An Ear for Jazz, with Brent Vaartstra

On the show today we’re talking to Brent Vaartstra from, one of the leading websites for people to learn to play jazz.

Now if you’re not into jazz you might already be thinking about skipping this episode – don’t!

This conversation tackles exactly that question of whether jazz has anything to offer musicians who aren’t necessarily dedicated to jazz. And also the core skills you can learn to help you find musical freedom in jazz – or any other genre.

Brent has been running Learn Jazz Standards since 2011, publishing new articles and podcast episodes every week. He also performs and teaches around New York and is the author of jazz books for Hal Leonard including “500 Jazz Licks” and “Visual Improvisation for Jazz Guitar”.

On today’s podcast, we pick Brent’s brains about what does (or doesn’t) make jazz unique as a genre, and ask him a few questions that frequently come up among Musical U followers and members on the topic of jazz.

We talk about:

  • If jazz is an “advanced” genre or one you can start with right away.
  • Whether being a good jazz musician requires mastery of complex music theory or having an incredible ear.
  • How to start training your musical ear, for jazz or any other genre, and Brent shares his four-step system.

We also talk about the new ear training course from Learn Jazz Standards and the two things that really set it apart. Brent has kindly set up a terrific freebie for our listeners that can help you get started with musical ear training – stay tuned to the end of the conversation to learn more about the freebie, and how you can get your hands on it!

Listen to the episode:

Enjoying the show? Please consider rating and reviewing it!

Links and Resources

Enjoying The Musicality Podcast? Please support the show by rating and reviewing it!

Rate and Review!


Christopher: Welcome to the show, Brent. Thank you for joining us today.

Brent: Christopher, thank you so much for having me on the show. I’m really excited to be here and share some knowledge with your audience.

Christopher: Terrific. So, I’d love to start at the beginning, if we may, and talk a little bit about how you first got started learning music.

Brent: Sure. Yeah. I mean, it’s interesting, because I didn’t come from a musical family at all, really. There wasn’t a lot of music going around, so I’m not entirely sure where it came from, but I just, always — since I was a kid –was always really fascinated with music. I just loved it, and I loved listening to it. I loved when I saw musicians playing, wherever I was at, if it was at a restaurant, or, you know, I always thought it was just really interesting, and so, I saved up money — my parents were really good about, you know, helping me out, but, you know, “You got to save for it if you really want it,” you know, they wanted to, sort of, vet me. “Do you really want to learn how to play an instrument?”

And for me, that was the guitar. So, I got my first guitar when I was ten years old. It was, like, a $300 acoustic guitar. I remember buying it from this particular music store, and, just, going home right away and playing it, and I didn’t know what I was doing, but I was just exploring different sounds and just, kind of, mesmerized by the process, and I, you know, I think I got a guitar teacher, eventually, who mysteriously disappeared one day. He just didn’t show up for the lesson, and I never saw him again.

So, I don’t know what happened with that, but, kind of, after that, you know, I got my footing there with learning how to play the guitar, some introduction to navigating the instrument and, just, kind of, kept going from there, myself and sporadically, you know, as I continued my training, just, you know, learning on my own and discovering my own musical vision and moving forward from there.

So, that’s kind of the very beginning roots of how it all started, for me.

Christopher: That’s fascinating. And I’m sure we’re going to be talking a lot more about jazz and the idea of having a musical ear. It sounds like you started out with an ear-based approach. You said you were exploring and trying things out on guitar. Is that right? Were you learning mostly by ear?

Brent: Yeah. You’re totally right. I mean, obviously, like, you know, every musician, or every instrument, rather, when people learn to play it, for some reason, there’s lots of different approaches to it, and, you know, I find that, like, piano players, they tend to be reading out of books right away and they’re learning how to read notation, and, traditionally, at least in, you know, this age, I guess you could call it, a lot of guitar players don’t really learn by reading music. But I did learn how to read chord symbols and chord charts and lead sheets and things like this.

But, yeah, I was very much so primarily by ear, and I became very interested in music that was, I guess, music that pushed the creative boundaries, and I don’t know if it was my personality or what it was, but I became really interested in progressive rock. I’m talking about bands like Rush and even Pink Floyd there. I would consider them to be in that topic, there.

