Warm up your ear for improvisation

We are all pretty good at warming up our bodies to play our instruments. Brass players require a little extra as we limber up the vibrating mechanism called our lips. For that, we play long tones, lip slurs, tonguing, etc.

While each instrument has different needs for warming up physically, each one of us can benefit from warming up our ears.

But what does it even mean to warm up our ear?

Well, as I like to say, warming up our ear helps us better connect our musical mind to our instrument. Have you ever noticed at a gig or rehearsal that as the night goes on, your improvising seems to get more fluid or easier?

I have noticed it, and as a result, I’ve created a simple few steps you can take on your own to give yourself a head start warming up your ear. And while this is focused on improvisation, any musician can benefit from doing these simple exercises.

If you’ve followed my videos, courses, and writing, you know that I encourage instrumentalists to sing. Basic singing, not performance scat or song stylings. Just be able to sing a pitch relatively close to in tune.

Start by playing a note on your instrument somewhere in the middle of your singing range. Listen to that note then sing that pitch. Were you able to find it pretty quickly with your voice?

If not, you’ve found a good place to start. I believe that if we cannot sing a note, we’re not really hearing it. Certainly, there are exceptions with people with damaged vocal cords, and if you absolutely cannot sing on pitch, try whistling.

If you were able to find the pitch with your voice, the next step after singing that tone you played on your instrument is to sing a different tone, and then find that tone on your instrument.

So at this stage, you are reversing the process of play-sing to sing-play. This is harder but is the most important part of the warmup.

So, you would play a Bb then sing that Bb. Then sing a new note and find that new note on your instrument.

Feel free to simply pick a note out of the blue and then find it on your instrument. Singing the next note on the heels of singing the note just you played gives you a reference that should make it easier to find that next note on your instrument.

If that is relatively easy, play a phrase from a familiar song. Maybe start with the Christmas carol Joy to the World. Play that first descending phrase in the key that seems most natural. Then pick a random note and play that first phrase again starting on that new note.

Are you getting the idea? Play the first phrase from a standard and then start it on a random note. Do it a few times starting on different notes.

If you get stuck finding the ‘next note’, stop and sing that note. If you can’t find it with your voice, you aren’t truly hearing that next phrase.

Challenge yourself with other things to play by ear. See if this warm-up helps you improvise better once you start your performance, recording, or practice session.

And, by the way, these exercises don’t need to be limited just to a warm-up. Spend some time in your practice sessions playing songs starting on random notes. You’re NOT memorizing these tunes in different keys. You are using your ear to sing them through your instrument.


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