3 Simple Steps Toward Playing What You Hear

You’ve heard it time and time again…PLAY WHAT YOU HEAR!! But when it comes to improvising jazz, how do you actually go about playing what you’re hearing? And how do you mentally hear the beautiful jazz lines that you want to play? Playing what you hear sounds so 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 common jazz improvisation advice of “play what you hear,” is not an easy task to accomplish…

But, there are several powerful exercises to get you closer to the goal of hearing what you want to play and playing what you hear. Today, we’ll show you these exercises and a how to get the ball rolling…

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 and the music in your mind. In this first step, you’ll learn how to connect the voice in your mind (your inner voice), with your real singing voice by using a simple ear training exercise.

Anyone can easily 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! However, 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 and instruct your inner-voice to mentally “sing” a 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, getting louder and louder.

Then, once you can easily hear this pitch in your mind, start to hum the pitch quietly aloud…

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: continue to focus on the pitch in your mind in your mind, WHILE you continue to hum.

Connect your ear step 1

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

Connect your ear

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 process you want to achieve on your instrument – you want to be able to play while listening intently to the voice in your head, because this is the key to playing the music in your mind.

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

Once you can easily connect 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 mind. Now, you’ll do what you did in the first step of the last exercise with a single pitch, but this time you’ll use the entire melody of Happy Birthday.

So, sit in silence, hear the melody of Happy Birthday in your head. Then, hum it softly while you continue to pay attention to the voice in your head.

Next, grab your instrument…Play the melody on your instrument, but play it by 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 or chords or intervals…Only listen to the voice in your head and match each note on your instrument.

Connect your ear to your instrument

While you match each mental note on your instrument, make sure you’re continuing to focus on the sound that’s going on in your mind – This is the ONE thing that makes all the difference!

Focus on the sound in your mind

It should feel as though you’re listening to the radio in your mind and you’re simply allowing everything you hear to come out on your instrument.

Once you can do this with Happy Birthday, try going up a half step and doing the exercise in a 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.

But 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 want to create a 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.

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

Connecting your ears to your fingers is actually only a piece of the puzzle…you still need to fill your brain with the stuff you want to play. Unfortunately, it doesn’t magically appear there. It gets there by fueling it with a ton of language, transcribing, and listening.

But, to be effective in improvisation, you have to connect this language and all of your melodic techniques to your inner voice…

So, for this third exercise, 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, just as you did before.

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, play the line while continuing to hear everything perfectly in your mind’s ear.

Connecting jazz language to your mind

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 information. Keep feeding your brain music you love and it will respond creatively.

It’s all about that subtle attention

How you visualize sound and where you put your attention is the most important take-away from this lesson…

Your mind wants to focus on one task at a time and it’s constantly updating where it puts its attention based upon the new feedback it receives. That’s why every time you sing or play your instrument, your attention wants to shift away from the voice in your mind and move 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 paying close attention to the music in our mind.

Understanding this subtlety and learning how to focus your attention on BOTH your inner musical voice and what’s coming out on your instrument at the same time is the key to playing what you’re hearing.

You can play what you hear, but it’s a continuous 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’ll be getting closer to playing anything you can possibly imagine.

So You Want to Keep Improving?

If your goal as a jazz musician is to get better fast and have fun doing it, then make sure to join over 100K Jazzadvice Subscribers by signing up to our FREE newsletter. Each week, we'll send you powerful resources to keep you moving forward in your jazz journey.