I recently received an email from an adult student of the saxophone with a question regarding transferring his musical ideas to his instrument. He seemed frustrated because he felt that while he was able to whistle or scat his musical ideas, he was unable to locate these sounds on his instrument.
In reality I believe that many students are capable of hearing ideas in the mind's ear that they may or may not have the musical vocabulary to reproduce on their instruments. So, my suggestion for these individuals is to experiment with what they know they can play.
I've developed an exercise designed to help students make the connection between the mind's ear and their instruments. By working with this exercise, players with a vocabulary of just a few major scales can begin to establish that link between their ears and instruments.
Here's the exercise:
Play a major scale...one that you know very well and can play freely up and down your instrument. Next, learn to sing the same scale. Take your time, making certain to match the pitches exactly. You may wish to play and sing the scale several times to assure accuracy.
Beginning with a simple passage, vocally improvise a phrase using only tones from this scale. Next, locate your starting tone with your instrument and play the phrase. If you have difficulty locating your starting tone, try again by first establishing a starting tone with your instrument.
As you progress, try starting on different tones. You should also experiment with ascending and descending passages, note length and varying intervals.
Continue using this process as your musical vocabulary grows to include different kinds of scales (i.e. pentatonic, blues, minor, etc.). With a little creativity, you can even use this exercise as an aid in learning to hear and play chord changes.
Students often experience difficulty bridging musical the gap between the mind and instrument. Hopefully this exercise will provide students with a method for using their existing instrumental vocabulary to get in touch with the mind's ear.
Randy Hunter is an Atlanta-based freelance saxophonist and long term private instructor. He self publishes a series of educational jazz books entitled "Complete Jazz Styles." His series of etude and duet books have been endorsed by Joe Lovano, Randy Brecker, John Fedchock and a number of other world renowned jazz artist and educators.