Pedagogy: The Ear/Horn Connection by Joe Dollard
What is the Ear/Horn Connection?
Let me begin by saying that I believe there are several types of ear training. Some musicians have a great ear for intonation or a fine tone quality. Others may be adept at picking out tones in a chord, theoretically identifying music, rhythm, style, or any number of other musical attributes. While these are all useful skills in making music, the kind of ear training I’m talking about today has to do with connecting our instruments to the actual pitches we are hearing with our ears and in our minds. This connection between ear, voice, and instrument helps us to play on our instruments what we can sing with our voice and hear in our head. Singers automatically have this skill and use it every day, because there is no instrument between their ears and their voice. We as instrumentalists can have the same connection-it just takes a little practice and understanding.
When presenting this topic at a clinic, I begin by having everybody sing “Happy Birthday,” with great fun and smiles all around. Then, I have everyone scoop up their horns and tell them to play what they just sang. I don’t even give them a starting pitch. Suddenly, instead of smiles and fun, I see furrowed brows and struggle. Why? Most of us have spent thousands of hours playing our instruments and much less time singing with our voice, yet it is much easier to sing pitches we hear than to play them. Why is that? I contend that there is a connection between our ear and our voice that sometimes does not develop between our ear and our horns. This differs in musicians due to the various ways in which we learned to play and all of our individual experiences since we began. Some musicians learn to play by ear and immediately forge this connection. Unfortunately, other than Suzuki method students, most instrumentalists learn by fingerings and symbols first, sound later, thus forming a visual rather than an aural connection with their horn.
It’s my belief that we should start students with sound and then work toward the written music. This is how we all learn to speak. You would never teach a baby to speak by pointing to a letter in a book and telling them how to form their lips and tongue, yet in many ways this is how we are teaching young players to begin making sounds on their instruments. We learn to speak by sound and imitation and then later on we learn the symbols on the page that represent those sounds. We don’t learn to read and then learn to speak. We should learn how to play the same way….sound first, then symbols on the page. I believe this is the fundamental reason that the ear/horn connection does not get forged at an early age and thus become the model for how we play for the rest of our lives.
To review, we are not talking about the ability to hear complex music or theoretically identify what we are hearing, but rather the ability to play instantly and easily on your instrument what you already can hear in your head.
Why is This Connection Important?
I cannot think of anyone who wouldn’t be a much better player by attaining this skill. I would add that I believe many of the very top instrumentalists in the world have this ability. I once heard Itzhak Perlman being interviewed and in the middle of it, he sang an old tune that he had heard while traveling. Immediately, he picked up his violin and played it exactly as he had just sung. It seemed obvious that he had a deep connection between his violin and his inner voice. A friend of mine recently sent me a YouTube link of Clifford Brown practicing. Toward the end of the clip, he sang a lick he was trying to play and it sounded exactly like his trumpet. Anyone familiar with Chet Baker’s music has heard the way that he scat sings and it sounds just like his playing. The late Arnold Jacobs amazed me on several occasions by picking up his tuba and playing exactly what he had just demonstrated with his voice or someone else had just played on their instrument. Although I have met many fine players that cannot do this, I believe every one of them would be an even better player if they had this connection with their horns.
It’s fun! That’s why we’re playing anyway. What if playing your horn was no different from singing with your voice? How connected to your horn would you be? It would be an extension of your ear much like your voice, instead of an external device in front of your face. How cool would that be? The answer is very, very, cool and fun. You could play anything you heard and all that singing in the shower could be transferred to a more appropriate venue.
Being connected to pitch with our instruments puts us in a place of understanding the music instead of reciting what we see on the page. Not having this connection is equivalent to reading words off a page but not understanding the story. We’ve all heard kids (and adults) read like this. It’s like they are telling the story without living it or feeling it. Music is the same way. It should go through your ears, not just reflect off your eyes. When you can play what you can hear, the music you play will become a part of you and then come out of your bell, not just bounce off your brain and fingers. Having an aural connection to music gives an awareness that transcends theory, history, or academic study. It’s why we are all so moved by what we hear. In the end, music is SOUND, so it stands to reason that we approach our instruments from the standpoint of sound, not from printed graphics on a page.
Can I Improve This Connection With My Instrument?
Yes! This skill can be developed just like tone, fingers, style, range, and flexibility. You can develop it by doing it every day in small doses. If you have ever learned a video game, you are familiar with how bad you are when you start. But the more you play and have fun, the better you get…without even thinking about it. It’s great to think of this ear/horn connection as a video game for your ears. Instead of getting in front of “Guitar Hero” for an hour, pick up your horn and become a “Tuba Hero” by forging a deep and long lasting connection to your inner voice.
