Joe “Tricky Sam” Nanton’s Solo on East St. Louis Toodle-Oo

When performing with the Low-Down Sires, a traditional jazz group, we frequently decide (either collectively or individually) to perform the solos off of recordings rather than to improvise our own. We recently added Duke Ellington’s composition East St. Louis Toodle-Oo (Harlem Twist) to our repertoire and I really enjoyed the trombone solo on the recording. We all thought this would be a good one for me to play the recorded solo on, so I transcribed “Tricky Sam” Nanton’s solo from it.

It’s got a couple of interesting things on it. The opening lick is cool for the motive he played with a three note melodic idea superimposed over different parts of the first couple of measures.

Nanton Lick 1

Nanton also plays around with some chromatic passing tones on his solo break, specifically a passing tone between the 5th and 6th notes of the major scale and then the 2nd and 3rd notes. This chromatic passing tone usage would become pretty common with bebop musicians and sometimes is called a “bebop scale” today. For example, a major scale with the passing tone between the 5th and 6th notes is frequently called a “major bebop scale” and a major scale with a passing tone between the 6th and 7th notes is sometimes called the “dominant bebop scale.” Here is Nanton’s solo break.

Nanton Lick 2

It’s a short, but very tasty solo. Click here to download a PDF of the whole thing. As always, I recommend you at least double check my accuracy here and let me know if you spot any errors. It’s best to do your own transcribing, since you’ll learn the whole stylistic language (articulation, vibrato, swing feeling, etc.) as well as develop your own ear much better that way.

Bill Harris (?) Solo on “Blues on Parade”

I just finished a quick solo transcription of a trombonist soloing on “Blues on Parade.” I was helping Tad out with this transcription and he thinks it must be Bill Harris from Woody Herman’s Live, Volume 2 album (which seems plausible to me, but I don’t have the entire album and the album credits). Here’s the transcription I did (pdf here).

Bill Harris solo Blues on Parade

It’s a simple solo, but swings hard and was played with a lot of energy and excitement (just like Bill Harris usually played). There are some elements of tailgate trombone style in there with some of the bends and glisses. Note the use of a lot of rhythmically simple quarter notes and lots of silence throughout.

Does anyone out there have this album and can confirm that this solo was played by Bill Harris?

Online Tuning Fork

Tuning ForkI’ve posted a bit before on practicing with drones. I recently came across this online tuning fork that can be used to set up drones in your practice. There are some features you can customize with it, including changing the tone from a pure sine wave to a sawtooth wave. I’ve found electronically generated tones like those are quite challenging to tune to, which is what I’m looking for when practicing for intonation. Something about the organic sounds of acoustic instruments makes them more forgiving, so I like the added challenge of playing perfectly in tune with the sine wave. Try setting up the root of a scale and playing your scales very slowly over the drone, making sure to lock into each interval as perfectly as possible. It really helps sharpen your ears for intonation.

Online Tuning Fork

Charlie Banacos on Jazz Pedagogy

If you’re like me, you’re probably not familiar with Charlie Banacos. An influential jazz educator, he withdrew from performing in favor of focusing on his teaching. He stated:

Music for me is like religion. In every religion there are the preachers who are touring all over the world to preach about religion, and the monks, who sit in a basement, practice for themselves, and teach others. I am the monk.

My first exposure to the work of Banacos comes from David Carlos Valdez’s excellent blog, Casa Valdez Studios. A couple of months ago Valdez posted some information and links about Charlie Banacos. Included in his post is a link to a dissertation by Lefteris Kordis called “Top Speed and in All Keys”: Charlie Banacos’s Pedagogy of Jazz Improvisation. Kordis goes over the different types of exercises Banacos would assign to his students.

The exercises cover nine facts of technique and musicianship–which I have organized in Sections A – I. In Section A, three popular ear-training exercises plus a meditation practice are presented. These exercises are useful for the development of various aural skills, such as relative pitch, perfect pitch, and intonation. In Section B, ten prominent exercises for instrumentalists/vocalists are listed, which focus on enriching improvisation skills, expanding melodic, harmonic, and temporal vocabulary, and improving technique. Section C includes a list of names of voicing exercises for chording instruments, such as piano and guitar.

Banacos taught composition to a variety of instrumentalists and singers. In Section D are some composition exercises he assigned, some of them based on Joseph Schillinger’s System of Musical Composition. Section E features four prominent exercises for rhythm, and Section F, three exercises for sight-reading/sight-singing. Banacos’s explanations for practicing the assigned repertoire, as well as for overcoming technical limitations, are listed in Section G. Some of the exercises included in this section were intended to further enhance instrumental technique. Section H illustrates Banacos’s approach to building repertoire, which consists of jazz standards as well as classical piano works.

I haven’t gotten through the whole paper yet, but it looks excellent and should be valuable for teachers and players alike. While I’m at it, please go visit Casa Valdez Studios for an excellent blog for jazz musicians and saxophonists.


Testing for Congenital Amusia

Jake Mandell is a resident at Brigam and Women’s Hospital and a musician. He developed a test that you can take online to test for congenital amusia, more commonly known as tone deafness. Try it out and see how you do.

It’s purposefully designed to be pretty tough to do. I scored 86.1%, which he lists as “very good performance.” Want to brag or commiserate about your score? Leave it in the comments.

Teaching Aural Skills

I’ve been poking around looking for different thoughts on teaching Aural Skills and came across two interesting blog posts about this topic. The Pianistic Wordsmith notes that Teaching Aural Skills is Hard.

