How to Play by Ear

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My dad is 83 and plays the baritone sax for 2 or 3 hours each day. He has lessons; he is in bands; he practices reading music and other disciplines , but as yet finds it really hard to improvise jazz.

We were playing together (a rare event) when I realised that he could not copy even simple phrases. I would play a three or four note phrase on my soprano sax for him to copy. Because the soprano is an Eb instrument and the baritone is a Bb instrument, he would have to find his own fingering – not copying the finger movement by eye, but copying the pitch by ear.
In order to help as a ‘teacher’ I had to decide, ‘what is the problem’ before I could decide, ‘what is the solution’.

Let’s what ask ourselves, what are the possibilities? Could it be that we do not ‘hear’ the pitch of the notes, and needs training and practice to locate and identify pitches? Perhaps we needs to develop our ability to recognise the intervals between notes?

By the way, technically a note is the written symbol representing pitch and length. So theoretically speaking, you can’t hear notes! Think, “notation”. 

Anyway, an alternative cause is that my dad can hear the notes but has difficulty reproducing them on the instrument?

A big question arises. Should we develop our ability to reproduce what is heard – without an instrument? One might argue that it is necessary to be able to sing the note one has heard before one can introduce the ‘extra step’ of using an external instrument, rather than simply using the ‘built-in’ instrument of the human voice.

Well, yes and no. The voice is an alternative instrument. Like any other, one needs to learn how to imitate pitch at will. 

I’m sure that my years as a chorister taught me to read music, to hear harmony as chords (‘vertically’) and as related lines (‘horizontally’). Reading music in ‘SATB’ helped me visualise intervals, and even harmonic modulation, announced by accidentals, usually sharps. 

However, there are voice skills to be developed before the voice becomes an ‘automatic instrument’.  Because scales go up in varying intervals, it takes some work before we can produce these pitch jumps of one, two, or three semitones. It doesn’t help that the unequal steps making a scale are invisible as written notes

We started our ‘ear-and-fingering’ exercises by reducing the problem to a ‘multiple choice’ test. We reduced the scope to three, or even two pitches. Then I would play a musical phrase, with a distinctive rhythm for say, five notes, but only using the agreed three pitches. For example, I would play ABCBABA. Dad plays it back. We repeat until we both sound the same!

The following test would ntroduce minimal variation. For example changing only one note in the sequence. After a few exercises and some confidence building up, we start to make things harder. Change the rhythm, the phrasing, change the pitches of several notes, not just one of them. Always start on the same note, to build confidence. 

There are three big changes to be introduced on day a time, when we are completely confident at the current level. 

One is to introduce pitch jumps of more than one step. This is a big deal. Beginners in improvisation usually play only adjacent pitches. It’s a good safe place to start exploring, especially when learning to harmonise. 

Another change to introduce is not starting on the same note. 

Another might be to restrict the test to pitches from different parts of a major or minor scale, imitating fragments of known tunes, and variations. 

Another change / challenge will be to start on a different pitch each time. 

Once the student is able to reproduce phrases, either by voice or on their instrument, they are on their way to playing along with recorded music, and with other musicians too. 

Advanced lessons could include repeating back phrases that include grace notes or mode changes such as copying four notes in the same rising and falling pattern, but each time using major, minor, Dorian, or Mixolydian scales. 

Another variation would be to hear a phrase, and then harmonise with it as the leader repeats. 

We found that a few minutes of this ‘ear-to-fingering’ traing was very rewarding. The leader has to concentrate to be constantly generating phrases that stretch and consolidate the follower’s ability. The follower also gets immediate feedback from their own improvement, which can easily be recognised by both. 

It’s actually fun too, if you have a laugh at both the mistakes and successes. 

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