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!

  1. Bye Bye Blackbird

2. There Will Never be Another You

3. Summertime

4. Yardbird Suite

5. Someone to Watch Over Me

Here is the drone by itself over which you can play:

1 Comment

  1. Ewen Baird on February 17, 2021 at 5:38 pm

    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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