And then, you know, heavier bands like Dream Theater, Planet X, things like this, you know, bands that really had this improvisational freedom and elastic feeling to them and a story being told in music, and I was just really drawn to that, and I think that that lead me to those records, and just sitting down by ear, because there’s no music for that. So I was just trying to figure out all that stuff, myself. So, long story short, yeah, I’ve always been driven to learn things by ear.

Christopher: That’s so interesting, and I think it gives a real insight into where you’re coming from as a jazz musician and a jazz educator, because I think a lot of people in our audience probably associate jazz with learning by ear and improvising.

Brent: Yeah.

Christopher: And so it’s really interesting to hear that even though now you are someone teaching other people that kind of skill actually from your own background, that was something you picked up along the way, teaching yourself.

Brent: Absolutely. Yeah. And jazz was something I really found. I — when I think about it, I — there’s a lot of things that got me into jazz, but it really started with appreciating it, you know, I think, like, a lot of people from my generation or even generations before me, you know, learning about jazz is something that could happen in, you know, your junior high school or high school band class, which I was certainly a part of, and just being exposed to jazz in that sense, and just being interested by it. It’s not necessarily that I loved it, at first. I think a lot of people have that relationship with jazz, is, you know, it’s something that really has to be focused on and listened to and appreciated to really get the full value out of it.

So, I think it started out by, just, being exposed to it, but coming from that background of progressive rock and this virtuosic element of music and, you know, who knows what’s going to happen, you know, what’s going to happen next in the music? I don’t know, and I think that curiosity kind of pushed me a little further into being interested in jazz.

Christopher: And apart from the, kind of, mythological or maybe idealized vision of the jazz musician who is born with a trumpet in their hand that just, kind of, wails from day one, I think a lot of people would say jazz is something that does require quite a formal education to really have your head around what it means to play jazz and how to do it at the highest level. Were you entirely self-taught, before you became a professional jazz musician, or was there some formal training involved along the way?

Brent: I did have, like, sporadic lessons in there, where I would go find — are you talking specifically jazz, or just music, in general?

Christopher: Music in general, I suppose.

Brent: Okay, yeah. I would, just, I would have sporadic lessons where I would meet somebody and be, like, “Hey, I’d like to take a lesson with you,” and I would take several lessons, but it was never something, like, really long-term. You know, I would just learn something, like a little lesson and go from there. And, yeah, certainly, when I was in high school I took some music theory classes, and, of course, you know, we’re going a little further down in the story, here, but in college, of course, I was really immersed in that stuff, and — but, in general, yeah, it kind of started with learning myself, but when it comes to jazz, it just so happened to be that I got involved in a community of people in my town.

I grew up in Boise, Idaho, which is a place where there is — and I mean no offense to anybody who is listening who lives in Idaho, but there’s not as much music there as, for example, where I live here in New York City.

It was a great place to grow up, but there wasn’t as much musical exposure, and to find a pocket of musicians there who were really hard-core about jazz was — it was almost lucky, in a sense. I had a friend who was actually in a progressive rock band that I was in in high school, which, we had a blast doing it, you know, practicing every single Saturday. We were nerds about it, it was so great, and I have a lot of great memories from that time, but the keyboard player was meeting this teacher who was, kind of like, for lack of better terms, the guru, the jazz guru, out in my city, my smaller city in Idaho, and he, my friend, kind of introduced me to him, and got me involved with him. And there was an arts school that he was starting up, and so, for my senior year of high school, I was actually going part-time to my local public school and then part-time to this art school and kind of being integrated into this small community.

We — the school was just starting up, so it was, just, like, trailers, basically. Like, my practice rooms and the classrooms were, like, trailers, and we’d pile in there, and classes were, you know, combo classes and private lessons, and I had, like, three hours of practice time during the day, you know, it was great, and I think that setting, as far as jazz goes, is kind of what got me really wrapped up into it. So, certainly at that point, really getting a teacher, a mentor but also just being in a community, because, and I think that’s really where music of all styles, not just jazz, but music of all styles really comes to life is within a community where you start getting influenced by others, listening to the music that they’re listening to. And so that’s kind of where that developed into, for me.

