|Weekly Reflections on Life and Music|
The past two weeks I looked at the first two parts of this statement from Shell Lake Trumpet Workshop
Three characteristics of a great trumpet player:
1. Every time you play you have a great- not a good- sound.
2. You have great- not good- rhythm.
3. You have great- not good- ears to hear the sound.
How does ”great ears” add to this trio of greatness? What the heck does that even mean?
My first thought went to “ears” as the ability to be in a group and hear what others are doing. That would be the skill of blending your sound with the sound of the whole group. Not as easy a task as we might think. I am still amazed when one of my colleagues in the concert band knows when I have hit an F instead of an F#. (One of my most common errors.) Even when I wasn’t playing loudly and they were sitting two chairs away from me. They have a good ear, perhaps even a great one. They know when my note isn’t fitting into theirs. I can do that sometimes with others in the section, but it hasn’t come easy.
Most of the time I am way too involved in myself to hear what the rest of the band is doing. I want to make sure that my “ears” hear “me.” Fortunately this has gotten better over the years. One of the best ways to work on it is to play in a smaller ensemble like the brass quintet I play with. After the first run through of a piece when we do end up concentrating on our own parts, then it is time to let the ears do more work. How do I fit in with the group? Am I hearing the chords and my place in them? Am I overpowering the other parts, throwing things out of balance? When there are only five of you and obviously only one on a part, these are not incidental questions. Thus one of the important pieces of having “great ears” is to know how to play well with others.
But I also realize that a lot of this has to do with what we do before we get into the rehearsal. As always it is found first in the practice rooms. Wondering how others understood this I asked Matt Stock, one of the faculty from Shell Lake Trumpet Workshop, to reflect on what “great ears” meant. He responded:
I’m realizing more and more that “ears” is misleading. Generally we think of that as just pitch or passing an aural skills test in school. The better definition would be the ability to conceive every detail of a performance (pitch, tone, time, expressive details, etc.) from a written score. I suppose good ears would be the ability to do that with the music you normally encounter and great ears would be the ability to do that at sight with the unexpected/unfamiliar and for a classical player transpose at sight. For a jazz player I suppose that would be the ability to react to unexpected chord substitutions, transcribe, etc.I didn’t expect that answer (which is why I ask questions!) Matt is saying that “ears” is the ability to go beyond just sight-reading when you see a new score. It is the ability to “hear” that score even before you play it. It doesn't necessarily mean to look at a full score and hear all the parts. That takes years and probably more time than most of us have if we are not becoming conductors or music majors. But it does mean to look at my part and see where it goes, what it does, and how it does it. It means audio visualization like we have talked about before.
In many ways this took me back to the ongoing fundamental analogy that music is a language we learn to speak. When we develop an “ear” for a language we are on the way to learning the language. It means that when we read the language on the printed page, we can “hear” it and know what it means. Then it moves to being able to hear the language when spoken and be able to know what is being said. That starts with mentally translating as you listen. To do that is very slow and means we miss a great deal of what the other person is saying. Then it moves to where certain words and phrases are understood without translating. You then start to use those phrases appropriately without needing to translate into or from our native language. Eventually if we are to really learn the language we have to do more than read and listen- we have to internalize it and then speak what we hear. To do that with our music takes us back into the practice room and playing it.
If we have the opportunity, we need to hear it being played, of course. We have talked about listening to recordings of performances, then singing it, before playing a piece. That’s hard to do in the middle of a rehearsal, though, when a new piece is handed out or in the middle of improvising when an odd chord comes up. So we develop our ears to know what it sounds like before we play it- or to know what’s happening when we hear it.
Back to playing in ensembles, that, too, is more than just hearing the others play. It is about the ability to hear when I am wrong. It is “ears” to know that my style isn’t matching the style of the lead trumpet, or that when I have a part that is a duet with the horn or trombone, we have to be able to blend our sounds together. When we do that we change- and enliven- the color of the music. Playing in the quintet has been the single best way for me to develop my “ears.” It still takes the practice room where I learn the language of my part. It takes the practice room to begin to put those sounds in the right place.
Back to Matt’s thoughts:
What helped me be more demanding with my ear training has been to record myself singing. With the Tonal Energy app you can record yourself and use the tuner when you play it back. (http://tonalenergy.com/) In the ear training classes I took you passed if you ended up somewhere near the right note no matter how sloppy everything was along the way. This forces you to be much more honest. It’s humbling at first but pays off if you stick with it a few weeks. John Hagstrom recommended that in a masterclass at NBS a few years ago. He also talks about it in one of the interviews with Brass Herald that he has posted at: https://www.trumpetmultimedia.com/ (top right corner).In the practice room, the “great ears” come from working on them. It can be ear training, long tones (them again!), learning the sound of arpeggios in each key, or recording yourself. You won’t develop great ears if you don’t use them. Intentionally. (By the way, I looked up the two resources Matt mentioned. The Tonal Energy app looks like a really good overall resource- a tuner that does more than tell you that you are out of tune. Trumpet Multimedia has some excellent information. Thanks, Matt!)
Beyond just hearing the sound and playing it appropriately, this is about mindfulness in all that we do. As I have gotten older and more aware of the importance of paying attention, the whole concept of mindfulness has grown in value. Being mindful is about being in the moment, knowing where and who you are and how you fit in with what’s happening around you. One definition I found (Google):
a mental state achieved by focusing one's awareness on the present moment, while calmly acknowledging and accepting one's feelings, thoughts, and bodily sensations…Even more to the point is the definition from Jon Kabat-Zinn, one of the key developers of the ideas of mindfulness:
Mindfulness is awareness that arises through paying attention, on purpose, in the present moment, non-judgmentally. It’s about knowing what is on your mind.• Paying attention
Concentrate on what’s happening and going on within you and around you.
Take time to more than smell the roses- see them and appreciate them.
• On purpose
Not as an after thought, but being committed to your growth and development.
Make it part of your daily plan to be aware and mindful.
Allow the world to amaze you at what is happening that you may have missed before.
• In the present moment
The past is history, the future a mystery, stay in the now.
Our fretting over the past or worrying about tomorrow is one of the biggest obstacles to growth.
Notice the world in all its infinite wonder.
Don’t be hard on yourself, judging, and over critical.
You are where you are. You may not be where you want to be.
But only when you accept the here and now can you begin to move beyond it.
When we practice this in our music, we will discover it in the world around us.
When we practice this in our daily lives, we will find the wonderful sound of our music.
It is more than just hearing.