Keeping sharp musically as we enter year two of COVID

It was February 3 of last year that 9,800 people had the virus and 200 had died worldwide. Then on March 11 the World Health Organization officially declared COVID-19 a Pandemic, with WHO Director-General declaring at a briefing in Geneva that the agency is “deeply concerned by the alarming levels of spread and severity” of the outbreak. He also expressed concern about “the alarming levels of inaction.” Two days later Trump finally relented and declared COVID-19 a national emergency.

But this isn’t a post on politics and the ineptitude of government to do the right thing. Instead, it’s one on keeping sharp over this period of prolonged prohibition of people gathering, either as audiences or bands. We still can’t play with each other and for a jazz musician, that’s especially bad. Our ability to hear others so well that we can play as one is rusty for many of us. We’ll all eventually get it back, some even better when things open up because they used this time wisely.

As a trombone player, I’ve worked as much as possible this past year to keep my chops up, but how do we keep our jazz ears sharp?

And for you classical players, do this exercise with etudes or orchestral excerpts!

Here’s the idea.

How about playing the melody to standards over a very basic but rich-sounding drone? I’ve created an almost 4-minute drone for you to do just that.

Your assignment, should you choose to accept it, is to listen to the drone tones for a few seconds which consist of a root and its fifth an octave up along with a bunch of overtones. Sing the starting few notes of a tune you choose. Then play the melody (or improvise over the tune} on your instrument over the drone.

Can you pick out those starting notes in the right key by hearing the two pitches of the drone? Resist finding the drone note names and then calculating the starting note from your Real Book. You KNOW you can’t help yourself! But try.

Play any tune you wish. But because you only get those two pitches throughout, there will be notes that are less than harmonically resonant with the drone. On the other hand, that is part of the value of this exercise. You get to hear the dissonance between the melody in places and the drone, further testing your knowledge of the tune.

You will soon discover that unless you truly know the tune, this will be difficult. I guess that’s another part of the value to this – it’s like holding up a magnifying glass to your knowledge or lack thereof of a tune.

I recorded myself on 5 standards to demonstrate the variety of tunes over which you can use this exercise like major and minor standards, ballads, and bebop. The drone track is at the end.

Have fun with this!

5 Responses

  1. This is great Mr. Lake! Very cool and super creative that you thought of this and put this together. And of course most generous to share it with everyone.

    I am at work as I write this, and could not resist reading your post and listening briefly to the drone and a few of your tracks. I can’t wait to get home and give it a try. Even though this is one of my 12/13 hour work days, I am still excited to give it a go tonight.

    Thanks so much, you have been a game changer for me.

    Charles

  2. Michael – amongst many other of your innovative learning exercises, this is perhaps one of your most brilliant! Your ongoing support and encouragement is a blessing and I’m grateful your thoughtful work and courageous examples of leadership help all of us elevate the priceless pursuit of making and enjoying music.

  3. Michael, that you so much for sharing this with everyone. Also thank you for the very lovely drone!! A nice change from my old mp3 transfered years back from a CD of a tamboura.

    Singing and playing over drones is a wonderful practice, first introduced to me by musicians who studied North and South Indian classical music, including Michael Harrison and the great Steve Gorn. I love this practice for deepening my intonation and my understanding of Key releationships in western music traditions as well, and in particular for Jazz improvisation. Figuring out what key would (ie what drone) would best fit a standard is somethimes an interesting and revealing challange, especially for more modern compositions by composers like for example, Bill Evans and Wayne Shorter. Even in those more modern pieces there often is a sense of home, however tenouous in may be, burried somewhere in the tune.

  4. Hi, I found this especially useful when trying to sing the melodies. I’m a saxophonist and I reckon that trombonists tend to hear stuff before they play it to a greater extent than, for example, those who play the same instrument as me. I think the value of it was somewhat diminished when I used my instrument because it then became part intellectual exercise as I transposed tunes from the key I already knew them in. Summertime was a good one to start with because it starts on the 5th, so it was quite nice to hear myself looking for the sound of the m3rd against the tonic and 5th and even flattening the 5th at the end before resolving…

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