Many people believe that we are born with the natural ability to hear or not and that we can’t change this. This is simply not true. I know this because I have experienced it first hand. The reason I am so passionate about this subject is because I have struggled with it for many years. Before my Navy Band career, I received a degree in Jazz Studies from the University of North Texas, one of the finest music schools in the nation. Although I could play quite well on many tunes, I always had a feeling of fear and trepidation when it came to my ear. I was fantastic at theoretical identification and aced all my ear-training exams but when it came to my horn, I would have been very challenged playing “Happy Birthday” in an unfamiliar key, playing a tune by ear, or soloing without knowing the chord changes. I spoke to my teacher, the late Rich Matteson, about it but he didn’t really even understand what I was asking him. I realized then that, to Rich, singing and playing were the same thing. He couldn’t conceive of the notion of playing by sight, fingerings, or seeing notes on the staff in your head and yet this is how I played all the patterns he gave me and how I learned the tunes in improvisation class. I would see the staff in my head and “read” off of that, which is no different than reading music off of a page. The idea of just hearing a note and being able to play it scared me to death. After I arrived in Washington, D.C., I started thinking about this and slowly started working on it more consistently. In the past three years since I’ve retired, I have devoted a lot of time and thought to it. Now it is becoming quite fun and easy for me and I can see how much better I am at this than I used to be. I’m living proof that anyone can learn how to do this, and that includes you. When you were young, you didn’t know the fingerings for your horn, how to read music, how to speak, or even how to walk. But you learned how to do all those things, and developing a connection between your ear and your horn is just as attainable.
How Can I Improve This Connection?
Now that we know what the ear/horn connection is and that we can improve it like any other skill, it’s time to put the lips to the mouthpiece and talk about different ways of approaching how to forge this connection. Over the last few years, I have tried many different ear-training methods and different ways of practicing. I have found that the following five activities have worked best for me. Don’t do all five at once! Try one for a while and see how it works before moving on to another. Everyone is different and what works for one of us might not work for someone else. Feel free to experiment with different approaches. As long as you are singing a pitch in your head and trying to find it on your horn, you are working on this connection. So here are my top five suggestions (in no particular order):
1) Play tunes “by ear” every day. Do this with tunes you know and can sing very easily. Remember, right now you’re not working on your ability to hear complex music, you’re working on the ability to play what you already can hear. Pick a tune you can sing easily like “Happy Birthday.” Sing a clear starting pitch that feels comfortable to your voice and then sing the song. After singing, immediately pick up your horn and play what you just sang. At first, just finding the starting pitch may be difficult. Sing it again if you have trouble. You may want to start doing this one phrase at a time at first and then try complete tunes later on when it gets easier. When you learn a tune in one key, don’t play it in that key again or you’re not working on the skill, you are just repeating what you know. Try a different key or a different tune. We all have tunes that we’ve known well for a long, long time and other tunes that we kind of know but parts of them are hazy in our pitch memories. For the tunes you “kind of know,” get a recording or figure it out on the piano. Listen to it and sing it until it is very solid in your brain. THEN pick up your horn and find it. It’s crucially important that you are singing accurate pitches in your head while you are doing this. If, while trying to find the tune, you get confused, stop! Carefully sing the tune again with your voice. Then go back to your horn. Resist the temptation to use keys, intervals, or scales to identify what you are playing. Just sing a pitch in your head and try to play it on your instrument. With time, your voice and your horn will start being more like each other until they become almost the same thing.
2) Try learning solos by ear instead of reading them off a page. Jazz players transcribe solos all the time. Why doesn’t anyone do this with classical solos? Try this once and you won’t believe the difference! Get a recording of the next solo you want to play and learn it a little bit at a time by ear. Play along with the recording as you learn the solo. Don’t write it down! After you finish and can play the entire solo by ear, sit down and compare it with the published version and then continue to play and perform it without the printed page. It will become your favorite solo because you will understand it in a way that is different from any other solo you have played. The music will go though an entirely new part of your brain and heart. You will tell a story when you play because you will understand the story completely. (A word of caution…You must be very careful or dangerous collateral learning will occur. You may accidentally start playing with better sound, rhythm, and style because you are imitating players you love. Don’t say I didn’t warn you.)
3) I love a website called iwasdoingallright.com. It has a free “Online Ear Trainer 2.0” that is excellent. It’s like having an ear-training partner that never gets tired and sits in your basement waiting for you to practice. You can do intervals, chords, all kinds of different melodies, and more. You can do these one at a time or you can have them automatically played at different speeds with varying time between samples. This particular ear trainer uses a piano sound. You won’t be able to use the timbre of another brass player to find the pitch, so you will need to sing the pitches in your head and then play them on your horn. I have used this website for the last three years and it has done wonders for my ear/horn connection. And no, I have no affiliation with the site, it’s just great (and free). I usually start with some interval training at a slow tempo and speed it up as I start to feel comfortable. It’s important to keep this about your horn and NOT try to identify the interval with a name. You can do that in theory class. Just sing the pitches and try to play them on your horn.
