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Playing by ear. Improvisation.

Postby 2ba4t » Wed Mar 25, 2020 9:07 am

Being born and bred a 'reader' - I can play almost anything put in front of me but have struggled when having to improvise or play whatever is in my head.
I can memorise but not play whatever I could whistle.
Are there any tricks or books [which work] out there besides 'Just do it and make mistakes' ??
Youngsters nideed often have the brashness just to play and make mistakes. Is that the secret? Any help out there, please?
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Re: Playing by ear. Improvisation.

Postby UncleBeer » Wed Mar 25, 2020 9:19 am

Check out the Jamey Aebersold series of play-along CDs and books. The bass is recorded in one channel, piano in the other, and drums in the middle, so you can turn off the bass and play along. Learn what the chord symbols mean, learn to spell chords quickly, play along with the charts substituting the bass; first in whole notes (just the root); then in half notes (root, then 5th); then quarter notes (outline the arpeggio). This will get you started.
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Re: Playing by ear. Improvisation.

Postby timayer » Wed Mar 25, 2020 9:32 am

Just like anything else, it takes a lot of practice and repetition. The Aebersold albums are a great suggestion. You also need to spend a lot of time with scales and arpeggios (not just major and minor, either) to get the theory under your fingers - At some point, things are going too fast to think "chord - notes - fingerings," and you have to be able to do it without the thought process.

It's also like anything else, each piece needs to be practiced, even for the improvisation. Most working jazz musicians know basically what they're going to do when given a solo in Autumn Leaves, for instance. I never took many solos when I played jazz regularly, either on tuba or bass. I got to a point where I could sight read a lead sheet and produce a good bass line on either instrument. But my lines got more interesting the more I played the pieces, because I had certain licks I knew I was going to do, despite it looking like "improvisation" to the audience.

Another great way to get started (I think) is to do polka. The chords tend to be simpler than jazz, and the expectation of the tuba is less demanding, but it gets your brain thinking the right way.
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Re: Playing by ear. Improvisation.

Postby Charlie C Chowder » Wed Mar 25, 2020 9:48 am

Let me just add close the books and do the scales and arpeggios with out the printed notes to guide you. Always close the books after any practice, and just play for the love of playing.

My sight reading sucks!
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Re: Playing by ear. Improvisation.

Postby spirtuba » Wed Mar 25, 2020 9:56 am

Yes, it's just a lot of practice, repetition, and finding out, what sounds good and what doesn't work. Regarding Jazz there are a lot of very good books to learn but you'll always have to learn to hear what they tell you, that just takes a lot of time (like anything worth doing).

As an alternative to Aebersold you can try the app "iReal Pro", you can transpose the slow down the pieces there. Maybe there are more apps around doing the same, don't know.

For "music readers", I also tend to be more that kind of player, I think, it's very beneficial just to try to play everything you hear on the instrument, folk tunes, anthems etc. even what the blackbird is singing outside. You'll probably find out that you can play a note you hear even without absolute pitch (because you are familiar with your instrument and just know how to play a note you hear).
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Re: Playing by ear. Improvisation.

Postby bloke » Wed Mar 25, 2020 10:58 am

2ba4t wrote:...tricks...?


Working on this skill-set requires the same amount of time/dedication as any other performance skill-set, except that (unlike other performance skill-set) [1] there's really no upper limit to ability (ie. it's never "good enough") and [2] this skill-set is infinitely more broad-based that others (ie. It's not at all like "OK, great: NOW I can do lip trills.")

Occasionally, I'm complimented on my ("ok, I guess" :roll: ) skills along these lines. I've learned to say "thank-you" (even though I SUCK), because I know that (me: compared to them: nothing at all) people like this have existed and do exist:
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=U0MgN0wI0Dk

I DO encourage you to jump in, and begin a pursuit. I would wager that it would improve other aspects of most anyone's playing.

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Re: Playing by ear. Improvisation.

Postby Bill Troiano » Wed Mar 25, 2020 11:10 am

What Charlie said !!!
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Re: Playing by ear. Improvisation.

Postby bloke » Wed Mar 25, 2020 11:25 am

ok..."tricks"...

When stuck in your car and listening to music...

> Work on (whether simple or complex music being emitted from the speakers) wigging out the chord changes, melody pitches, bass line pitches, and harmony pitches (scale steps).

> Think of a song (simple or complex), and "ghost-finger" the melody in an easy key, a less-commonly-encountered key, and then in an even more remote key. If you get confused, start over.

At home...

> Be sure that you can innately name and immediately play - throughout your range - all of the seven scale steps' defined chord tones (in all three inversions, and in all major/minor keys) and all types of seventh chords in all four inversions (enough for starters) on every chromatic scale step...and both "spelled" in sharps and in flats.

> It is said that Bach's compositional skills were developed - in part - from copying scores. Listen to great artists' solos, and (even if very difficult at first) write them down...and then play them.

This is the basic vocabulary of our music. Without immediate access to all the words, there are no sentences or paragraphs.
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Re: Playing by ear. Improvisation.

Postby Richard Armandi » Wed Mar 25, 2020 4:32 pm

What everyone thus far has said.
Also, take simple songs (Saints, Happy Birthday, Do Re Mi, any Christmas carol, any song you know) and figure out playing them while taking note of the scale degrees you're playing. I have my students keep a notebook of the songs and their respective scale degrees and then have them do a given song in several keys. This is also, I feel, great ear training since most of these simple songs are diatonic in nature and will get you very familiar with the character/sound of each scale degree, i.e., tonic, 3rd, 5th, etc.
Also, Aebersold Vol. 1 is great because many of the tracks have you using the Dorian mode, a scale where each note sounds good against the chord. Also Vol. 24, 'Major and Minor' is excellent to get started improvising.
Hope this helps.
Btw., if his workshops fly this year - we're all on hold to see how far down the road this virus impacts gatherings, etc. - I'll celebrate my 31st year of being on the faculty. My favorite two weeks of the year...
Stay safe, everyone.
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Re: Playing by ear. Improvisation.

