Tag: Listening

Mulgrew Miller on listening deeply

“The greatest musicians are the greatest listeners”

I recently listened to the 2002 interview with Mulgrew Miller on Marian McPartland’s Piano Jazz. The entire show is worth a listen, but one anecdote stuck out to me about the importance of listening deeply.

About halfway through the show, Marian asks about Mulgrew’s private teaching practice and what he tells students in a private lesson. Mulgrew replies:

I tell them I think the most important thing to their development is to learn how to listen.

It turns out that Mulgrew had to learn this lesson the hard way on the bandstand. He recounts a learning experience he had playing the tune Four on a gig with Clifford Jordan:

After I cam to New York, I was on a gig once and I was playing the tune Four. This was with one of the veteran musicians in New York, Clifford Jordan.

I was playing some changes that I had learned from a fake book, and they were not the original changes. Although I had been listening to recordings of Miles playing Four and they were playing the original changes, I just didn’t listen beyond what was on the surface, you know?

Clifford came over to me that night and said, “you know you’re playing the wrong changes on Four”

I said “really?”

And he said “yeah, they’re this…” and he showed me.

I said “wow, that’s amazing. I’ve been listening to that record for years and I hadn’t noticed that.”

I went back home and I put the record on, and there it was, as plain as day, the changes that he was showing me.

What I learned from that is that I had not been listening deep enough—in enough detail—to get all the proper things.

This anecdote has inspired me to increase the amount of practice time that I spend with recordings. To me, listening deeply can mean literally transcribing melodies or harmonies I hear. It can also mean trying to feel the groove on a deep level, or hear specific phrasing or dynamics. Sometimes I will put a record on and simply play along with it, beginning to end. Each time I do, I find that I hear something in a new way, and get inspired to go even deeper.


How to Start Transcribing

Staff Paper

I remember trying to play along with recordings in high school (I fell in love with the melody to Desafinado and tried to figure it out), but it wasn’t until I got into college that I set out to methodically transcribe parts of solos or entire solos. The pause and rewind buttons were my best friends. In fact, the printing on the pause and rewind buttons of the boombox I schlepped to the practice room each day are mostly worn off from use!

For my students, I recommend the following process to begin transcribing a solo:

  • Listen to the solo many times to become familiar with it. You will eventually be able to sing or hum the solo even without the recording.
  • Begin by just trying to hear the first note. Hit the pause button right after the first note is played, such that you can still hear it ringing in your tonal imagination
  • Try singing the first note. Once you can accurately sing the note, you’ve got it made; keep singing the note and try to find it on your instrument.

Repeat the process to get the second note, the third note, etc. You may find that you are soon able to hear several notes or whole phrases at a time. Stick with it; like most things worth doing in life, it takes time and practice to gain skill.