After intervals, try clicking the “Melodies” tab of the ear-trainer. Start with the melodic selections that are more singable, such as “Key for Scale Patterns” or “Key for Simple Songs” or even the “Key for Jazz Licks” if you are so inclined. The other “Scale” selections can be kind of disjunct and might not make very much melodic sense at first. You can also limit the melodic examples to a certain key but I would suggest that you don’t, so you have no idea what is going to be played. Remember, the goal is to just sing and play, not figure out what is going on by using theory or keys. Try completely turning off your theory brain and don’t even think about what key you are in. Just sing the notes in your head and try to play them on your horn. After some melodic work, you might want to try your hand at some chords. Click on the “Chords” tab and select something easy, like “Major Triads,” and slow the tempo down. Start the trainer and sing the triads from the root up as they are randomly played. When you can do this EASILY, pick up your horn and play just as you sang. After this is mastered, start singing the triad up and back down and then play. After that, start trying to sing the triad from the third, and then from the fifth, etc. Always sing until it’s easy, and then play. Once you feel confident with major triads, move on to minor, dominant, or even some of those crazy jazz chords. You will start to hear things you have never heard before and quickly begin to pick them out on your horn! Be creative with this website. There are limitless possibilities for growth and fun, because you can adjust it infinitely to meet your current level. You can also download this ear-trainer to your laptop so you don’t need an internet connection to use it.
4) Get together with a buddy and have some fun growing as musicians together. Sit back to back and trade notes or intervals. Pick a key and trade melodic fragments within the key. Pick a tune and take turns playing phrases of the tune. Have your buddy play the first phrase and then you play the second. Go back and forth until you’ve played the entire tune. Start over with the opposite phrases and try again. Doing the same thing while trading every note is great fun. Eventually work up to different keys and more chromatic melodies. You could also play chords for each other on the piano and do the same exercises we talked about doing with the ear-trainer. The best part about doing this with a buddy is that you will soon realize that everyone can learn this skill, and you will encourage each other and grow together. Players, particular very good ones, are sometimes understandably upset when they realize that such a fundamental connection with their horns has been overlooked, so it really helps to do this with a buddy. It will get you over any embarrassment or discomfort you may feel about struggling with this. Remember, it’s just a skill like any other you’ve learned and you CAN improve it! And it’s fun!
5) “Drop the Needle” with any piece of music you like. Orchestral pieces, pop songs, jazz, movie soundtracks, Broadway musicals or anything else you enjoy. Push play and try to pick out anything that pops out to your ear. It could be the melody, the bass notes, background voice, counter melody, etc. You can let the music play or you can pause while you try to play what you just heard. You will be amazed at how differently you will start to listen to music. This might be the most fun you’ll ever have playing music, so be prepared. This also might be the beginning of a long, dark jazz road, so don’t do it unless you are fully aware of the perils involved.
These are the things which I have found helpful, but there are many more. Be creative, think about the connection you are trying to build, and you will come up with things that help you. A good practice in general, particularly if you are having problems, is to always sing what you are hearing first and then immediately try to play it. This works with basic pitch matching all the way to complicated melodies and chord work. Make sure you are hearing it first by singing, and then try to play it on your horn. This taps into your previously developed skill of being able to sing what you can hear and transfers it to your horn. Many times I have found myself struggling with a melody only to find out, when I sing, that the pitches aren’t really nailed down in my head. When I can sing them, suddenly I can play them easily. Most of all, have fun! Think of this as an incredibly fun and interesting game that is separate from all the other hard work you do on your instrument. Remember, that’s why it’s called PLAYing your instrument!
I would greatly appreciate any feedback, questions, comments, etc. you may have about your ear/horn connection. You can email me at firstname.lastname@example.org or call me at 703-678-9783.
Joe Dollard began his musical adventures on the trumpet at age 12. He later earned a Jazz Studies degree from North Texas State University where he studied euphonium with Don Little and jazz improvisation with the late Rich Matteson. A founding member of the Dallas Wind Symphony, Joe served as principal euphonium and soloist with the group until 1989 when he joined the U.S. Navy Band in Washington, D.C. He retired in 2009 as leader of the Brass Quartet and Principal Euphonium of the Concert Band. Currently, Joe is greatly enjoying his retirement with his wife, children, and euphonium.