Monthly Archives: October 2015

Five Ways for Guitarists to Develop Their Ear

By Jared MeekerMeeker

Playing music can often be related to the visual elements: stage lights, clothing and appearances, visual shapes of patterns on the guitar up and down the neck and reading guitar tablature and notation. However, any great guitarist and musician will tell you that it all comes down to having a well-trained ear. Recently, I had an opportunity to meet Robert Montgomery, Wes Montgomery’s son, who told me stories about how his dad didn’t read music and would learn extremely complex songs and note-for-note solos by ear. This kind of listening led him to understand the highest level of jazz harmony by relying on his hearing and formulating his own vocabulary. It can be said for many great studio guitarists that they can hear melodies, chord progressions and forms and play them back instantly. How can a guitarist progress and practice developing their ear?

1) Sing what you play. One of the most important techniques is to allow notes to vibrate through you by singing them. If you are new to this, play a note on your guitar and then sing it back. Was it the exact note in the same register, or was it sharp or flat? Try to match precisely and, as you improve, eventually you can improvise anything on the guitar and match it with your voice. Often you can hear guitar greats doing this where they solo and sing with it. Once you have that mastered, try to harmonize with yourself—playing a scale on guitar and harmonizing it with your voice (for example, singing a third above).

2) Listen to the individual elements. When some people listen to music, it is just part of the background—they listen to the singer’s words and melody but the accompanying instruments are in the distance. There is so much more going on. First of all, there are five elements of music to be aware of: melody, harmony, rhythm, timbre and form. When you listen to music, be acutely aware of how these elements are used and combined. How is the melody shaped and contoured? What are the chord relationships and how do they evolve through time? What kinds of rhythms are being used by every instrument and do they contrast in different sections of the song? What is the timbre or quality of each instrument, the effects, natural tone and range and equalization that were used in the production? What is the form of the song from the beginning to the end and how many sections were there?

3) Practice ear-training exercises. Ear training exercises are essential for the developing musician. There are some great websites that feature a variety of theory related lessons and ear training interactive players. You should test yourself on the following topics: note intervals, chord qualities, rhythm dictation and melody dictation. Let’s talk about each independently.

• Interval ear training will help you hear and recognize the distances between notes, typically all 12 notes and their multiple spellings. This is particularly helpful when figuring out melodies. At a gig or studio session when an artist or producer plays a melody you need to be able to pick it up immediately without fumble.
• Chord qualities are hearing a type of chord, (typically four triads types and about 7 seventh chord types, built from any root). You should be able to identify the chord the first time, but in the beginning you may need to hear it several times or each note of the chord played separately.
• For rhythmic dictation you will probably have to do yourself if you have a way to record yourself. Record yourself clapping out a few rhythms—start slow with just one measure, but for more advanced training, do several measures—then write out the rhythm on a sheet of paper.
• Finally, for melodic dictation do the same thing, record notes in time and then listen back and write out your melody. Start with only a few notes in a short phrase but, after you improve on transcribing, try longer phrases of four measures or more.

4) Reading music that you’re not familiar with. This is just how it sounds: practice reading and understanding the notes on a page and how they turn into sound. Similarly to the previous lessons, it will get easier the more that you do it. Eventually all the musicality that we’ve talked about will come together and you will see the notes, intervals, and chords on the page and know how they sound before you play them.

5) Transcribing note-for-note. Everyone has his or her favorite players and musicians. If you’d like to like to learn from them the best way is to play along. Often you can write down the notes, chords and rhythms to understand them better, but listening, learning and playing along is good enough. Be careful to notice all the inflections, bends and ornaments. There may be great transcriptions and charts out there already but although it may take longer, and figuring it out on your own will ma ke you internalize it more.

Think about great musicians with an incredible musical memory like Wes Montgomery, who had all the melodies and chords of a night stored in his mind, or Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart who could hear a full symphony and go home and write down what he heard. That musical memory is related to ear training and identifying in a deeper way how you process sound. Good luck, and happy listening.

For products by and featuring Jared Meeker, click  here.

Merry Christmas with Medleys for Two!

By Wynn-Anne Rossi

Wynn-Anne RossiWhat is a medley? A medley is a mixture. In the three books of Christmas Medleys for Two, the medleys mix two favorite Christmas pieces for piano duet. Writing medleys is fun because they offer open-ended possibilities for endless creativity. In my first holiday music project, I arranged three solo books of medleys titled Christmas Medleys for Students. Christmas Medleys for Two is a follow-up to these solo books.

Why teach duets of Christmas medleys? Performance with a partner is always challenging but twice the fun. These Christmas medleys are a little longer than most Christmas solos. Consequently, these duets offer more breadth of interpretation, and students feel quite accomplished when they play a piece that is a little longer than a short two-page solo. And, this does not have to be difficult! I usually assign holiday music that is a little below the students’ normal performance levels, knowing that they have a limited season of practice. I also offer additional opportunities for performance, encouraging family concerts, nursing home visits, and group gatherings of all kinds.

I discovered lots of choices when arranging these holiday duets as medleys. In some cases, I chose two similar carols and joined them with a bridge, making them feel like one piece. Imagine the festive nature of “Deck the Halls” coupled with “O Christmas Tree” (Book 1). In other selections, I chose two completely different styles to surprise both the performer and the audience. For example, in Book 2, I paired “Silent Night” with “Jingle Bells” to create a refreshing surprise!

