Learning by Listening

Something extraordinary has occurred in Barcelona, Spain that is proving that the old adage, “don’t fix it if it ain’t broke,” is applicable when applied to teaching jazz. Over the past 12 years the Sant Andreu Jazz Band (SABJ), comprised of boys and girls aged 7 to 20 years old, has been organized and led by Joan Chamorro, a Spanish jazz multi-instrumentalist and educator. During this period, 60 youngsters have played in the SABJ and have demonstrated a remarkable level of musicianship and an incredible ability to improvise, well beyond their years, playing together like seasoned pros with a joy and energy that has captivated their audiences. Before we explore why this amazing ensemble has had so much success, let us explore how jazz has been taught in the past and then we can compare Joan’s teaching techniques with the current approach in the U.S.

In the first two decades of the last century, as jazz evolved into a recognizable form of music, it did so without the use of written music … because most of the players couldn’t read music. Also, with improvisation at the heart of jazz, written music wasn’t relevant. Instead of studying written music, jazz was learned by “ear,” also known as “aurally,” from the Latin word that refers to the ear or hearing. Learning music aurally enables a player to develop the capacity to hear pitches, chords, melodies, rhythms and intervals without reference to written music. This ability to recognize and internalize sound, very much like how an infant hears words spoken and learns to speak them back, was how jazz was passed on from player to player and generation to generation.

Howard Stone

Listening to music is a passive activity. Many of us listen to music, but never really hear it. You drive along in your car listening to music, but do you really hear it? This is the key; you must actively stay focused to train you ear to hear the music. You then hear the music in an entirely different way.

When a jazz musician takes a solo and begins to improvise, he is akin to a storyteller, only he uses musical notes and phrases instead of words to tell his story. Simultaneously, he has to play his instrument and compose his story and his ability to know what the notes will sound like before he plays them is crucial, if he is to successfully improvise. Choosing the right notes, harmonies, rhythms and more is what separates the pros from the amateurs in jazz and the pros can do it because they have great “ears.”

As the formalization of jazz education began to take place in the latter half of the last century, reliance on reading music and understanding the theory of the music, pushed ear training aside, as it was judged not a very intellectual approach to music. Today, young musicians are taught scales and to learn to read music as a starting point. Practice books abound and the focus is to learn to faithfully play the notes that are on the page. Jazz musicians today are educated at conservatories where the technical side of the music is emphasized and virtuosity is prized. This is now the “approved” approach to teaching kids and aspiring professional musicians all types of music, not just jazz.

So what teaching methodology does Joan use to create such astounding results? Joan is “old school” and believes that starting a youngster’s musical education by teaching scales and to read music is too mechanical. He believes that it is more important for a novice to learn what a given note will sound like, than to know how to read the note. He therefore focuses on connecting his students to the music by having them listen to the music they will play, so they can hear what it sounds like. He encourages the students to sing the notes of a tune so that they can internalize the melody. In short, this is the early jazz tradition of playing by ear and 100 years later, the SABJ is proof positive that it works.

As an aside, Vail Jazz annually brings 12 of the most talented high school jazz musicians in North America to Vail to participate in our award-winning Workshop and for the past 23 years our teaching staff has exclusively relied on ear training with no written music allowed during the students’ 10-day residency. I can attest to its effectiveness, as many of our alumni are now professional jazz musicians.

At 5 and 7:30 p.m. on Aug. 1 at the Sonnenalp Hotel and at 6 p.m. on Aug. 2 in the Jazz Tent in Lionshead, Vail Jazz is very pleased to present from Spain, Joan Chamorro and 23-year-old Andrea Motis, a vocalist, trumpet player and former member of SABJ, who is now an internationally touring professional. They will be joined by the marvelously talented American tenor saxophonist Joe Frahm and other Spanish musicians rounding out a sextet. Come listen … and hear.

Howard Stone is the founder and artistic director of the Vail Jazz Foundation, which produces the annual Vail Jazz Festival. Celebrating its 24th year, the Vail Jazz Festival is a summer-long celebration of jazz.