try playing along with this melodic minor phrase in all 12 keys using this background track. If you have trouble transposing it, email me for a free chart. Or download “New Ears Resolution” and learn how to play any melody in any key by ear.
Are your improvisations based more on the chord changes (Coleman Hawkins approach) or on the melody (Lester Young approach)? Many players look at the chord progressions and derive either arpeggios or scale patterns based on the indicated changes. Here is an exercise that will develop your ability to integrate larger leaps into your melodic flow.
To derive the maximum benefit, practice this pattern in all 12 keys around the circle of fifths using the background track provided below. If you have difficulty figuring out the pattern in the other keys, contact me for a FREE chart (no cost or obligation). Better yet, download “New Ears Resolution” to learn how to play any melody in any key BY EAR!
Jeff Rzepiela is a talented reed player and arranger. His web site contains many transcriptions of solos by the masters of jazz. Check out his latest newsletter Scooby-sax_Newsletter_Oct_2014(1) which features an insightful analysis of an improvised solo by Arnie Krakowsky over the tune “I’ve Never Been in Love Before.” Jeff skillfully singles out several key phrases in the solo, shows how they relate to each other, and makes them available for those of us who benefit from “wood-shedding” over great “licks.”
Kenny Barron’s wonderful composition Voyageis a particularly apt vehicle for Stan Getz. The phrase in bar 4 especially caught my ear (example A.)
It would be fascinating to ask Mr. Barron whether he conceived of Voyagerapidly or – as often happens – the piece evolved over a period of time.
Focusing on bar 4, you see that the melody outlines the F7(b9) chord as shown in example A above. It’s tempting to speculate that the appoggiatura was originally part of the F7(b9) arpeggio. The Eb then takes its place as the 7th in the F7(b9) chord, as shown in Example B. Of course, Voyageas we now know it is far hipper than it would have been if bar 4 looked like Example B!
Speculation aside, one way you will definitely improve your instrumental technique is by playing figures such as this one in all 12 keys around the Circle of Fifths, starting with a slow metronome setting and gradually increasing the tempo.
While I practiced this particular lick, I experimented with various rhythmic combinations. If you do that, you will keep your imagination engaged, so that your practice time does not degenerate into a dry, lifeless exercise. You will also develop your own stylistic preferences, so that choosing the hippest rhythm for an improvised passage will not slow down your reflexes during performance. Some of the iterations I tried are shown in Example C.
The first iteration emphasizes the third of the chord – the “sweet note.” The rest of the sketches experiment with various rhythmic syncopations. Perhaps you also will benefit from playing along with the final lick in all 12 keys using this background track:
Are you or your students or friends interested in big band music? Please help me spread the word about a unique opportunity to join with like-minded musicians in making some swinging music and having a good time to boot. They say the setting is beautiful and the food is great! Many of the players return year after year.
A recent biography of jazz tenor sax giant John Coltrane verified that he had indeed studied the wonderful Bach Cello Suites. The suites, though quite challenging, are a joy to play, and they provide numerous opportunities to build your tone, technique, and conception. As it turns out, they also contain some amazing phrases which can be adapted as jazz improv “licks.” What do you think of this one? It’s from Bach Cello Suite Number 2, “Allemande,” bar 21. Play it through in all 12 keys (see chart below) and let us know whether Bach gives you ideas for your jazz improvisation.
Here is an interesting phrase I’ve been practicing in all 12 keys. As always, follow Kenny Werner’s cue to “play effortlessly” in order to get a relaxed, flowing, swinging feel. Try playing along with the background track provided below. If you need a chart, it is also provided below. Better yet, download “New Ears Resolution” and learn how to play in all 12 keys by ear with ease.
This review of the Second Edition of “New Ears Resolution” was posted by the wonderful guitarist, singer, and educator Trevor Hanson http://trevorhanson.com/trevor/ . Trevor is highly respected for his work in both the jazz and classical fields and has a large following in Western Washington State.
Basic concept: great. The basic concepts and the way you have organized their presentation are very useful. You have many good insights and analogies to help get students on board, even if they have had little formal training. There’s no question that moveable-do solfege is a tremendous learning aid, and you’ve done a good job at making it accessible and understandable. The early parts of your presentation assume that the reader has little or no background in music theory.
Combining essential skills in small lessons. By combining ear training, scale/harmony theory, and repetition and presenting the material in small, easily manageable chunks, you’ve provided an excellent framework for learning that doesn’t overwhelm the student. Many theory books cover this material in just a few pages – making it difficult for students to achieve a working knowledge of (and quick memory for) these essential elements.
Familiar tunes as examples. Linking little phrases to familiar tunes is very helpful. This is how most of us recognize intervals, patterns, and progressions. By providing examples, you save students time, since recognizing a short quote is often difficult.
Audio files. Listening to and playing along with the audio files is a huge advantage.
