3 Simple Steps Toward Playing What You Hear

You’ve heard it time and time again…”Play what you hear!” But how do you actually go about playing what you’re hearing? And how do you hear the stuff that you want to play? Playing what you hear sounds easy in theory, but it’s much more difficult in practice.

When you think about it, it’s kind of the whole point. If you could hear everything you want to play and play everything you hear, you could play anything you wanted to. That being said, the advice, “play what you hear,” is not an easy task.

There are however many ways to get closer to the goal of hearing what you play and playing what you hear. Here’s a simple process to get the ball rolling and make quick headway.

Step 1: connect your voice to your mind’s ear

The first step to playing what you hear has nothing to do with your instrument. It’s just you: connecting the voice that produces sound in your mind, with the your singing voice.

Anybody can develop this skill. We all have the ability to hear voices and sounds in our head, in fact, sometimes it’s difficult to turn them off! Yet not everyone learns to control this inner voice. It’s this inner voice where everything comes from.

For this first step, sit in silence and close your eyes. Turn all your attention to the voice in your mind. Instruct your inner-voice to “sing” a solid continuous pitch. Focus even more on this pitch and just keep it going. Then, imagine the sound visually growing in your mind and allow it to amplify.

Once you can easily achieve this pitch-generation in your mind, very very quietly, hum the pitch that you’re hearing. Now, at this point your initial response will be to turn your attention away from the inner-voice in your mind, and to instead focus on your real voice. This is where the most crucial point in the process takes place: return your focus to your inner-voice going on in your mind, while you continue to hum.

It’s actually really tricky. Your mind will want to switch instantly to your real voice the second you start humming and to completely ignore your inner-voice. Resist this urge, and work on staying focused on your mind’s voice.

As you begin to be able to achieve this, start to raise the volume of your real voice as you continue to pay more and more attention to your inner-voice. Unfortunately, this gets more difficult as you get louder with your real voice. Keep working on it and soon you’ll be able to focus on the voice in your mind even if you’re singing loud.

And the whole point of doing this with your voice is that it’s the same once you do it on your instrument; you’ll be able to play while listening intently to the voice in your head, which is extremely important if you’re trying to play what’s going on in your head.

Step 2: connect your fingers to your mind’s ear

After working on connecting your voice to your mind’s ear, it’s time to connect your fingers to your mind’s ear.

Pick a tune like Happy Birthday or any other very simple melody that you know by ear; something you can sing easily in your head. Next, what you did in the first step with a single pitch, do now with the entire melody of Happy Birthday. So, sit in silence, hear the melody in your head and hum it softly while you continue to pay attention to the voice in your head.

After hearing and singing it, play the melody on your instrument, but completely play it based upon listening to the voice in your head. Let your ear be your guide one-hundred percent. Don’t try to calculate where you’re going or to think about things in terms of theory. Only listen to the voice in your head and match each note on your instrument.

While you match each note, just as you had to remember to focus on the voice in your head instead of your real voice, do the same in this step; with each note of the melody played on your horn, make sure you’re continuing to focus on the sound that’s going on in your mind.

Essentially it should feel as though you’re listening to the radio in your mind and you’re simply copying everything you’re listening to.

Once you can do this with Happy Birthday, go up a half step and do it in this new key. Again, do it all by listening to the voice in your mind. Your analytical mind will want to think about intervallic relationships and key centers.

For the sake of this exercise, leave theory out of it. Use just your ears because that’s what you’re trying to develop. You’re aiming to develop this deep connection between your mind’s voice and your fingers. If you’re applying theory to figure out where you’re going, you’ll lose out on everything that you could gain from this exercise. Then take the melody through the rest of the keys in the same manner.

Step 3: connect jazz language with your fingers and your mind’s ear

Just connecting your ears to your fingers does not complete the puzzle, as you still need to fill your brain with the stuff you want to play. No, it doesn’t magically get there. It gets there through fueling it with a ton of language, transcribing, and listening.

But, this language acquisition, transcribing, and listening must all be done in an active manner, utilizing the method that was introduced in the first step: you clearly hear the stuff in your mind, you sing it accurately, and you continue to focus on the sound in your mind even while you sing.

So, take a line you’ve been working on or want to learn and start to hear it in your mind. Hear every note perfectly. Then hum it very softly while you continue to focus on the sound in your mind.

Gradually raise the volume of your voice until you can sing it full volume while still being able to hear the voice in your head clearly. Then, just as you did with Happy Birthday, do the same thing with your instrument. Play the line while hearing everything perfectly in your mind’s ear.

Doing this with language will fill your inner ear with the stuff you want to play. Over time, you’ll be hearing all sorts of new material derived from other things you learn. That’s just how our brains work. They’re always trying to find new ways to combine and transform old data. Keep feeding your brain music you love and it will respond creatively.

It’s all about that subtle attention

Where you focus your attention is the most important take-away from this article. Your mind wants to focus on one task at a time and it is constantly updating where it puts its attention based upon the new feedback it’s receiving. That’s why every time you sing or play your instrument, your attention wants to drift away from the voice in your mind and to the new source of sound.

It’s that subtle switch in attention that takes us away from playing what we hear because we’re no longer hearing anything, or more precisely, what’s going on musically in our mind is no longer receiving any attention and therefore, has no hope of being produced on our instrument.

Understanding this subtlety and understanding how to place your attention where you want it is the key to playing what you’re hearing. You can play what you hear, but it’s a process. A process that you’ll be working toward your entire life. Getting closer and closer is the name of the game, and as you do, you’re getting closer to playing anything you can dream of.