5 Skills You Won’t Learn in School: How to Connect Your Ear to Your Instrument

You’re a trumpet player. You play the piano or the guitar. Maybe you’ve taken up the saxophone. Out of a dozen different instruments, this is the one that you’ve chosen to amplify your musical voice. You identify with it, you wield it with pride, and you strive to follow in the tradition of the fine players that paved the way before you.

You’ve collected etudes, method books, and instructional videos. You have hundreds of recordings by the masters of your instrument and each week you take lessons and faithfully practice.

Before you know it this instrument becomes the center of your musical and creative output. Your life as a musician starts when you pick it up and stops when you put it down.

But what would happen if you took away that instrument? What if I stormed into your practice room and snatched that instrument out of your hand?

Suddenly you’re standing there all alone in an empty room – are you still a musician?

Think about it…

Right now, as you’re reading this, think of a melody in your mind. Can you create these sounds without your instrument?

This probably sounds ridiculous, why would you do that? Well, I used to think the same thing…

Not so long ago I was a college music major intent on becoming a great improviser. Through school I had learned all of my scales, I was on top of my music theory, and I dedicated the majority of each day to practicing technique.

Outside of school however, I would hang out with local musicians. We would have little impromptu lessons, I would ask questions, we’d play through tunes, and we’d talk about the stuff we were working on. Then one day I got put on the spot…

“Hey, sing a solo over a 12 bar blues.”

I was standing next to a drummer. No bass player, no pianist, no harmonic reference point. Just me, my voice, and the time of the drums. Ready, set, go!

I bombed. I couldn’t sing anything, couldn’t find a pitch, and I definitely couldn’t follow the blues form.

However, I realized something important – a crucial piece was missing from my musicianship. I was using music theory to find the right notes, relying solely on my instrument instead of my ears.

At that moment I was forced to create a melody with only my ears and my voice and everything that I had learned in school didn’t prepare me for this. In front of everyone I had to confront my inner musician.

Finding the musician inside of you

Find your musical voice

You see everything that comes out of your instrument is born inside of you. Deep down, a melody in your ear, a thought in your mind, or a lingering feeling in the pit of your stomach.

You are your own instrument.

The melodies and rhythms that you improvise should come from the sound in your ear and the voice you sing with, not that lifeless piece of metal or wood or plastic that you blow into or bang on.

You aren’t really a trumpet player or a guitarist or a pianist – these instruments are just the tools you use to produce the music that is inside of you.

Remember, the tools don’t make music, you do!

Get past the fundamentals

In school you learn the fundamentals of musicianship.

How to produce the expected sound on your instrument, the rules of music theory, the external aspects of being a musician.

But what about the internal musician, the musical “you?”

As a creative musician you need to find your own voice, create an individual sound, and play what you hear…

But no one talks about the tools that get you there.

Neil Gaiman

Scales won’t unlock your voice, an etude won’t give you artistic vision, and perfecting your instrumental technique is not going to make you a great improviser.

Beyond the fundamentals of music, you need to start focusing on the musician behind the instrument.

Time to start singing

You’ve been there.

You hear a melody in your mind, you know the chord progression of a tune, and you imagine yourself improvising this melody with ease.

But when you actually get up there to solo, this internal sound you’re hearing doesn’t come out of your instrument.


Because you’re stuck obsessing over the music theory. Instead of being creative and free, your inner musician and ear are getting overpowered by your analytical mind. Improvisation suddenly turns into a musical math problem that you solve by entering the right notes on your instrument.

Here’s how to change that. You must begin by connecting your ears to your instrument.

The most useful musical tool that you have is your voice – it’s the handy instrument that you carry with you everywhere you go. Start by incorporating some simple singing exercises in the practice room.

Your goal now is to sing the pitches and melodies you are hearing in your head. Remember You should hear music in your mind and you should be strive to sing this music with your voice.

singing exercises

In the practice room:

  • Sing the scales that you’re practicing, locking in each pitch with your voice
  • Sing the chord tones of each chord that you are attempting to solo over
  • Sing the melodies of the tunes you’re learning
  • Sing the solos you’re transcribing

This process creates a physical connection to the sound you’re hearing internally and the sound you’re producing externally.

If your ultimate goal is to play what you’re hearing, you need to connect your ears to your instrument.

Let me ask you this:

What melody would you sing if you didn’t have to think about chords and scales?

What music would you create if you didn’t have to worry about an instrument?

A great teacher once said to me that improvisation is a combination of your mind, your heart and your technique. And do you know what?

Your voice comes from all three of these places. This inner voice should be what is coming out of your instrument.

“The long melodic line is the basic thing I want in my playing because music must be always singing.”~Bill Evans

Look at the tunes on your set list or the tunes you are trying to learn. Can you sing these melodies right now?

Can you sing along with a song that you hear on the radio?

Can you improvise a solo without thinking about the key or the chord progression?

If you can’t it’s a good sign that you need to connect your ears to your instrument. You may not learn this skill in school, but you need to acquire this skill to truly improvise.

Remember, anyone can learn scales and memorize chords. The one thing that will set you apart is your sound, the musical voice that’s inside of you. Sing it loud and clear!

Stay tuned for Part II in our series The 5 Musical Skills You Won’t Learn in School coming soon…

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