Scale/chord material. Your presentation of the scale modes is very good. I really like the clear examples showing how each mode can be derived from the Ionian, the examples showing how each modal color can be used, and the charts/audio exercises that contrast these elements. I found your discussion of Locrian m7(b5) and Phrigian sus(b9) even more useful. I ran out of time before getting a chance to look at Bill Green’s approach to the blues scale and V7#9#5 chord, and am looking forward to examining this section. These are all really important topics that most musicians just have to figure out by experimentation. You have provided a logical starting point for studying these elements.
There is a lot of talk in improvisation texts about the three minor scales (which start on LA), the Dorian mode (which starts on RE), and the blues scale (which can begin on either one). However, the reality is that master jazz improvisers glide freely between all five scales with additional nuances interspersed. Below is a lick to illustrate this principle. Listen to the mp3 recording while looking at the chart. Try practicing this lick in all 12 keys. If you have difficulty, try slowing it down or looping the hard section with the FREE DOWNLOADBest Practice. Or contact me for a FREE chart of the lick in 12 keys by filling in your email below. Your address will NOT be used for any other purpose, and it will NOT be saved. Better yet, if you want to learn to play jazz by ear, download New Ears Resolution.
What you practice is what you will perform. A joyful practice session produces a joyful performance. If you “practice joy” instead of merely “practicing scales,” the joy in your performances will be contagious, and your audiences will grow larger and more enthusiastic.
Now here’s the rub: Any teacher of improvisation will tell you, “You have to master scales to be a great improviser.” But you hate practicing scales! Your mind grows numb. You can’t wait for your practice time to be finished.
The challenge is to keep your imagination joyfully engaged AND, at the same time, increase your technical mastery of your axe. Can you do both?
Over the years, I have assembled a book of 300 licks that both challenge my technical ability and — AT THE SAME TIME — keep my heart and my imagination fully engaged. Most of them evolve as I work them out in all 12 keys; others are borrowed from the solo transcriptions of the masters. Below is a recording and a chart for 1 such scalar lick which I just finished practicing. Try it! Can you play it in all 12 keys? If not, contact me using the contact form below for a free chart. Better yet, download New Ears Resolution to learn how to play any melody by ear in any key.
New Ears Resolution has helped hundreds of musicians learn to play by ear over the past 15 years. And now, the Second Edition offers scores of new innovations designed to make your learning experience more enjoyable, effective, and thorough.
Whether you work with a jazz combo, rock group, or big band, or just play for your own pleasure, “New Ears Resolution” will help you become the musician you have always wanted to be.
i’ve taught this method for years and have used it in my own performances. i’ve researched extensively in order to improve its design and have thus developed a comprehensive approach to the art of playing by ear.
Sonny Rollins is renowned for his unique approach to thematic development, which is somewhat similar to the way Beethoven worked in a piece such as his famous Fifth Symphony. His solo on his original tune “Blues for Philly Joe” (named for drummer Philly Joe Jones) is a perfect example of this type of development. Parts of the solo are so rhythmically driven, one can imagine that Rollins was consciously emulating the way a jazz drummer would approach a solo. Here is a great blues lick that works well over the IV chord (bars 62-63). Doesn’t it sound like something Cannonball (a great blues master) might have played? Try playing it in all 12 keys. If you can’t figure out how to transpose it, leave a comment below or email me for a free copy of the figure in all 12 keys.
Cannonball Adderley’s solo on “The Way You Look Tonight” is an amazing tourdeforce! He blazes through an entire chorus in 53 seconds. But, if you play this solo** at half speed, it is as melodic as a Johnny Hodges invention. Played in concert F, it is written for alto sax in D major. In this key, the bridge modulates to F major. However, the wonderful phrase shown below actually begins in G minor and ends in F major. Try playing this lick in all 12 keys. It works well over a II-V change. If you cannot figure it out on your own, email me for a free chart of the lick in all 12 keys.
Here is an exercise to develop your rhythmic precision, finger dexterity, and improvisatory diversity.
In Kenny Werner’s book “Effortless Mastery,” he states that in order for a phrase to sound relaxed & swinging, it must be played effortlessly. How do you play a line like the one below and make it sound effortless? You must sacrifice one of these qualities:
playing it fast
playing the whole phrase
playing it perfectly
Try looping little sections (as few as 2 notes) until they flow effortlessly. Use your metronome in order to keep the groove going smoothly. Start slowly and gradually extend the length, speed, and precision of what you are able to play effortlessly.
New Ears Resolution is not only designed to teach you to play by ear; this discipline also encourages you to think more intelligently about the material you are playing. Rote memorization of a song is not only tedious & laborious, but that process also cheats you out of the joy, wonder, and beauty implicit within the composition, the qualities which make a great performance so special. When you approach a piece with “new ears,” you are beginning to understand its underlying logic in the same way the composer did while creating it.