Postby Doug Elliott » Wed Mar 25, 2020 4:44 pm

"Just do it and make mistakes" is a large part of it. If you have an ear you will hear your own mistakes, learn from them if you don't get frustrated and quit, and gradually there will be less mistakes. You have to be willing to go through that "suck" phase.
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Re: Playing by ear. Improvisation.

Postby Donn » Wed Mar 25, 2020 4:47 pm

Doug Elliott wrote:You have to be willing to go through that "suck" phase.


Or be willing to live with it, in case it doesn't have well defined end.
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Re: Playing by ear. Improvisation.

Postby bloke » Wed Mar 25, 2020 9:52 pm

My daughter’s wished-he-was-her-boyfriend (but wasn’t) in the 12th grade played a whole BUNCH of notes on his saxophone - I suppose, figuring that some might be the right ones.
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Re: Playing by ear. Improvisation.

Postby Art Hovey » Wed Mar 25, 2020 11:18 pm

I've had the privilege of working with many musicians who are far better than me, and have observed that most of them are either improvisers or readers; only a few are equally comfortable with either approach to making music. When I was young and stupid and just learning to play the tuba I practiced my school band music and eventually the Arban book. I learned my basic scales and how to make sounds with a tuba, and pretty soon I could play anything that I could hum or whistle. (Happy Birthday, the Micky Mouse club song, all the standard xmas songs, etc.) and that was really more fun than the boring stuff on my music stand. So I never became a very good at reading music, but I had a lot of fun playing along with records. Now I know that I have always been slightly dyslexic, which is why I am a slow reader.
You wish someone could tell you the secret trick to learning improvisation; I wish I could learn the secret trick to lightning sight-reading. I still work hard on it every day when I practice, but really enjoy the gigs that do not involve charts.
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Re: Playing by ear. Improvisation.

Postby GC » Thu Mar 26, 2020 4:31 am

If you know your scales: pick a simple (really simple) familiar melody and pick it out. If you make mistakes (and you will), keep going till you get it right. Then pick another starting note and pick it out again. Repeat. You'll probably soon recognize how it fits within a scale, and it suddenly makes more sense. Then try a slightly longer melody and do the same. You'll improve.

If you don't know your scales: learn them. It's not hard, it just takes a little instruction and a lot of practice.
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Re: Playing by ear. Improvisation.

Postby bloke » Thu Mar 26, 2020 9:16 am

Art Hovey wrote:...I wish I could learn the secret trick to lightning sight-reading. I still work hard on it every day when I practice, but really enjoy the gigs that do not involve charts.


sight-reading:
I usually do pretty well - first time through - because I've disciplined myself to read ahead 1 - 3 bars at a time, the first time I see something...
...the second time through: If some tricky rhythms, I might actually not quite do as well, UNLESS I exercise the same read-ahead discipline as with the first time through.
(If the charts were sitting on the stand when I walked in - and I have time to "ghost-finger" though them...as well as "play" the sound of them in my head - I don't categorize that as "sight-reading". (Church charts: almost never require looking ahead. I wish they would NOT mail them to my house - in particular: not the friggin' originals. I have to keep track of them, and remember to bring them to the rehearsal-or-gig. In particular, I consider mailing charts to be risky behavior, certainly since the everyone-has-it technology of emailing scans - or even carefully-shot phone pics - exists.)

gigs where the band just plays songs and doesn't read charts:
the BEST...certainly the most fun...particularly if the personnel are really great players
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Re: Playing by ear. Improvisation.

Postby Art Hovey » Thu Mar 26, 2020 10:43 pm

Improvisation, of course, involves more than just playing by ear. You really have to know chord patterns. Not necessarily by the fancy names found in music theory, but by sounds. That means spending some time fooling around with a chord-playing instrument such as a keyboard or a guitar a uke or a banjo or a squeezebox. When you know the chords then you can make a melody interesting by adding your personal touch without messing it up. Louis Armstrong demonstrated that skill masterfully both with his trumpet and with his wonderful voice. I could be wrong, but I don't think he ever studied music theory.
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Re: Playing by ear. Improvisation.

Postby Doc » Thu Mar 26, 2020 11:27 pm

Art Hovey wrote:Improvisation, of course, involves more than just playing by ear. You really have to know chord patterns. Not necessarily by the fancy names found in music theory, but by sounds.


And knowing your instrument well enough to know (intuitively or nearly so) where all those chords/patterns/scales/notes are on the instrument.

I listened to great bass players (and tuba players) and bass lines as a kid. I regularly played bass and tuba along with recordings to mimic the lines to get an understanding of bass lines, style, how to lead the band through chord changes, etc., and I played along with all styles and genres. Today, I still hear bits of my early influences in my playing, but I developed my own “style.” Early on, I understood the importance of playing scales and arpeggios - I learned to play in different keys.
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Re: Playing by ear. Improvisation.

Postby bloke » Thu Mar 26, 2020 11:30 pm

Art is right.
I don’t think about it very often, but I spent and awful lot of time with the piano, guitar, and bass.
Actually, I’ve had bass players walk up to me at gigs and ask, “You’re a bass player, aren’t you?” :roll:
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