The Art of Developing Musical Ears and Improve at Music Hearing

Let’s say you have mastered the basics of good blues harp playing. You can get around the 12 bar blues pattern really well, you can bend notes, can really cook on the blues scale.

You are getting a great tone, you can jam really well with CDs, and you are beginning to steal licks from your favorite harp players. But when you go to the jams or join a band, something happens: your licks won’t fit like they did when you practiced at home, you can’t get your tone, you find you have to play safe, and when you try to stretch out on solos, you sound like crap.

The good news is, you have come to a crossroad in your playing development. The great news is all harp players worth their salt have gone through this phase. It’s called “developing musical ears”, and it requires you to “relearn” what you thought you knew well and apply it in new ways to fit the new and sometimes tenuous world of playing live with other musicians.

If you are planning to jam or playing in a band, you must train yourself to hear not only what you are playing, but listen carefully to the musicians around you. Here are some suggestions and what I think to be foolproof principles to help you develop musical ears.

  1. “When In Doubt, Lay Out!!!”
    Sometimes the best musical judgment call is to play nothing at all!
  2. Remember: “Less Is Best!!!”
    If you are backing up a vocalist, or giving support to a soloist, play very simple ideas, such as: arpeggios (chord tones), or short simple riffs that blend with or complement the soloist (for more on this subject, get my CD/tape #4: “Roadmap to the Blues”).
  3. Drop Your Volume
    Encourage your band to do the same. This way the soloist really stands out.
  4. Suggest An “Unplugged” Set
    This adds variety and dynamics to your performance, and the club owners and the audience will love it!
  5. Do Not Play on Every Song
    Try adding a simple vocal harmony instead. One major complaint about harp players is that they play too much and all the time. Throw your band a curve, and lay out entirely on several tunes.
  6. You Get Better When You Play With Better Players
    Set your sights a little higher as you gain experience and confidence. You will find better players practice the points above, and if you follow these to the letter, you will be on the same page.

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