Below is a simple illustration of this process. The example is a Mixolydian phrase. Try playing it in all 12 keys. On the first line, the phrase is presented as if it were in C major. On line 2, the same phrase is shown once again, this time as if it were in F major. Which line helps you to better understand the phrase? I welcome your comments.
Page 43 of the Eb Charlie Parker Omnibookcontains this cool phrase in lines 12 & 13. Why does this particular lick sound so nice over a V7 chord? One reason is that the 3rd of the chord (TI), the 7th of the chord (FA), and the 13th of the chord (MI) are prominently featured on the strong beats 1, 3, & 1 respectively. These are the most interesting notes in the chord. FA & TI form an attractive tritone, while MI is a major 7th above FA. The line also has an interesting contour.
Although Bird’s solo on “An Oscar For Treadwell” is in the key of A major (on alto sax), you will notice that the lick shown below – which occurs in the first 2 measures of the bridge – is in the key of F#. For the benefit of New Ears Resolution students, i have written in the solfége syllables below the notes. (The syllable “SE” – pronounced “say” – is between SO and FA.) As always, you will derive the maximum benefit from playing this phrase in all 12 keys. If you cannot figure out the notes in the other keys, email me for a FREE pdf of the complete chart and an mp3 recording you can practice along with.
The more you study the work of the masters such as Charlie Parker, the richer your own musical vocabulary will become. Playing the licks in all 12 keys develops your “hand / ear co-ordination” and prevents you from falling into “finger familiarity” ruts.
Are you hip to Ralph Moore? He has a fabulous sound and great ideas. The following lick is taken from Ralph Moore’s solo on the tune “SOS” from the CD “Moore Makes 4” by the Ray Brown Trio with Ralph Moore. This is an amazing solo, packed with wonderful lyricism and dazzling technique. For details, see the book “Ralph Moore Jazz Tenor Solos” Transcribed by Bill Sears, published by Corybant Productions, Inc., 1994. I have recorded the lick in all 12 keys, so you can play along with the recording. On the following page is the link to the recording along with a chart showing the lick in all 12 keys. Below is an analysis of the various key centers traversed by the lick. You will note that the melody & the chord changes both adhere strictly to this key center scheme. (See “New Ears Resolution” for details on this analysis technique.)
This wonderful phrase illustrates how Charlie Parker (“YARDBIRD” or “BIRD”) could take a simple chord progression (such as III minor / bIII minor / II minor) and transform it into an opportunity to modulate. In this case, he raises the key by a half-step, a favorite be-bop modulation. (Thus, the bIII minor becomes a II minor in the key a half-step up from the original key.) To solo properly over this progression, you need to use the Ab major scale for beats 3 & 4 of measure 1, the G major scale for the rest of bars 1 & 2. Try it! As always, try to master the exercise without resorting to the printed page. Click here to hear the audio.
There are so many great phrases in this classic solo. This one deserves attention because of its rhythmic & melodic vitality and its effortless harmonic insinuation. Click below to see the phrase in all 12 keys. However, it is better to practice your ear training by figuring out the lick through melodic extrapolation. Click hereto purchase the Charlie Parker Omnibook with its 142 pages of heads & transcribed solos by Bird. Click here to hear a play-along version. (To slow it down or change the key, download the free program “Best Practice.”)
This arpeggio is very useful over a V7 (or a V9) chord. Notice that the iteration beginning on A# is actually in the key of C major. The A# is LI (sharp 6) in the major scale. For “New Ears Resolution” students, also note that the key change is indicated by the presence of a “pivot note.” Marked as (TI=LI), this notation is understood to mean “The note B natural, (TI in the old key of C major) will now become LI in the new key of Db major.” Once grasped, this understanding of modulation as described by a pivot note is a very powerful concept when one attempts to navigate the changes of a song with many internal key changes (such as “All the Things You Are.”)
You can play along with the background track to this lick. It’s an enjoyable & useful figure. Note that the background track starts with a count & a 4-bar introduction before you begin playing. Please email me, if you want a complimentary MIDI file or the Band in a Box file (to change tempo, style, or key). The background track is available here in 2 formats:
For “New Ears Resolution” students, listen for the II-V progression in the background track (Cm7-F7, etc.). The lick is easier to learn, if you hear it as: ti do li ti so fa la mi re so mi fa la li ti mi di re so .
This lick is in the John Coltrane solo to “I Love You.” Coltrane used this lick throughout his career. Many of his disciples also picked up on the lick. i work on it in 8 keys (the range shown for the first lick is 8va). For variety, try playing it in retrograde (backwards) as shown in the second example below.
For those studying “New Ears Resolution,” this blues lick is in the mixolydian mode. (See the chart showing the modes at the end of your book.) Try thinking of this melody first in mixolydian and then in ionian. Both sets of syllables are shown. Which ever set of syllables feels more comfortable to your ear, that is the set you should use. Try to play the melody as smoothly as possible, in order to realize the underlying swing. As with all exercises, start slowly and smoothly, gradually increasing the tempo. I play this at dotted quarter = 150.