(The) Primacy of the Ear

Saving Pretty Polly from the train tracks

I left my last post with a little cliff hanger:

Next time, I’ll talk about ear training, the one music book I would tell every musician interested in improvising to buy (no it’s not the Real Book) and how to save yourself tens of thousands of dollars in tuition by doing so.

I’ve talked a lot about the pluses and minuses of going to music school and some of the pitfalls in being an autodidact, so while I’m not going to talk about the big issues behind both of those approaches I do want to briefly outline what the great self taught players and great formally trained players have in common.

Ability to analyze.

Here’s a quote from my interview with Miroslav Tadic that bears repeating:

Understanding what you are playing while you are playing it puts you into a whole different place. This is extremely rare with classical players and this is what marks a great classical player and sets them apart from the other players. You have a player like Glenn Gould who had everything memorized and knew what was going on in every note that he was playing. After he stopped playing concerts he would go to the studio and everything that he recorded (and he recorded a vast amount of music) was all played from memory. The reason why you can have that kind of memory is because you understand what’s going on in the music. It’s not just having photographic memory or sitting there and having a technique for memorization it’s having the understanding of music. Even if you’re only going to play classical music, if you sit down and as you’re playing, go through the piece and ask yourself – what am I playing or what is this?

….You can really make it much more enjoyable and can really help you eliminate the dreaded memory lapses because you know what you’re playing. It’s not just this part that’s abstract to you. If you blank out all of the sudden and you have no idea of where you are. But you can always remember, oh that’s the F major part, before the cadence that takes us back to D minor or whatever. It’s not the theoretical knowledge of someone who’s a music student but the connection between theoretical knowledge and the actual living knowledge of music. The sonic knowledge. This is a really important thing. For example, you can know what a Neapolitan chord is – but you’ve also got to be able to spot it every time you hear it. Those guys who wrote that music – you can bet they knew what it sounded like. It’s not an issue of them sitting there and making calculations or something. It’s a flavor – like hearing a pentatonic scale. If you hear Pentatonic Minor riff, is there any question about what someone is playing? No. You can hear it and recognize it for what it is because it’s the music of our times. The same way, if you’re playing music from some other time well you should know it like the music of your own time.

This doesn’t mean that great musicians are in a perpetual state of constant analysis of everything, but if you have a deeper understanding of what is going on around you, you have a higher likelihood of being able to interact with it on a deeper level.   Some players have an intellectual knowledge of this, “There’s a minor vi to I in this part of the tune.”  some have a sonic knowledge of this (i.e. they hear the chord progression and know what’s going on in a deeper level.)

And here lies the other big similarity between the aforementioned players,

the ability to hear and listen

And, in my mind, there’s a big difference between the two.

Hearing is reactive – (“someone’s playing something”)

Listening is proactive (“the soloist is playing a line based in 4ths, I’m going to play something complimentary under that.”)

I may be in the minority for making that distinction but I think it’s an important one.

At Berklee, the classes that caused everyone to groan were the Ear Training (“Ear Straining”) classes.  The reason for this is because the classes focused on intervallic drills, the ability to hear chord qualities (major, minor, 7th chords in inversions) and transcribe melodies from ear.

In other words, all things that you need to be able to do in the real world – but a lot of the material was not something that would inspire you.

When I went to CalArts for my grad studies the only other school that I looked at was New England Conservatory and their Contemporary Improvisation program.  Ran Blake (the former chair of the program back when it was called Third Stream and a current faculty member there) has just released a book on the methods that he uses to teach there, called Primacy of the Ear.  It’s a thin book, approximately 125 pages of with 30 pages of indexes, sells for $30 and it’s a bargain.  It’s entirely possible that I never would have gone to grad school if I had this book back in 2005  (which would have been a huge mistake for me).

Having met Ran, I can guess that the book is a number of lessons, conversations and observations (you can read a very early pdf regarding this topic back in the third stream days that was substantially revised and expounded upon here) that co-credited author Jason Rogers edited together into a coherent guide-book for those people who want to truly own their music.  What’s interesting about the entire approach is how one he relates this process to creating an original style.

For those of you who don’t want to get the book, I’ll illustrate a process that Ran outlines in much greater detail that will help you with your hearing, phrasing and overall improvisation (I know I’ve done this before).

Step 1.  Pick a tune and a performance of that tune that inspires you.  Don’t pick something you want to learn because you think you should learn it.  You’re going to spend a lot of time with this process, so make it something that you REALLY want to learn.

Step 2.  Passive listening.  Play a recording of the tune throughout the day.  The goal is to start getting the song form in your ears.  This is like when you hear a commercial over and over again and find yourself able to sing back the melody away from the commercial later.

Step 3.  Active listening.  Now you’re only listening to the tune in short intense stints.  This is sitting down at a desk with no other distractions and really listening to what’s going on.  Noticing nuances, inflections, that type of thing.

