PLAYBOOK: SUMMER EAR TRAINING PRACTICE

I tell my students that ear training is “strength and conditioning” for musicians. I love this analogy - serious athletes don’t just practice their own sport, they also run and lift weights. You might sing or play your instrument beautifully, but that’s not enough. Working musicians need EARS that are “fast” and “strong.”

How do we build this aural athleticism?

I started thinking about this again last week. One of my vocal jazz altos asked for some ideas about how to practice ear training over the summer before our fall auditions. Here are some exercises I suggested. Some of these are specifically for jazz and some are more general.

1. Play piano. Work through a hymnal or the Bach chorales. Do one hymn or chorale every day, and sing along with the different voice parts while you play. If your piano skills aren’t great, don’t worry, that’s why you’re doing this. The best thing you can do to improve your ears is to get better at piano. Play and sing slowly and deliberately every day, and you’ll start to develop a stronger connection between your ears and your brain and your fingers.

2. Transcribe jazz solos by ear. Listen to jazz singers and instrumentalists improvise. Listen deeply and repeatedly to a solo until you can sing along (or until you CAN’T NOT sing along). Start with something simple and do a few bars at a time. Pick music you really like so this is FUN and not a chore. There’s an endless number of great recordings to choose from, but here’s a good list of easy-ish solos to start with.

Side note: I’d also recommend this book, an incredible resource from Darmon Meader. It has tons of stylistic jazz solos notated for voice, and includes great recordings in different keys that you can sing along with.

3. Sing crunchy intervals against the piano. With the sustain pedal down, play any note repeatedly while you sing the pitch a half step away. Can you keep it in tune? Repeat with different dissonant intervals.

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4. Two different scales together. Sing a C major scale while simultaneously playing a different major scale. For example, when you sing C major and play F-sharp major, it makes a tritone between piano and voice at each scale degree. Can you get up and down the whole scale without ever losing the tritone? Work through lots of different intervals between your voice and the piano. Then try using other scales.

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5. Planing piano and voice together. Play a C major triad and sing an F against it. Move that entire voicing (piano and voice) up and down by half steps. Then move by other intervals, then do the same thing with different voicings. You might want to start with something easier (for example, play C and G at the piano, and sing E).

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6. Sing a simple song and accompany yourself in a different key.

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7. Seventh chord shells. Play a random note and call it the root of a major 7th chord. Now sing the 3rd and the 7th (sing “third” and “seventh,” or sing the actual note names). Pick a new random note for the root, do the same thing. Get really fast at this, doing only major 7th chord shells (“shell” = R37 only). Then work through dominant 7th chords and minor 7th chords the same way.

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8. Transcribe the chords of songs you know. Pick literally any song you like -- jazz standards, top 40, musical theater, motown, Disney ballad, etc. Print out the lyrics (double space), then use piano or guitar to figure out the chords of the song by ear, and write them in as lead-sheet symbols. Check your answers by playing along with the recording, or by singing the melody and accompanying yourself -- do your chords sound right? Again, start with something easy and gradually build up to more harmonically diverse music.

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These exercises are all meant to be flexible, so adapt them as needed for difficulty level and depending what you want to work on. I’m a big fan of using piano for ear training because of how the keys lay out visually, but you could do some of these exercises with other instruments as well.

WHY HYMNALS ARE AWESOME

I love this children's hymnal that CPH published a few years ago. It puts historic texts and serious music in front of kids in an accessible way. And it teaches them not to be afraid, like many churches are, of "old" songs, basic musical notation, and the importance of singing.

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Hymnals are great, and our churches should be using them. Jonathan Aigner has written so well and so thoroughly on this subject that I hardly need to add anything. But this is important and I'd like to reiterate some of his points in my own words.

The worst argument against using hymnals is "no one reads music." 

The reason they don't read music is because you took the hymnals away. 

The hymnal is the primary tool for teaching a congregation how to follow musical notation. I'm not talking about getting a music theory degree, just picking up on the most basic principles of note-reading. It's amazing what you can accidentally learn from simply following along in the hymnal while everyone sings. When my daughter was 3, she already knew that "white notes are slow and black notes are fast," and that "when the notes go up, you sing higher." Most melodies in the hymnal are simple and predictable, and you can often guess the right note based on the direction of the line.

CPH.org

CPH.org

Churches without hymnals often use CCM-style praise songs instead, with a worship band and the lyrics on a screen. This genre is sometimes criticized for its simplicity, but most songs in this style are actually much harder to sing than traditional hymns. The music is rarely printed, so you can't sing the song until you've learned it by rote. The melodies are often rhythmically syncopated, and set in an uncomfortably high register for most male voices. Add a lead singer who is amplified louder than everyone else and adding their own personal style to the vocal delivery, and it's almost impossible for a large congregation of untrained amateurs to participate well.

Chorale-style hymns, on the other hand, are composed specifically to facilitate congregational singing for non-musicians. The melodies are simple and the music is printed right above the words, which helps us pay attention to the meaningful ways that hymnwriters marry text and music together. The best hymns, the ones that have been tested over centuries and fill our hymnals, convey theological, poetic and musical depth without being difficult to sing. Amateur voices won't sing well together unless the music fits their ability level. When it doesn't, congregational singing goes away and church becomes a concert. Hymnals encourage the congregation's voice, as Aigner says, to be "the primary instrument in corporate worship."

THINGS I TOLD JAZZ CHOIRS THIS SPRING

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This semester I adjudicated more than 60 vocal jazz ensembles at 5 different festivals in 5 different states. Here are some of the comments I repeated the most:

(in no particular order)

-Every singer is responsible for the time, just like the drummer and bassist.

-Jazz requires a conversational lyric delivery. Sing the words the way you would say them. Emphasize the most important syllables in a natural, speech-like way.

-You have to love the sound of the most dissonant interval in the chord.

-If you learned the notes wrong, being stylish doesn't matter.

-If you aren't singing in tune, nothing else you're doing is cool.

-You're in tune, but the vowels don't match.

-You got too loud too soon and too often.

-When you got quiet, you got wimpy.

-Try singing this ballad without the conductor.

-Rubato means wait longer between phrases. I shouldn't be able to tap the tempo along with you.

-Improvising soloists, you're too worried about note choice and not worried enough about time, rhythm, and compelling horizontal ideas.

-When you're improvising through multiple sections of the form, blur the seams. Don't stop in the last bar of section 1 and then start a new idea as section 2 begins.

-You're rushing the offbeats.

-Offbeat entrances weren't together.

-Find a way to show the groove physically, it helps us trust you (i.e. SNAP).

-This song needed one soloist, not four. Pick the best singer for the chart, then let them tell the whole story and develop their ideas.

-That little bit of organized movement wasn't necessary.

-That full-on choreography wasn't necessary.

-The hats weren't necessary.

-Don't overact or put on hyper-smiley personas. Let the music do the work.

-I probably wouldn't give this lyric to a middle school group (etc.).

-Your vowels are too tall (save it for concert choir).

-You're over-enunciating consonants (save it for concert choir).

-Neutral syllables are not text. Just use them to make the lines feel instrumental.

-These charts are too hard for this group.

-These charts are too easy for this group.

-Piano alone is not enough for this music. Beg/borrow/steal to get a rhythm section behind these singers.

-Have you checked out any recordings of this tune?...