Are you really listening? Do these 6 Things to Be Sure.

We live in an increasingly visual world. A world of billboards, smart phones, computer screens, FaceTime, Instagram, Google ads, Facebook photos, Photoshop. But how about this – jazz music is all about listening. It’s all about sound. It’s an aural tradition.

Jazz musicians say this all the time for good reason – because it’s true! But how much do you actually rely on your ear to do what you do? That is to say, everything you do. Everything. I remember last year, I was chatting to an up-and-coming drummer on the London jazz scene, Corrie Dick, hearing about one of his favourite cafés and he started telling me about the kind of CDs they played there and how the café sounded to him.

Because of how he described it I remember thinking to myself that this guy must be really tuned in to the sounds in the world around him – and until that time I would never had even thought about it. I would have explained what a place looked like if someone had have asked me, not about the about the vibe of the records pouring out through the overhead speakers. There was a period when a really big deal was made about ‘learning styles’ – you know what I mean – whether you are supposedly a visual, auditory or kinaesthetic person.

There were all sorts of quizzes and tests and some well-meaning teachers even tried to teach students predominantly using the student’s preferred style. It’s an interesting idea, but the truth is that learning just doesn’t work that way and worse it can end up pigeonholing people, in my opinion. If we really had a particular style, then that would mean that only auditory people would be any good at playing music? Or that only visual people should be artists? That just seems like rubbish to me. The reality is that most of us each have all five senses (sight, sound, touch, smell and taste) available to us as ways of sensing the world and so we can’t really ever be a visual or an auditory ‘person’. They are just options. And yes, people might have habits, but they are probably not as permanent as we might think and we always have the option of doing things a new way.

So think about this for a minute: how much do you rely on your ears in your every day life? And in terms of music, regardless of whether you would have come out as a visual, auditory or kinaesthetic player, are you using the right sense for the right job? It’s certainly true that certain aspects of playing jazz can only be achieved through developing some muscle memory, whereas a handful of others can only be achieved visually and some skills need the senses to blend into a synaesthesia. Much of the artistry and freedom that is at the core of jazz for is only accessible through listening. So hear – here – are some ways to challenge yourself to use your ears in ways you might not have considered until now.