Step 4.  This is the actual bear.  You start learning the components AWAY from the instrument.  So you learn the melody by ear.  You learn each phrase away from the instrument and get to the point that you can string it all together.  You want to be able to pre-hear the melody in the song.  Once you have this material mastered (i.e. can sign any part of the melody from any point in the tune), then learn it on the guitar using your inner hearing to guide the process.

Step 5.  Repeat with the bass line of the song.

Step 6.  Repeat with the chord progression of the song.  LEARNING EACH INDIVIDUAL VOICING of the chords one at a time melodically.

I’m sure that some of you at this point are thinking, “this is insane.”  If you’re thinking, “Oh I could do that.”  it’s very likely that an attempt to do this at this level will have you also come to the conclusion that it’s an act of insanity.

But it’s not insane.

This is a DEEP methodology to get into what is really happening in a song.

This process basically ensure that you know the song at the microscopic level and have a much deeper likelihood to engage with it at a core level.

This process has been adapted to all kinds of music.  In this video, Ran combines the music and biography of Mahler with film Noir to create a performance that is a true synthesis of styles.

This is only possible with an intimate understanding of Mahler and film Noir music.  That comes from deep engagement and deep listening.

How would you do it now?

Coming back to the original cliff hanger:

Next time, I’ll talk about ear training, the one music book I would tell every musician interested in improvising to buy (no it’s not the Real Book) and how to save yourself tens of thousands of dollars in tuition by doing so.

Knowing what I know now – if I didn’t go to undergrad –  here’s how I’d do this from scratch.

1. Get great teachers.  Yes plural – Teachers.  I’d take some classical lessons to get proper technique.  I’d take some lessons on theory to augment my own study.  I’d take lessons on any specific style I was interested in for as long as it made sense.  If I was interested in rock playing, I’d get some rock approaches down and if that got me what I wanted I’d move on from there.

2.  Take some classes at a community college.  College really isn’t for everyone at every time of their life.  There are people at 18 who are just not in the headspace to commit to full-time enrollment in college.  But try some courses in music theory or liberal arts to expand your horizons.   IN GENERAL – try a number of different approaches to learning and LEARN WHAT WORKS FOR YOU.  For me, being at a college surrounded me with other people and that immersive process was really important for me at that time in my life.  Now that I know how to teach myself, I can learn things on my own time and it’s more efficient.

3.  Get good materials to study on your own  I’d look on Amazon for the best reviewed books and order them through inter-library loan.  The ones that resonated with me I’d buy.

4.  Listen to as much different music as possible (preferably live music) and go out of your comfort zone whenever possible.  Expose yourself to things and find out what resonates with you – and more importantly WHY it resonates with you.  This is also where teachers/mentors/peers are critical because they can help articulate things going on in the music that will help you determine why something is cool.

5.  Perform in low risk setting at first to get your footing and play with people better than you.  As much as possible.  Determine from those experiences what you need to work on and work on them in a focused, deliberate way.  It’s a “7 times down 8 times up thing.”  Great teachers will help you here too.

6.  I’d learn as much music as I could by ear.  I’d transcribe anything that interested me.

7.  I’d continue to try to find favorite authors and artists and engage in their work in a deeper level.  Go deep with what you know and keep your eyes open for new things.

8.  Since this is about what I would do rather than spending 60k at a private undrgrad college – I’d go to a community college and get at least an associates degree in business and/or communication.  I would do this with the filter of learning anything that would help me become an independent musician.  I’d augment this with interning at a PR company or something similar to gain any insight on monetizing what I did, promoting it or drawing customers to whatever services (like lessons) or products (like mp3s, cds or dvds) I’d be providing.

9.  I’d make connections with other people and connect with existing community or create new communities.  Find like minded people and develop an inclusive scene.  There’s nothing wrong with online groups, but if they don’t have a component (or at least the potential component) of engaging face to face it’s not going to help you in the long run.

10.  Don’t lose the forest in the tree.

There’s a teacher at CalArts that had my favorite quote about the biggest potential pitfall that students can engage in.

“CalArts….come here as a decent reed player and leave as a mediocre tabla player.”

The biggest challenge with self-study is that you need 3 things to ask a question:

1.  You need to know that something exists to ask about it.

2.  You need to know that asking a question is an option.

3.  You need to have someone to answer the question in an intelligent way.

When you self study, you’re often missing most (if not all) of these factors.  It’s the “You don’t know what you don’t know” paradox.  The last thing that I would do all over again if I could instruct an 18 year old version of myself, would be to tell them that learning is a process not a destination.  You will always encounter things that, at the time, will seem like things you should have already known.  Don’t get hung up on should.  Realize that you are on a spinning ball, spinning around another spinning ball that’s spinning around an infinitely deeper structure.  Where one is physically appears to be the same place but is always changing.  Understanding where you are in music or life is the same thing.  I’m always surprised at how different perceived knowledge is from real knowledge is.  Don’t let it beat you up.  Just re-assess, adjust and keep moving forward.

Now back to that ear training.

As always, I hope this helps!

-SC

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