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Improvising by Ear

Wade Cornell

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While many of us are shut in it may be time to consider some different styles of practice.

There's lots of information that advises players how to read a chart and play an improvisation that will sound OK. What's seldom discussed is how to improvise by ear, where you react to what you're hearing and play appropriately, whether that's as backing or a soloist. These two different approaches are not mutually exclusive, but learning to play patterns according to a chart's changes is less of an ear exercise and more visual/mechanical. If using your ear(s) it's a strictly audio interpretation in which you put yourself in the music by hearing a line that you'd like to play. It's based on your hearing a musical line instead of visualizing music or using practiced patterns anticipating a fit. It's having the music come from you instead of a "cut and paste" process. It's most closely related to singing, with the instrument being your voice.

As you'd imagine this doesn't come about without a lot of practice. Unfortunately if one never tries to undertake ear improvisation they may never be able to improvise creatively. The good news is, it's never too early to start playing by ear and (IMHO) should be a major part of training anyone who is serious about improvisation. Those of you who are familiar with the Suzuki teaching method will recognize that this is a major component in their teaching.

There are two basic components: 1. hear what you would like to play, 2. develop the facility to play what you hear. The first task means that you sing a line, which doesn't require a good voice, or even singing out loud, just hearing the notes you want to play. We need to be honest with ourselves about this process. While it's possible for most people to mechanically conceive of variations on a theme, that's not the same as coming up with a creative or melodic line. You may or may not possess the ability to do this easily.

The second part of the equation can take years, but it is possible for anyone with a sense of "relative pitch" and average coordination to be successful. It's simply developing your ability to play by ear. This can initially be just playing any simple tune without written music. Giving yourself a random start note means that you need to hear the rest of the tune in that key and play appropriately. Exercises without sheet music should ALWAYS be used. You are trying to train your fingers to respond to a note you hear in your head. It's a completely different mental pathway to seeing a note and having your fingers play that note, or thinking in terms of "finger memory" patterns you have practiced by rote.

An advanced exercise is to play along with the radio. Use random stations and NOT just a style of music you like. You are stretching your ears and developing a musical library in which you hear patters and learn how to respond to these by listening and playing appropriately. It's less important to name the patterns or changes than it is to hear them and be able to internalize knowing how to play along. Ultimately the goal is to become a creative player able to sit in with any type of music and do something more substantial than playing mechanically.

There is still a need to be able to read music, and understand theory as this is the way musicians communicate what they are wanting to play/create. There is no reason why any serious musician should cut themselves off from either of these worlds (written music and playing by ear).

This site has a collection of tracks that can give moderate to advanced challenges for those wanting to practice playing by ear:
Wikiloops Backing Tracks
There's a wide range of styles to choose from and over 200 tracks. None of these are standards, although many have familiar patterns. They are being added to regularly, so can continue to present challenges over time.
 

randulo

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WHat's nice about playing alone or with just a metronome or drum track is that you can decide what kind of tonality, major, minor or some less-used mode and start to make up a melody. Here's an example of something I recently recorded thinking "no blues". Still, since it centers on an altered dominant seventh chord, it's a kind of lament, a different form of blues
https://soundcloud.com/randulo%2Fno-blues-10 View: https://soundcloud.com/randulo/no-blues-10
 

Pete Effamy

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honest with ourselves
I agree with your post Wade, good advice and playing by ear - off-script - is very different to reading a chord chart. The weird thing is, if we're competent at both, I think most of us still play quite differently. I grew up being an ear-player, a Dixieland clarinet player until going to college and being all at sea on some of the more involved harmony tunes. I knew that I had to study harmony in order to progress rather than playing the Blues scale over the Altered scale every time 'cos I could get away with it.

The "honest with ourselves" is the phrase that leapt from the page for me, as many of us aren't.
 

Zugzwang

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…”We need to be honest with ourselves about this process. While it's possible for most people to mechanically conceive of variations on a theme, that's not the same as coming up with a creative or melodic line.”
Interesting post, thanks @Wade Cornell and very apposite for me - in the absence of any people, I’m playing requests from a new herd of cattle that have just arrived in the field here. (Extremely appreciative, but lacking in discernment, and with a tendency to climb over each other to see - sound familiar?) So I’m playing whatever comes into my head…
I wasn’t sure what you meant by “mechanically conceive” Could you say more? Thanks.
 

