Category Archives: The Guru Speaks

Can You HEAR It?


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.     

Learning the guitar: It’s Complicated

You know the guitar is complicated, and so do I. There are different ways to do everything, and the fact that all the strings are tuned in fourths EXCEPT the interval between the second and third strings makes the instrument truly schizophrenic. But look, if you understood other instruments one percent as much as you understand the guitar, you wouldn’t beat yourself up as much.

El Kabong

El Kabong

Some instruments are too simple. Bagpipes don’t have all the notes on them so you are pretty much relegated to playing folk music idiomatic to the culture where they play bagpipes. (I tried bagpipes once, in Scotland, and I was shoving air into it so hard I almost fainted, and it wouldn’t make a peep. Then for no reason it would ERUPT in sound, which scared me so I stopped blowing, it would close up, and, panting and sweating, I had to start over. Stupid instrument, or should I say, stupid American?
It’s about right on piano. There is one place to play any given note, and you can play any note. You can play chords. And it’s all visual, like guitar or vibraphone. If you teach jazz combo, the pianists always get it first. The instrument doesn’t get in the way.
With wind instruments there is usually a common way to do most things, so they play a given scale much the same way most of the time. Trombone is the most complicated among the brass and wind instruments that are used to play jazz.
All string instruments have more than one place to play a note, but again, guitar, between having six strings and the tuning glitch, is nuts. If you play in first position there is a pattern to where notes are, but if you play in second position the pattern changes because you moved your hand. There are 12 positions on the neck before everything repeats, so it’s like trying to learn 12 different instruments. Now do you see why guitarists have difficulty reading music? We are trying to do things on a much more complicated instrument than anyone else.
So here is the solution to everything: Whatever it is you are trying to learn, you need to first simplify the instrument. Then you need to learn the thing you want to learn. Then after you have learned the thing, you can go back and complicate the instrument back up again.