Christopher: And what did the next few years look like, once you were into that community? How did you go on to become a professional jazz musician?

Brent: That’s a great question, Christopher, because that’s sort of like the pivotal — my life took a big change. I mean, that’s where I see how things really changed for me. I started getting really into jazz, and, I mean, really hard-core into jazz, like, I listened to records all day long, all night long going to the arts school I was just telling you about. I would be listening to the music. I was learning all the tunes that everybody was doing. We had a jam session once a week at this local coffee shop and everybody from the school would show up. We would all play together, that community I was talking to you about, and I was just, really inspired and really energized, and this is when I was about eighteen years old, seventeen, eighteen years old. That’s where I started really coming into this place where I was like, “I love all kinds of music, but this jazz thing is just what I’m really excited about, right now.”

And I was looking to apply to colleges. I wanted to go to college for music, even though everybody told me not to. I was very stubborn, and I said, “Forget about it. I’m going to do this, anyways. I don’t care what you say,” though my parents were very supportive. And every college — I got in to every single college that I wanted to get into, that I applied for. The problem was, you know, the funds weren’t really there. I wasn’t getting enough scholarship money, and I didn’t have that money to go to school, and I was really discouraged. I was trying to pull as many strings as possible and it was just — for me, it was really heartbreaking, because I was seeing all of my other friends, you know, society’s all telling everybody, “Okay, now you go to college. That’s what you do,” at least, in the community that I was a part of, and I felt like I was gonna be left behind, because I couldn’t quite afford to go to the colleges that I wanted to go to.

So, one day, at the arts school, my teacher, my mentor, came up to me, and it was like, “Hey, what’s up? What’s going on with college?” And I told him, “Hey, I just — you know what? I don’t know what to do. I’m stuck. I can’t afford it. I don’t know what I’m going to do with my life after this.” And what he told me — and it happened to be that my friend who had introduced me to him, the guy that was the keyboard player in my progressive rock band, was kind of in the same spot, too. And so, he told us, he said, “Hey guys, I have this great idea for you. I’ve thought about your situations. What I want you to do — I know this sounds crazy. Maybe you’re going to have a hard time convincing your parents of this. I mean, it’s — but I’ll meet with them. I’ll do whatever it takes, but I want you to stay here for one whole year, and I’m going to set up a program for you guys, and you’re going to practice all day long. You’re gonna play your Monday night gig that you have. Keep doing that. You’re going to teach some students to keep making some money, and you can volunteer at the school,” and stuff like this. And, you know, that’s — “I’m going to set this up for you, and you’re just going to have this intensive, and we’re going to have these big goals for your training, and then, you know, we’re going to re-apply for these schools and get these scholarships.” And that was — at that point, things really took a dramatic turn where it was, like, “Wow.”

And so, for the next year, that’s what I did. I just practiced and studied and did this program and went with my teacher for one whole year.

Christopher: Wow. And that was all jazz-focused, was it?

Brent: This was all jazz-focused at the time, yeah, because it was really just trying to get into these particular conservatories and schools that were really jazz programs that I was going for.

Christopher: Amazing, and was the the goal there to get you to higher level where you would have more options in terms of funding in universities?

Brent: It was the goal. The goal was just to basically — not that we weren’t, that I wasn’t, you know, a decent player at the time, but I wasn’t anything spectacular, especially when it comes to jazz music, which, as you kind of alluded to earlier, can be a little bit brainy, it can be a little bit heavy, and so the idea was just to jumpstart those skills and to give it a little more time. You know, it hadn’t been that long. I’d been really training in jazz, so give it a little more time, and then see what happens, you know, of course, just the other side of things, me making a little bit of money from teaching guitar lessons to, you know, get ready for going to college the next year.

So, yeah, that was the ultimate goal, and so, if you don’t mind, Christopher, I’ll just tell you about the program that I was doing. It was kind of insane.

Christopher: Mm-hm. Please do.

