Ear Training and Jazz, Exercises With A Friend

For the younger player, or for the beginning jazz player of any age, here are a number of exercises and activities that you or your students can do with friends. They will all help in ear training, jazz improvisation and general musicianship.

They are roughly in order of difficulty and/or importance. Some of them will interest you more than others: do those that you enjoy! The activity is good for both musicians.

Note: the most important factor in learning is that it be positive experience. Students (or you yourself) are unlikely to stay long in a learning project that is not fun. Take your time, lots of time; be patient and have fun!

On your instrument(s), or vocally, call/response, echo, playback short patterns, rhythms, short melodies, beginning with very simple material and eventually getting longer and more complex.

Ask each other questions, either from a keyboard or with other instruments (no peeking):

What KIND of scale is this?

What INTERVAL is this?

What kind of TRIAD is this? (Chord quality–major, minor, diminished, etc.)

What (4-note) chord type is this?

Here is a C (or some other given pitch); now what pitch is this next one? (Sometimes higher, sometimes lower.)

Here is a C (or other); now what triad is this? (Save inversions for a little later.)

Here is a C (or other); now name the following pitches as I play . . .

Note: Midrange is easiest for most students, or their vocal range. After you get good at a type of question, explore RANGE.

(More …) Here is a melody you know well (tell me if you don’t know it) in the key of __. I will play a wrong note someplace–you tell me what the wrong note was, and what it should have been.

Now write down this melody. (Note that melodic dictation requires knowledge of written manuscript, including rhythmic notation. Notation will be important. Notation can be a good tool in learning to play by ear, but it is not the SAME as playing by ear. It is very valuable of course, but it is time-consuming. Quicker progress in Playing By Ear might be achieved by temporarily postponing written dictation skills.)

What is a II-chord in the key of A-flat major? Spell it.

Compete, always in a friendly way, to see who can memorize the most new tunes in a week. Play them for each other.

Listen to a recording together. Listen. Don’t talk. Notice things you like (or dislike). At the end of the track, discuss what you noticed. Repeat 4 or 5 times. Listen deeply.

Frequently compliment each other’s progress. That’s great!

Teach your friend a new song. Learn a new song, aurally, from your friend.

Collect several Play-Along recordings, in a variety of styles, and share/swap them with friends.

Most young jazzers find Play-Along recordings physically and mentally tiring at first. You will have more fun, and make quicker progress, if you practice with a friend. Alternate choruses, or alternate tunes, or trade 2-chorus solos, or 8-bar sections. It is Okay to stop, laugh, discuss, begin again. And it is Okay to skip a track you do not yet enjoy.

Continually encourage each other to maintain non-jazz practice of scales, technical work, etudes, drills, solo literature, band parts, etc. It is not wise for young jazz enthusiasts to over-concentrate in jazz. Play legit duets and trios. Trade scales and technical patterns. Legit technical work never hurt anyone’s jazz.

As soon as you might be ready, do find a place to play jazz for an audience.

Transcribe some solos together, cooperatively.

Make a game of this: How many keys can you play “_______” in without stumbling?

With Play-Along albums, practice playing together, with one of you playing the melody and the other playing harmony, countermelody or responsive melody (in the spaces). Trade jobs on alternate choruses.

Encourage each other to develop more and more skills at the piano. It will help you in more ways than you know.

Give each other jazz-related gifts for Christmas, birthdays, graduations and on any occasion–Play-Along albums, jazz texts, albums by your heroes, fake books, etc.

If ready, discuss with your friend the harmonic analysis of some standard that interests you both. What key are we really in at this point? What would be the significant accidentals to employ in the new key area? How do we know this is a temporary key–what makes it so? Discuss: the lengths of the phrases, lyrics, rhythms, deceptive cadences, whatever you see.

Keep after each other to learn a good variety of tunes–ballads, latins, waltzes, Dixieland, jazz standards, old bounces, originals, new tunes by contemporaries, etc.