For the non-musicians reading this, aural skills is a two-pronged course focusing on ear training that every music major must conquer, and nearly everyone struggles immensely with a few aspects of it, because developing your ear in new ways is a very hard thing to do. One side of the aural skills coin is dictation, which teaches students to be able to see what they’re hearing – to visualize and write down the notated music for melodies, chords, rhythms, complex chorales, and other musical elements. The flip side is sight singing, which is the exact opposite: teaching students to be able to hear what they’re seeing. It’s relatively easy to sit down and push the keys, press the valves, or pluck the strings on our instruments as we see them on the page, but a much taller order is to be able to look at a piece of printed music, hear in your mind exactly what it will sound like when played, and sing those notes out of thin air with no accompaniment to check yourself against. Aural skills is kind of a rite of passage for musicians. It’s a very hard course for a lot of undergrads, and developing these skills that don’t translate into propositional knowledge is challenging at best, torturesome at worst.

In spite of the challenge, you should read through the entire post. There is a nice example of a cooperative learning project for the final exam and the excellent results make this an idea worth trying.

Toby Rush has some thoughts about why teaching aural skills is so difficult in his post on Aural Skills is a Funny Thing.

I would wager that most Aural Skills teachers look forward to teaching Music Theory more than they do Aural Skills. The reason for that is simple: Aural Skills classes are usually taught by Music Theory professors.

Sure, that makes sense, right? After all, Aural Skills is part of Music Theory. Except for one thing: it’s not. Aural Skills is not Music Theory and never was.

This is interesting, because it’s exactly opposite of what I like to say about music theory and aural skills, that they really are about the same thing, just two sides of the same coin. When I teach music theory I like to stress the sounds that the music will make and encourage my students to listen closely to them and memorize how an authentic cadence sounds differently from a plagal cadence and what parallel 5ths sounds like.

Yes, the Aural Skills curriculum correlates well with the Music Theory curriculum, and it is primarily this reason that the Theory faculty usually teach the classes. But they are different disciplines. Music Theory is, as I’ve usually defined it, the art and science of figuring out why music sounds the way it does. It is the exploration of what makes music tick. Aural Skills is something entirely different: it is the development of physiological skills, both aural and oral, that are necessary for a professional musician or music educator.

I can’t really argue with Rush’s thoughts here, but perhaps the analogy that works best for my thoughts are that music theory is to aural skills as learning about writing is to reading out loud. Speaking is a different skill than learning to write well, as learning about the structure of how music sounds is different from learning how to understand what music sounds like visually.

. . . over the course of the last decade I’ve learned a few interesting things about Aural Skills:

  • It’s not only a different discipline, but a different type of discipline: it’s physiological (involving mind and body working together) rather than purely cognitive;
  • Research in Aural Skills pedagogy (the science of teaching aural skills) is a hugely underdeveloped field; and
  • I have come to find the stuff fascinating.

Regarding his second point, I wonder if some of the strategies used to teach reading may be helpful with aural skills. At the very least, research on effective reading instruction might offer interesting avenues to explore for new research in aural skills pedagogy. Any grad students out there looking for a thesis topic?

Another Online Ear Trainer

I came across another fine online ear trainer, Good Ear.  It includes a variety of ear training exercises, including hearing and identifying intervals, chords (ranging from simple triads all the way up into extended jazz chords with alterations), cadences, and scales.  There are also different options you can use to fix the root of the exercises to always be the same pitch or change, play back in different sounds, and give you the correct answer or not for feedback.  There is even a section that gives you random pitches to test your “perfect pitch” recall abilities.

There are plenty of exercises good for beginners, but I found some ones that kept me challenged too.  I especially want to go back and do more of the jazz chords exercises.  I have a habit of lumping chords with extensions (9ths, 11ths, 13ths) sonically with the basic 7th chord, which gave me some answers that were close, but wrong.  Some chords with alterations are more challenging to identify and some chords are easy to mix up with others (e.g., an A7b9 sounds an awful lot like a C#dim7 because they contain 4 common tones).

It’s a good resource, check it out.

Diatonic and Chromatic Chords: The Blues

Last Friday I tried to answer a couple of improvisation questions I was emailed by Michael.  He also asked some other very good questions about my Jazz Improvisation For Beginners article on the blues form.

In your “Part 3 – the Blues Form” – something seems off.  You say: “Let’s look at a 12 bar blues in the key of C.”  You then go on to give the chords C7, F7, Dm7, G7, and the note Bb.   I have not heard of a B7 or C7 in the key of C.  Nor have I ever seen a flat or sharp in the key of C.  But there is a Bb, of course, in the key of F.  And the 12 bars you give clearly resolve to the F chord, not the C chord, at least to my ear, which is pitch-perfect.  Isn’t this really the key of F?  Or am I not understanding something here?

As I was putting together a response for Michael I found my answers relied heavily on being able to hear the musical examples, so I decided that a podcast format would be the best way to follow up.  It went a little long, almost 17 minutes, but I started with a brief summary to make sure that most listeners could follow along.

Here’s a link that should give you a direct download so you can listen to it on an MP3 player.  Transcript after the break. Continue reading Diatonic and Chromatic Chords: The Blues

Mozart or Salieri?

Many musicians work very hard to develop their listening skills and knowledge of musical styles.  The “drop the needle” or “blindfold test” where you don’t get any knowledge of the music in advance is a common way to test music students’ progress.

Here’s a short quiz you can try out yourself today to see how good an ear for the styles of Mozart and Salieri.  There are 10 excerpts from pieces that were either composed by Mozart or his professional rival, Salieri.

Can you beat 80%?  I have to admit that I guessed on most, but I tried to make them educated guesses.  Probably I got lucky on a few.