Brent: The program was, essentially, the goal was, I needed to learn a hundred jazz standards by the end of the year, so in a whole year, I had to learn 32 bars of a solo every single week. I had to — I don’t know, I forgot what some of the other things were, like, show a new voicing or a new thing that I learned to my teacher. But, really, the core of it was — it, kind of — and I wouldn’t say this is a good program for almost anybody to take, but this was the program that I was involved in, and it was, you know, practice for five or six hours a day. All that sounds really impressive. I don’t know that I would ever say that that’s the best thing for, like, I would say, a large majority of the people to do, but that’s what I did, and I did that for a year. So it was just, it truly was. It was a big jumpstart to my playing, my musicianship in general, and my jazz playing.

Christopher: Wow. And, if we can separate out into, maybe, I don’t know, instrument technique, ear training, music theory and performance practice, what would the balance have been over the course of that year between those different areas, or, if I’m forgetting any important areas, let me know.

Brent: Yeah. I mean, actually, this particular teacher just really didn’t — he wasn’t really a theory person, which might come as a surprise to maybe some of your listeners, and so, that was actually something that I lacked in knowledge and I had to kind of gain a little bit later. It was really very heavy on learning things by ear, which, I guess, translates into ear training, not even necessarily fundamentals of ear training, which I truly believe are incredibly important, like, recognizing intervals and being able to sing them, and chords and hearing them, and stuff like that, but it was more of a really immersed musical approach to that where I was learning jazz language by learning solos by ear, and at the same time I was building that connection from my brain to my instrument, and I was learning songs by ear, so I was training my ear to listen even more, you know, intentionally, intensely, than ever before.

You know, it was a lot of hard work, and like I said, I wouldn’t — anybody listening right now is just, like, completely, like, “Okay, well, I’m never going to study jazz.” Like, don’t listen to anything I’m saying. I mean, it doesn’t even have to be this way. Sort of, I’m probably starting off, you know, confirming everybody’s biggest fears, and it’s just not true, but — it’s not true, but, yeah, I would say, to answer your question, it was very ear training heavy, in the sense that I was just learning lots of stuff by ear.

Christopher: Gotcha. And that sounds like a pretty hard-core year. I imagine it had a happy ending.

Brent: It had a happy — yes — it had a happy ending. I did end up going to college. I went to Cornish College of the Arts in Seattle. It’s a great art school. And I was there for a year, but then ultimately decided I wanted to be in New York City where all of the action was and I moved out to New York City, was going to the City College of New York out there and up in Harlem studied with some great teachers and the rest is history, I guess.

Christopher: And we’re going to talk a little bit — a lot — about…

Brent: Yeah.

Christopher: …in a little bit, but before we do that, I would love to unpack just a couple of the things that came up, there…

Brent: Sure.

Christopher: …regarding jazz, because I think there are some in our audience who are jazz musicians and probably know it inside out, to some degree or another, but I know there are probably a lot of people in our audience, too, for whom jazz is quite unfamiliar and maybe quite intimidating. I think a lot of musicians think of jazz as an advanced genre. It’s something particularly complicated and they’d have to master, say, pop and rock before they ever thought about getting into jazz.

But others I’ve come across are singularly jazz-minded, you know, they know jazz is the only thing for them, and so they skip the pop and rock and anything more seemingly simple, and dive straight into, you know, bebop licks and 2-5-1’s and that’s all they are interested in learning. What’s your opinion on that? Would you say jazz is advanced skill and you need to work on some easier stuff first, or is jazz something that you can dive straight into and make sense of?

Brent: Mm-hm. Well, there’s a lot to unpack with what you just said. I’m forgetting some, already, but one thing that you did say, I kind of want to debunk right away is, those who are just about jazz and think, you know, “I’m just gonna learn jazz, I’m just gonna do all this stuff,” you’re making a big mistake, and it’s fine to be someone like me, where you’re focused on jazz and that’s just simply because you like it a lot, and that’s totally fine, and you’re interested in that. But, you know, jazz may be complicated, and I’ll talk a little bit about that, but, you know, also other styles of music are really complicated, too.

Like, rock is complicated. Pop is complicated. Folk music is complicated. Like, if you listen to the best musicians of all these styles, I mean, there is so much to learn. Like, I can’t play funk properly. I can fake it, but I’m not really playing it like someone who really knows how to do it. So I would say, just with that statement there, that, you know, all music is worth diving into, and spending a little bit of time on, and it’s okay to be focused on one or the other, but always try to explore other styles, because you can learn so much. You can strengthen your playing, and to go and to break off into the real main core of your question here is, do you need to learn other styles of learning first before learning jazz? I don’t necessarily think so.