My third choice was to create a “mash-up,” blending two carols together in creative ways. One interesting example is “Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring” with “O Holy Night” in Book 3. The structure of the score is highlighted in the music example accompanying this article. In the spirit of the season, I have marked the two carols in holiday colors. “O Holy Night” entrances are marked in green, and “Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring” entrances are marked in red.

Jesu, Joy of Man's Desiring/O Holy NightBoth the primo and the secondo parts start with red arrows, meaning this arrangement begins with Johann Sebastian Bach’s “Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring.” Notice the up/down interval pattern in measure three of the primo. The first entrance of the “O Holy Night” (green arrow) is in measure 10. In measure 11, a similar up/down interval pattern to the one found in measure three appears in the primo. This up/down pattern is a bonding feature that both carols have in common.

Jesu, Joy of Man's Desiring/O Holy NightMeasures 10–27 feature “O Holy Night” with motives from “Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring” appearing in the secondo. At measure 28, the two carols begin to speak as one. The primo features “Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring” while the secondo clearly focuses on “O Holy Night.” However, motives from both pieces appear in each part. Notice the eighth-note follow-through in measures 38–39 and 42–43 of the secondo. At measure 44 of the secondo, the up/down interval pattern reappears. Finally, there is a lovely echo of “Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring” in measures 59–61 of the primo. These two beautiful compositions could not have been more compatible and fulfilling to transform into a medley.

I wish you and your students a fabulous musical adventure as you enter the holiday season. May these Christmas Medleys for Two bring added enjoyment to lessons and performances.

Teacher New Year’s Resolution

Chris M. Bernotas

Happy New Year! What an exciting day of the year January 1st is! Everything is new again. We have a new outlook on life and we set new personal goals in an effort to better ourselves. We look at the prior year, consider the highs and lows and try to address anything we would like to improve upon. So why am I talking about New Year’s now? As a teacher we celebrate New Year’s twice a year. The start of school (August or September) is our New Year! At home, we have our resolutions—you know, I am going to lose weight, go to the gym, eat healthier! Sadly, those usually last about a month—okay, a week—then it is back to buffalo wings and professional couch sitting. As teachers in school we have an opportunity to look at our previous school year and wipe the slate clean with a fresh start. Each new school year we have the opportunity to hit the “reset” button. How exciting is that? It is a part of the profession that I just love, and by approaching each year as a new opportunity for personal and professional growth—and sticking to your resolutions—you can avoid the dreaded burnout.

That doesn’t mean that your prior year has to have been a disaster to take the New Year’s Resolution approach. By reflecting on even the most successful year you will find that there are areas that could have been better in some way. Maybe the collection of uniforms could have been more streamlined or maybe your attendance taking skills could use a little brush up. Or maybe there are specific concepts that you would like to focus on with your students. The exciting aspect I find is that there is never a lack of ideas on how we can improve the classroom experience for both our students and ourselves. I would like to share three of my own personal improvement goals, or School Year’s Resolutions with you. Perhaps you will be inspired to think of your own. I am excited for this school year, my 25th as a teacher, and I wish you all the best in your year!

  1. Play more, talk less. This simple phrase is so important. Everything I have to say is so incredibly important! I am sure this is true for you as well. We have all the answers and want to share those answers with our students. Many times the best education happens when you say nothing at all. Students discover the answers as we guide them. The play more, talk less approach keeps that concept in mind. It is also a wonderful tool to help with classroom management. When students are actively engaged (or have an instrument on their face) they will be less likely to talk to their neighbor!
  2. Don’t Say It. Do you ever yell over the ensemble? “BASSOONS! YOU ARE TOO LOUD!” Ok, you’ve never said that one. How about this, “TRUMPETS TOO LOUD, TROMBONES ARTICULATE, PERCUSSION WATCH ME!!!” Me too. It is so easy to just tell them with our voice, and it works in the short term. However when we do this, we are taking away from our ultimate goal of communication from the podium. We want our students to watch us to understand our interpretation, but if we yell instruction at them, why would they watch? So, my goal here is to not talk (or sing) over the ensemble as they are rehearsing.
  3. K.I.S.S. We love analogies. I know I do. They are so effective when trying to get kids to understand concepts. When a student gets a concept through an analogy it is like a beautiful ray of sunshine beaming through the darkest of clouds. (See what I did there?) I would never say to not use a wonderful analogy or share a great pun—just be sure to not overuse them. Many times we just need to keep it simple. Give a short direction with simple and direct instruction. How about saying, “Alto saxes, there is a wrong note on beat 2 of measure 5,” instead of, “Alto saxes, there is a criminal lurking in the shadows of measure 5. You need to swoop upon it to eradicate the musical world of this eternal evil.” Use your analogies, I used one this morning and it really connected with my students, but also keep it simple.

I wish you all a Happy New School Year and hope it is your best yet! If you have a resolution to share, please send me a note ( and perhaps I will compile them and share them in the future. Until then—be active, maintain a healthy weight and eat a balanced diet!

By Chris M. Bernotas
Alfred Music Composer & Sound Innovations Author