Wade Cornell

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WHat's nice about playing alone or with just a metronome or drum track is that you can decide what kind of tonality, major, minor or some less-used mode and start to make up a melody. Here's an example of something I recently recorded thinking "no blues". Still, since it centers on an altered dominant seventh chord, it's a kind of lament, a different form of blues
https://soundcloud.com/randulo%2Fno-blues-10 View: https://soundcloud.com/randulo/no-blues-10

Your tone, control, and dynamics are really good! The only question is whether you conceived of all the notes you were playing. When playing in a mode we can construct a series of variations knowing that as long as we stay within the mode we aren't likely to play any discernible clunkers. Then again playing in a mode can also focus your creativity. Regardless it's a good exercise and it sounded good!
 

randulo

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Thanks, Wade. Yes, you can fall into having a scale "under your fingers" and just flap around on it, but still improvising the 10 other elements of music that are not the notes. And, in fact, that's a part of improvising. Ask John Coltrane. You can use these "sheets", and upon listening again, I did that in the first run down to low E. I was thinking, fly down to the low E. But other intervals were heard before playing, albeit without concentration. There is a thing between "hear the note, then play it" and "just play". If you think it's music, just play is fine.

As for learning to improvise, in my opinion and experience, two important things count for a lot.

1. Listening to music of many kinds
2. Analysing, understanding what makes it music

The rest is more mechanical. If you get those first two, and are able to produce a sound you're ok with on your instrument, you should be able to create.

Barring that, you can always teach. >:)
 

Wade Cornell

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…”We need to be honest with ourselves about this process. While it's possible for most people to mechanically conceive of variations on a theme, that's not the same as coming up with a creative or melodic line.”
Interesting post, thanks @Wade Cornell and very apposite for me - in the absence of any people, I’m playing requests from a new herd of cattle that have just arrived in the field here. (Extremely appreciative, but lacking in discernment, and with a tendency to climb over each other to see - sound familiar?) So I’m playing whatever comes into my head…
I wasn’t sure what you meant by “mechanically conceive” Could you say more? Thanks.

I also live in a rural situation...no animals, I play for my fig orchard or forests. No reaction at all! I'd rather be booed than ignored!

Will take your question about "mechanical" as serious. Mechanical, may not have been the best descriptive word, but it does come down to a more formulated type of playing. There is nothing "wrong" with playing in a formulated style, but it may be less interesting for listeners. It's difficult, if not impossible, to teach creativity. What can be taught are formulated ways to "improvise" that don't require precognition or musical thought. In the simplest form you can read a chart and understand the notes that make up each chord and "mechanically" play those notes (not actually hearing the notes you play until they come out of your horn) , and it can sound OK. It's possible to develop good technical skills, understanding transitions, picking up riffs and "tricks" that can be applied in a cut and paste manner, but it's still not necessarily creative. If the player is happy, then all is good.

When you listen to a great player improvise it's more like a personal communication in which they give emotions, tell stories, or utilize the instrument in a unique way. It is composition on the fly.

Most of us are never going to be great improvisers, but we can still try to engage ourselves in a creative way to whatever degree we are capable of. Having good musical knowledge is important, and a mental library of lots of music (not necessarily just sax solos you want to imitate).

Most importantly there is a divide between formulated playing and improvising by ear. The former player learns technique that puts them into a very long cue of fastest sax (like fastest gun in the west). The mentality is one of developing their playing to impress. The latter is more interested in communicating what they hear or conceive of. The music is more important than the messenger. Many good improvisers will talk about being "in the zone". This is a state where the music flows through you and your subconscious plays the notes you hear. It's in a way a contradiction or irony that playing for others is an egotistical thing to do, yet being in the zone is to be without ego. As soon as you try "own it" it disappears.

Keep playing for those cows, and try to always be playing what you hear.
 

randulo

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Of course that's an old and stupid joke: "If you can't play, teach." Because Eric Marienthal and John Patitucci can both play and they both are excellent teachers.
 

Pete Effamy

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"If you can't play, teach."
When at college in a piano lesson, the teacher was showing my mate a close-harmony sound on the piano -

Teacher: "That's five saxes".
Student: "What is that then?" (what are the notes?)
Teacher: ......"That's five saxes".

He was a great player, but his knowledge was all in his ear and fingers...
 

randulo

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I know Randy, just pulling your leg back.
That wasn't directed at you, just a general comment that every player should realize. And as an afterthought, during this time, you mostly can't play professionally. Even Hollywood is mostly off. But you can teach online, so... if you can't play, teach :)
 

Clivey

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Am I way wrong to assume that the only kind of real improvising by default has to be by ear or it`s not improvisation at all? This is yet another hot tattie thread for me. surely the method is individual to each practitioner as are the results. I do get Wades points , He`s been making them for years, and whether or not jazz requires conservation is another topic to broach, but to me improvisation starts in the kindergarden and follows us all the way through life. re "cheating" this is surely the heart of most of todays so called improvised music and much of yesterdays and is absolutey to be celebrated rather than shunned as being inferior in any way. It is what it is, and what was LOL. I`m pretty well sure most guys here who have gigged intensely in a club setting will have extended material on the fly just to spin out the set. just imagine how adept you get at doing this playing 2 or three sets a day.
 
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