I think that for anything, to learn any style of music, you have to know the fundamentals of your instrument, and so that means just knowing how to get around it, like, not, do you have to know all your scales? Of course not, but, you know, do know some of your scales? Because scales are a way we can organize the notes on our instrument. Are you able to play a basic chord, whether you’re a saxophone player or just playing arpeggios or a piano player playing actual block chords, can you do that? Like, and do you know how to play those chords in different keys? Like, those are some fundamentals of knowing your actual instrument. And I think if you know your actual instrument to some basic level, you can start, you know, going out into other styles of music. And I think a lot of people think jazz is really complicated, but they over — I think they overthink it a little bit. Like, it is complicated. There’s a great reason to study jazz for any musician out there, and I’m not trying to sell it too hard. It is simply that there is so much harmonic knowledge to be gained from it. So, even if you’re, say, a pop musician or a folk musician, if you learn a little bit of jazz you can learn so much about how harmonies move. You can learn so much about, you know, just, voice leading, and these are terminologies that you may or may not be familiar with, but stuff that can help you become a better composer. Stuff that can help you write better melodies.

So, I do think jazz is something that everybody can get into and just to study a little bit of it can really grow everything else around it. So, I don’t want to say that it’s so hard that you should learn other styles, first. I think, just, see what you can get out of it, you know, try something, you know, try taking a few lessons, like, maybe learning how to play a seventh chord when you didn’t know how to play a seventh chord before will open up your world to something brilliant. Maybe learning what a 2-5-1 chord progression is will be, like, “Whoa. That’s insane. I didn’t know that that’s how that worked.” And it’ll open up a system of how to build chord progressions in the first place. You know, it’s all these kinds of skills that you can learn from jazz and it’s okay if you’re just dipping your foot in it, you know. So I hope that answers your question, Christopher.

Christopher: It definitely does. I think that’s such great advice to explain that, you know, any genre can be complicated and any genre can be simple and accessible and jazz is no exception. I think one reason musicians maybe feel like jazz is a bit further out of reach is that they are less exposed to it in regular culture. Like, the less you go seeking jazz, you’re not going to hear it as much on the radio or on TV, and I know, like, certainly from my own experience, if you, kind of,take that first step of, “I’d like to learn some jazz on my instrument,” often the books or the courses kind of take for granted that your ears or your theory knowledge are already of a certain level…

Brent: Mm-hm.

Christopher: …and I love that you broke it down there, and said, actually, you know, if you’ve got the basic instrument ability, that’s enough to, kind of, start exploring this world of jazz and start drawing out some things that might be useful.

Brent: Yeah. You’re absolutely right. Yeah, having those fundamentals is important, and that totally makes sense. I’ve experienced that in my own training materials sometimes, where I’ve gotten great, positive feedback from people who have said, “Hey, I really like that blog post, but, you know, I just, I don’t know what you mean by a minor 11th. Like, I don’t know what you mean by that.” And then I’m like, “Oh, I need to send you to this other blog post that’s going to explain to you what that means.”

You know, so it’s — yeah. I totally understand where you’re coming from. You know, I’m not gonna sugarcoat it. Yeah, there is a lot of theoretical elements involved in jazz, but the good news that everybody should take a lot of encouragement today who’s listening, is that none of the greatest jazz musicians in the world that are ither living today or the guys that innovated it or the ones that started it, if you can say only a certain group of people started it — they learned all this music by ear. In fact, there are some musicians that I have met before that literally don’t even know the names of the notes on their instrument. They just — they just have great ears and they can start playing this stuff.

Of course, having the theoretical knowledge, and, like I said, the fundamentals of your instrument is really important, but, you know, it’s not going to — if you really want to be exposed to it, like you said, you have to listen to this music, right? If you want to become a great rock musician, listen to it. If you want to become a specific, like, a specific style within rock, listen to it. If you want to become a great folk musician, I mean, I’m generalizing styles, here. We can get really detailed. Listen, listen, listen, listen. And you’ll eventually start to get it, and combined with some private instruction, provided, you know, with some sources from online, perhaps, you can start to, you know, piece these puzzle pieces together.

