Professional classical musicians seem to be able to memorize impossibly complicated solo works, orchestral excerpts, and other pieces in a short amount of time and with remarkable recall and precision. Similarly, professional jazz musicians know hundreds of tunes and seem to be able to play back almost anything they hear – in any key and without hesitation. In other words, for most professional musicians, as long as they know how the music is supposed to go, they can play it – whether they start with printed music or not. Essentially, their ears play their instruments!
In my last article, I included exercises called “Loopers” that meander around in various ways that resemble the twists and turns of real music. These are great exercises to aid in gaining general facility and playing by sight in all keys, but eventually our minds, hands, and ears need to develop familiarity for each key – without relying on the printed page. This is a truth for all musicians, and especially improvisers.
“Keys by Degrees” is a sampling of exercises I use with my students that are intended to be memorized quickly and played in all the keys the student knows, and then used to ‘break-in’ new keys, (instructions are included on the sheet music downloads below). The first few exercises are very bite-sized, and only use a few notes from the key (or degrees of the scale/key).
I have my most serious students work with each exercise until they can play the pattern in every key, in every register, without pause, and without mistakes. Additionally, they must be able to sing the pattern –in tune—with numbers.
Then they can move on.
If you move through these exercises as soon as you ‘get it’, but before your hands and your ears really get to know it, you will not benefit fully from this type of practice. Remember that the goal here is to connect your ears and your instrument which means associating the sounds we make with the way it feels to make them. While our brains tend to figure things out fairly quickly, our aural memory and muscle memory are much slower to imprint. (Plus, we all tend to over-estimate our ‘regular’ memory, anyway. Just because we say, “Oh yeah, I get it”, that doesn’t mean we really have it.)
So, if you really take your time with this set of simple exercises and get them going in several keys, (sticking with each pattern for several days or even several weeks or months – until they feel like part of your DNA), you will eventually begin to recognize these little patterns when you hear them occur in music –AND you will begin to imagine what it would feel like to play them – you might start catching yourself wiggling your fingers to music you’re listening to.
The more of these little guys you master the easier it will be to ‘find’ new and more complicated melodies on your horn. It will give you confidence in performances, too because it is yet another way to know the piece and to know your instrument.
NOTE: It is important to understand that being able to play every pattern, in every key, in every register, without hesitation, and without mistakes is the goal for the aspiring professional, but do what feels right for you and your musical goals. Obviously, for younger or more recreational players, it might be best to master each pattern in just a few keys, and in the middle of the register. Be practical. What is really most important is that you spend a little time every day playing music without looking down at the music stand – and the more of it you do, the better.
There are some suggestions imbedded in the exercise pages, but the big recommendation for making this kind of practice more interesting, is to begin learning melodies by ear and then transpose them to at least a few other keys. Start simple. Nursery rhyme melodies are a great place to begin. Don’t go after be-bop heads or Coltrane solos before you are able to play “Twinkle Twinkle” or “America” in a few keys. Don’t forget to try playing major melodies in minor keys, embellishing melodies with trills and turns, or by ‘jazzing up’ the rhythm of simpler melodies.
A list of melodies and other suggested musical bits is included after the exercises. Make them your own!
Note that learning by ear is fundamentally different than playing from memory after learning from printed music. So, try learning at least part of your next solo piece by ear. Get a recording (or several) and simply work with it until you can play it. Music from the classical period, (think Haydn and Mozart) is usually the easiest to learn by ear, but no matter what, start with something that makes sense to your ears – something you can sing along with easily.
My prediction is that although it may take more time and effort to get going, you will be more comfortable playing from memory later on than if you had learned it more quickly by sight. Not only that, you will better understand how your part fits into the piano or orchestra parts, and you will likely play with more expression – right from the start.