Last night I was asked for the one absolute best way to connect one's ear to the instrument in order to improve jazz improvisation.
Let's think about that. Can you imagine a tone right now? Maybe it's in your imagination or maybe it's something you hear from a motor or alarm or something external. Now, pick up your instrument or sit at the piano and play that pitch. How close were you on your first try?
If it took a few notes to find it, that's perfectly fine. That gives you a measurement of how well connected your musical mind or ear is connected to your instrument. If that was not easy, try it again. This time, hear the pitch but instead of finding it on your instrument, sing it. That's probably a lot easier, isn't it? Now find it on your instrument. Was that easier than the first time? If you are like most, it was.
You just went through an exercise that I believe answers the question of the one best way to improve the connection between your ear and instrument.
There are many uses and variations of this exercise. For example, in your warm-up before practicing or rehearsing, sing a note - any note within the range of your instrument. Now, play that note. Did that take you two or three tries? That's fine. Do it again. Do it a few more times. You're probably getting closer to finding the pitch on the first try, right? That's because your relative pitch is being tuned.
I want to mention my free ebook called Jazz Patterns for Ear. This is an exercise book specifically focused on strengthening the connectio0n between your instrument and ear. And it works:
I've always throught improvisation was learned through lots of patterns and licks to internalize and lots of formulas and diagrams to memorize. While this approach was easy for me (especially the formulas and diagrams), it never helped me find my musical voice or express the sounds I hear inside my head. I have worked some with Jazz Patterns for the Ear on my own, and just a few practice sessions with that have already resulted in more progress than four years of the other method.
Jazz Patterns for Ear basically play you very simple 2 to 5 note patterns over a jazz rhythm track and challenges you after hearing the first note of the pattern to pay the pattern starting on that note.
Each pattern is based on an interval and those intervals cover the major second all the way through the major seventh.
But, the real challenge is to be able to shut off your analytical mind and instead, trust your musical instincts to find the notes of the pattern. If you hear yourself saying, "The minor third down from Ab is F, so I need to play F hear..." Stop.
Start again and this time, simply listen to that first note of the pattern (the hint) and let your musical instincts play the pattern.
One of the most important lessons from this book and from the sing/play exercise is to trust your inner musician. For many of us who have learned music by reading and thinking, that's hard.
The above quote, believe it or not, is from an MIT PhD in particle physics. Now, if he can favor his creative brain over his analytical brain, there's help for all of us!
Try the sing/play exercise and the first few patterns in Jazz Patterns for Ear and let me know what you experience.