Christopher: Fantastic. And you’ve maybe touched on it, there, but, the other big question that comes up in our audience when the topic of jazz comes up, is, kind of, the great “Theory vs. Ears” debate.

Brent: Yeah.

Christopher: You know, I think jazz is associated with both, you know, having really complex theory and also having an amazing ear, and some people think you just need one or you just need the other. I’d love to hear your perspective, you know, if you wanted a good jazz musician, maybe not world-leading, maybe not innovative, what’s most important?

Brent: I hands-down would say the ear is the most important. In general, when it comes to improvisation, which — jazz is a music that is mostly based off of improvisation, I mean, there’s so many different styles of jazz, but, the general, basic traditional law of jazz, I guess you could say, is, you play a melody and then everybody takes a solo. Everybody says their piece. It’s sort of like a little democracy, you know, like, “Okay, now it’s your turn. Now you tell me what you think, then you tell me what you think. Tell me what you think. Okay, now let’s all join together at the end and say something.” At least, that’s how it’s supposed to work, right? So, you know, that’s kind of how that goes. It’s a music based around improvisation.

And when it comes to becoming a great improviser, having a great ear is way more important than knowing what scale to play over this chord, or, you know, any kind of theory like that. You know, in fact, sometimes I’ll even go this far, Christopher, to say — um, and there’s people that might disagree with me, but sometimes I think that scales and thinking about scales in order to play over chords or chord progressions can be a barrier for actually creating great music, you know, it can actually stop you from creating great melodies. And scales are great, I think they’re really important if you think about them in the right way, and all that theory that’s attached to scales, but at the end of the day, if you have a great ear, I mean, that’s — hands-down, I would take that in a student, any day than someone who is, “I know everything there is to know about theory.” It’s like, “That’s great, you have all that knowledge, but can you actually make music with it?” I think that’s the big thing at the end of the day, for me. So, I would hands-down say, theory is great, but ears, all the way.

Christopher: Fantastic. I love that explanation, and it gels really well with the way we approach improvisation at Musical U, which is to say, theory can be really helpful and the idea of a fixed chord progression or a fixed scale can really help you when you’re starting out in improvisation by giving you, kind of, a safe zone where, you know, the notes you pick are going to sound okay.

Brent: Absolutely.

Christopher: But actually, the trap is — and particularly with — you know, rock guitarists are the classic example, but you can get trapped in those patterns and those ideas and frameworks where you’re just playing robotically. You know, you’re not actually hearing what you play before you play it, you just play it and see what comes out, and I love that you’ve explained that what lets you get beyond that is the ears, because that’s very much our philosophy.

Brent: Yeah.

Christopher: And I think it’s what you need to really feel free as an improviser.

Brent: Yeah. You know, Christopher, I like to think about scales, and maybe this will help your audience to think about, but I like to think of scales as pitch collections, and what I mean by pitch collections is, I mean it’s sort of like a map of the notes that you can use. They’re really guidelines. It’s not like a definite, if you stray outside of this, then you’re going to be in trouble, but there are a map of notes that you can use. So it’s not necessarily a play-it-in-this-order, or you have to — this note has to be followed by this note. It’s simply a map of, like, you know, if you can visualize on your instrument, you know, where things are, like, then that can be really helpful. So scales aren’t a means, necessarily, to create music. They’re just a structure. They’re pitch collections that can help you visualize the notes that you can play.

Christopher: That’s a really helpful mindset, I think, for people to keep to get that balance between safety and freedom and improvisation. That’s great advice.

Brent: Absolutely.

Christopher: So you are the man behind

Brent: Yes.

Christopher: I think I first discovered the site when I was learning walking baselines, and, you know, I was playing base and I needed a set of chords to play some jazz standards, and you have this huge database of jazz standards with all the information people would require.

Brent: Yeah.

Christopher: But you also have a lot of teaching material on the site, too. Can you tell the audience a little bit about what they can discover at and how it can help them with some of the things we’ve been talking about?