  1. Close your eyes. And listen.
    What do Art Tatum, George Shearing, Lennie Tristano, Rashaan Roland Kirk, Ray Charles and Stevie Wonder all have in common? They had to listen when they were practising, because they were blind. And maybe more interestingly, they had to listen when they weren’t playing too. The brain rewires its connections when new demands are placed on it, which is especially true when brain damage or the restriction of a sense occurs.You might have heard how Jamie Foxx had his eyes glued shut for 14 hours a day while filming the movie Ray. Relax – you don’t have to go that far, but try something new and spend some time with your eyes closed or in a dark room with just you and your horn. Really be strict with yourself. Keep all visual input down to a bare minimum, or better still, practise blind for a chunk of time and notice the effect it has on how you play. When your ear has to work, it always raises its game.
  2. Notice the sounds around you.
    This one might sound a bit abstract, but if you’re anything like me, after you do some blind practising you’ll be curious to explore the other places you can notice more sounds – which has to be a good way to train your brain to develop your sense of hearing, right? I’m big fan of using my musician’s ear away from the horn anyway, so here’s another exercise. Set a timer for ten minutes at first and just sit with your eyes closed listening to even the tiniest of sounds, wherever you happen to be. Obviously don’t do this when you are driving! Of course you can listen with your eyes open too. Tuning in to the sounds of the world around you can be a really revealing discovery if you’re new to it, because it gives you clues about how accustomed to using your ear you are in terms of your existing brain habits. Another way of extending this is to ask yourself questions about sound. What has been your favourite sound today? Which of your friends has the quietest voice? What would you hear in your favourite place in the world? Which everyday sounds that you’ve heard recently could be used as the source of inspiration for a composition or a new piece of jazz language? Listen for music in your surroundings and you will find it. This is great for developing your sensitivity to the acoustic of a new concert venue too.
  3. Practice things that can only be learnt with your ear.
    When you first start to notice it you might be surprised to find how many places you have been working round relying on your ear. When I was younger I used to be pretty terrified of playing a gig without having real book in front of me and I used to write down transcriptions before I would play them, which wasn’t challenging my aural memory and certainly wasn’t building a strong ear-horn connection.A lot of us, myself included, have also fallen into the trap of repeating new material until it settles into the muscle memory, and then on the gig relying on that muscle memory for ideas, rather than letting the ear drive the creativity. This is how people end up relying on licks. So the answer is obvious. If you want to start using that killer ear you are working on, then you have to start making it work. In addition to playing with your eyes shut from time to time, get into the habit of practising in a way that can’t rely on muscle memory. Traditionally this means working out tunes in every key, but this needn’t be as daunting or as slow as it may seem.The golden rule is to choose something appropriate to your current level. And the key is actually using your ear in every key rather than just practising your muscle memory. It’s not necessarily about playing it perfectly in every key the first time you run through all the keys, but rather that you are regularly using your ear in your practice to work out where the next note is on the horn and not relying on your fingers or your eyes to do it. This might mean putting on a Jamie Aebersold playalong of a head you know well in one key that shifts up a half step every chorus. You can also to do the same thing with the iReal Pro app or Band in a Box. Work out the head in all the keys on the hoof. Of course – if you’re not at that kind of stage, then even working on the first few notes of a well-known children’s song will be well worth the time.
  4. Listen with your eyes .
    Science is not entirely clear about it, but there does seem to be some neuro-physicological link between the direction that your eyes move when you’re thinking and the area of the brain that is being accessed.
    More often than not, when you access your auditory cortex, your eyes will look either horizontally to the left or to the right. This is usually the pattern for right-handed people. And the good news is that looking in certain directions can encourage the brain to access different gears. Experiment with looking towards your left ear as you improvise, or cop a solo from a recording. This can make you much better attuned to the sounds you are hearing moment to moment. Left-handed people may find looking towards the right ear helpful. Something else you may already find yourself doing is tilting your head and lowering one ear, which has the same effect. If you’re working on your time feel or playing with more emotion, have a go at pointing your eyes down and to the left as this will help access your kinaesthetic sense.
  5. Pump up the volume – play with your internal control panel.
    Hal Galper tells a story about Dizzy Gillespie being asked what he thought about when he was playing. ‘People think,’ said Diz ‘that it’s [scatting] “bab-a-do-beee-dat’n-dee-dop”, but it’s actually more like [shouting] “BAB-A-DO-BEEE-DAT’N-DEE-DOP!!’ Lots of highly experienced musicians seem to be building really vivid internal sound worlds in order to create their music. Stop for a minute. Let’s do an experiment right now. Listen to two pieces of music in your mind. First, listen to a song or a line you really know well. I hope you did it – if not, do it now! Great.Now listen to something you’re still working on. Done? Compare the two ways you experience the inner sounds. What are the differences? Which sound is louder? Do they come from exactly the same location in your mind’s ear? Which is nearest? From the left, or right? Above? Below? In front of you or behind? Is one in surround sound? Point to the locations. Which sound is crisper? Are both sounds in strict time or is one more rubato? Is there a rhythm section playing in both? And is it a saxophone playing the line in your mind or is it your voice or another instrument you are hearing? You might also find it interesting to compare the same distinctions when you imagine hearing a player you admire compared to when you think about your own sound. Your aural imagination is also great for more traditional ear training like recognizing intervals and chords. Most players don’t realise that these distinctions are within your control and when you change them you literally change how you hear. I’ve coached countless players who find that when you bring the musical sounds in your head closer, make them surround sound and turn up the volume until it begins to vibrate your body you play in a completely different way.
  6. Imitate. Assimilate. Hallucinate.
    OK. Right. Let’s tell it like it is. Mastering jazz is largely about mastering auditory hallucination. You need to be able to hear sounds that aren’t really there before you create something on your instrument. These sounds come from inside you and they are made from your experiences but are of your creation. There will definitely be times when muscle memory is a bigger part of the creative process than others, but shaping sound should be most of what you are doing as a sax player. And internal hearing is something that can be practised as part of your craft. This is the reason why many players like practising with a metronome on 2 and 4 instead of using a playalong because it forces you to hallucinate and besides, nothing swings like a metronome and your imagination!Here’s a neat little exercise you can do either with just a metronome or with a backing track at first. Pick a tune you want to internalize better. Play through the whole thing from beginning to end. Now, as the metronome or playalong continues, this time play the first phrase and then sing the next phrase, and continue in this way. Next, instead of singing the alternate phrases, internally hear them loud and clear. Continue with alternate phrases and be sure to cover all phrases of the tune by both playing and hearing. The next step is to follow the same process, but now improvising over the first phrase of the head, and then hallucinating your solo over the next and so on and so forth. This is great because it relies on your ear knowing the structure of the tune keeps bringing your attention back to listening. It can also be combined with other exercises like playing chord tones, guide tone lines, or placing licks.

Developing your ear is a lifelong process, but in my experience many musicians haven’t noticed that they are influenced by the highly visual preference our culture has. So give it a go. Use your ear in your everyday life and use your time away from your horn as an experimental learning and listening laboratory. Hopefully you’ll find the tips useful and you’ll start to notice the places in life and in your music that you can begin to use your ear to guide you to better sax playing. Jazz is in the ear of the beholder – hear, hear!

Nick Bottini is a peak performance coach, music educator and saxophonist based in London, UK. He works with musicians to unlock their full potential by helping them explore their mental game, much the same way that sports coaches do for athletes. He is available for face-to-face and Skype coaching and can be contacted at