Playing by Ear (and Self-Evaluation)
Q: I have been playing bass for about 12 years now, and over the last 5 years, I have been practicing more and more. I’m definitely seeing progress in the areas of practive, but sometimes I feel there are holes in my playing. For example, I get very nervous when I´m in a situation where I need to play by ear. I freeze up and look for the right notes all over the place. I have practiced it for a couple of years now, by taking a song, finding the root, and then just transcribe without my instrument and checking later. I am getting better at it, but I still freeze when playing by ear with others. It is like I don’t trust my ears. Do you have any suggestions? Also, do you have any concepts for finding your weaknesses in your playing?
A: I’m sure a lot of people will have a lot of good ideas about this! Hopefully, this will start a conversation in the comments below.
I think what you’re mainly asking about all boils down to vocabulary.
It’s like learning a new language. Maybe one we have a bit of a grasp on it, but are not yet entirely fluent. We can hold a conversation but are often fumbling for the right words or phrases. We understand more listening than we can convey verbally.
We know what we want the music to sound like. We understand where someone may be going when they move the harmony in a way we are familiar with, but we don’t know exactly how to translate that on the instrument.
There are probably a hundred different ways to work on this but here’s what I would suggest:
1. Listen with intention.
When listening to any song, keep an ear out for common phrases, licks, turnarounds and song endings. Whenever you hear something that is familiar, but not in your bag of tricks, stop and figure it out (or at least make a mental note to figure it out when you get back to your bass).
I tend to hear the shape of something. I can hear a pentatonic lick and actually see the box shape on the fretboard in my minds eye. That is only because I figured out what it was and practiced it at some point.
Practice common blues endings, jazz turnarounds, common progressions, bluesy guitar licks you hear. Figure it all out on your fretboard and practice using them while playing music or even playing along with CDs.
As you understand them better, you’ll begin to develop the ability to closely follow anyone in the band as soon as you hear them elude to something like that. Also, in jamming situations, people typically keep things at a level that should be easy enough to follow, if you’ve studied the common phraseology.
2. Practice singing a line or lick and then trying to play it back to yourself.
This helps connect the ear training and the fretboard connection. If you can hear the lick, ideally you can play it.
3. Transcribe AND analyze
Once you’ve figured out what actual notes someone used to play that lick or line you just transcribed, look at it on paper against the chords and figure out what they were thinking, seeing and/or hearing. Look at the context of the line in order to understand how to use that device yourself.
As far as your second question…
Finding your own weaknesses is something everyone should do, and with regularity. I find the players that are constantly working on the things that they are weak in progress much faster and go much farther than those who only try and play what they can play well (which only seems to serve their ego as opposed to bringing more balance and honesty into their music).
I would primarily suggest that you record yourself as much as possible. Get a decent digital recorder and record every rehearsal, jam, gig and practice session you can. Dump it onto your computer and listen critically. Make notes about what you wish were different about your playing. Critique yourself as you would anybody else. Be objective (as much as is possible). Also, go back and listen to old recordings. Often, I find that it’s hard to listen to myself objectively right away. My tendency is actually to never like much of what I play when I listen back that night or the next day, but find that when I scour old recordings, I’m actually digging it way more.
My modus operandi is this: I try to be the bass player I want to hear and the teacher that I wish I had. I try to serve the music and not my ego on stage and best serve the student and not the school, program or parent when teaching someone.