As the years go by I notice the changing of the generations in subtle ways, especially through my teaching at the high school and college level. For example, this is the year that no one in my Jazz Improvisation class recognized or knew of the Stevie Wonder song, “You Are The Sunshine Of My Life.” I am not stunned by this because things like that have happened before over the years. One of those events that told me things are not the same anymore, however, is unacceptable to me and always will be.
There are young people who picked up a guitar or other instrument, took lessons, joined band or orchestra in high school or formed garage bands, and are now in college jazz programs who have no idea that you are supposed to “hear” music. They relate to the instrument through sheet music or tab, and studying jazz means learning to regurgitate patterns when prompted by certain chord progressions. Theory is something everyone knows is beneficial to learn, but they don’t know why, because it has no effect on their actual jazz playing. This is not how an earlier generation learned.
I remember trying to find “The Girl From Ipanema” by ear on an old piano when I was 10 (stopped cold by the bridge). Also, I spent an entire afternoon trying to learn “Day Tripper” again by ear on my friend’s guitar. (I would get it but forget where the notes were-it was maddening). I learned from listening, never by reading tab or anything else-I don’t think they used tab back then. Not knowing how to read actually gave me an inferiority complex about pursuing music as a profession, but years later I learned that there were big advantages to my way as well as disadvantages.
The hearing of it all is so ingrained that I often miss diagnosing the problems of my students for a minute because I forget that it is all an audio version of Braille to them. I am thinking that many readers of this are in this situation, so I have something I’d like you to try: play “Happy Birthday” on the piano, starting on any note, until you can play it right. No tab, no sheet music, nothing but your ear, your memory and one or two fingers. Then do the same thing starting from the next note up, and so on, until you have played it 12 different ways, from all 12 notes. Like the highway sign says, “Expect Delays”. You will want to quit as your patience wears thin, but don’t. The important thing is what you learn about the rules of music through doing this. If you get through it all you will be learning theory with the music itself as the teacher. Try it. And don’t quit.