Why Can’t Johnny Play by Ear?

I have a confession to make. I have not been playing lip flexibilities, long tones or etudes very much this summer. But I’m growing as a trumpeter and a musician by an amazing amount! I have been working on neglected areas of my playing every day. One of these areas is ear training. Having developed early on as a classical trumpet player, this area of my playing has been completely under-used. Actually, I think a lot of trumpet players have “90-pound weakling” ears, too. Why is this relatively okay? It’s because we emphasize reading “literature” over playing by ear. The good news is that it’s pretty easy these days to improve your ear. One way is with the Online Ear Trainer on the website IWasDoingAllRight.

Everyday, before I have to go to work, before my children get up, I work with this tool for about 30 to 45 minutes. I like to take little mini-breaks to let my “ear” rest a few moments every 10 minutes or so.

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Here, you can see a thumbnail of the site. You can set up the Ear Trainer in so many ways. The man who developed this website, Rick G. (I don’t know his last name), offers a few automatic configurations to get you started out, with some sound clips of him actually working with the Ear Trainer.

Today–as an example only, I set up the Ear Trainer with these global controls: Tempo, 50 bpm; Play Mode, Auto: XL Delay; I do not show the first note (this really helps you develop your sense of perfect pitch); I check “Delay Results”; Key Center, Bb; “None” for Starting Cadence.

I start with Intervals. I work on all intervals, excluding the octave (because for me, the octave is too easy to recognize). I haven’t worked with the compound intervals, yet. Note Direction is “random” and Sequence Type is “random” and Root Note is “any”.  Incidentally, I get great interval training that is very similar to long tones if I play long and with a little bit of focus on my sound.

Next, I work on Chords. I check all of the basic chords on the left column, and with these I work on the first three inversions. I also work on the first four of the “Even More Chords”, but only in Root position for now. Sequence is set to “Harmonic”. Root Note is “any”. Incidentally, this section of the ear training provides a great opportunity to work on lip flexibility for trumpet players. I try to slur up and down the arpeggio which outlines the chords a few times. More interesting and realistic than just slurring the harmonic series.

After that, I work on Melodies. I have a few favorite ways of setting this up, but I always work with Note/Scale Options set to “all”. Then, I most often set Each box is a… to “Chromatic Scale” with Melody length at “4 notes” restricted to a Single Octave. But sometimes I work with other types of melodies under Each box is a… I particularly like Key for scale patterns, Key for jazz licks, and Key for simple songs.

For me, that’s the basics. But if I have a little more time, then I might work with the RSection tab, where a virtual rhythm section plays progressions. Since I set the Trainer to not show the first note, then this drill can be really challenging. Let’s say I have been working on a jazz ii-V7-I pattern. I think the ultimate test is to see if you can play it without knowing ahead of time what the key is.

I really haven’t missed the advantages of my traditional classical trumpet routine this summer. I think it’s really HOW you approach ear training that determines whether it contributes to the finesse of your playing or not. One additional advantage to the physicality of playing the trumpet is that this type of ear training has lots of small rests built in to the routine, which is fantastic for keeping your embouchure suppleness.

I can honestly say that I feel more like a that kind of musician that I thought I would be, when I was just a child. The kind of musician that plays by ear.


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