Brent: Yeah. Absolutely. So, really just came out of the place of, you know, having a resource for people to learn jazz standards. I guess that’s why it’s called that, you know? And so, that’s always been something from the very beginning, where we do have a database where you can, you know, read a bio about the song, you can — there’s a play along we just uploaded, like, years ago, tons of play alongs onto Youtube of these songs that you can practice along with, and chord charts so you can follow along, just, like, a place to learn jazz standards, but over the years it’s become, I mean, so much more than that.

We have a podcast, the LJS podcast where every single week I’m, you know, interviewing people just like you’re interviewing me and talking about music and jazz, and I also do a lot of solo shows where I’m just giving out jazz tips and advice. And also, on our blog, you can find all of that stuff, too. You know, whether you’re just interested in jazz and you’re not, you know, you just want to dip your toe in, there is something there for everybody that they can look up, or if they have a question, my goal always when I am creating content for is to think about what questions could people possibly have, and if they type that into my search bar, would they find that question? And so, you know, I might not have the answer to every question, but I’m working on it. So you can try me and see if that’s happening or not. But it’s really a place for everybody, whether you’re just starting out, whether you’re, you know, an intermediate player, or maybe even if you’re an advanced player, you can still get some value from what we have at

Christopher: Awesome. And I think one thing that I love about the site is, apart from the huge database of jazz standards, you have these great portal pages where people can dive in to learn specific things and kind of navigate their way through all of the blog posts and tutorials you have, there. So, yeah, I think if anyone listening is intrigued and wants to get into jazz at whatever level, definitely take a look at the website. I’m a huge fan of the “Learn Jazz Standards Podcast.” It’s one that is definitely on my listening rotary, each week.

Brent: Oh, thanks so much. I appreciate it.

Christopher: And September for you guys — for September, you were doing ear training month.

Brent: Yeah.

Christopher: And the — I definitely encourage anyone who is listening to that show to go and check that out, because you did some really powerful episodes on intervals, chords, chord progressions, and more, and this was leading up to the launch of your brand new ear training course. Can you tell us about that, Brent?

Brent: Yeah, I’d love to, and I’d also like to say right up front, like, for those listening, that I have, like, a really great freebie to give to your audience, today. I’m really excited about this freebie, so I’m not going to tell you what it is, yet because, you know, I don’t want you to — I want you to listen to the rest. But, so, I will talk about the course, though, yeah.

The course is called, “How to Play What You Hear,” and, you know, when I think about ear training, you know, and this is a course, by the way, not just for jazz musicians. This is a course for everybody. Everybody can get some value out of this course, no matter what kind of music you play or what you’re going for. But when I think about ear training, I try to think about what is the end-goal of your training? Like, is it just, simply, like, what’s the point of hearing intervals? What’s the point of hearing chords? What’s the point of hearing chord progressions?

The point of it is so that you can play what you’re hearing in your head, and I’ve heard that — I get emails all the time from people asking me questions like, you know, “How do I learn songs by ear? How do I learn solos by ear? How do I play the music that I’m hearing in my head?” And that got me just thinking a lot. I started reaching out to colleagues asking them, you know, how did you get to this point in your musicianship? And I started looking back at myself, at my college days, and I became convinced that the fundamentals of ear training are critical. They’re crucial for becoming a better musician in general and playing what you hear. So, at the end of the day, why do we ear train? It’s so that we can play what we’re hearing in our head.

So the course is called, “How to Play What You Hear,” and it walks you through my four steps for playing what you hear. And those four steps are, number one, hearing intervals, not just recognizing them, but also being able to sing them. Like, if you heard a reference note, could you sing a major sixth up from that? Could you sing a minor third down from that?

And then, step number two is hearing the chords. So, being able to recognize, what does a major triad sound like? And if that sounds intimidating to anybody, you’ll learn what that is. What is a triad? It’s three notes. You’ll learn what that is. Everything is explained. But, you know, if I heard a major triad, could I recognize it? But, even further than that, could I actually sing the arpeggio, could I sing the chord tones, you know? Could I pick out what the third or the fifth or the root is? And again, if that’s, if that’s over your head right now, that’s all explained pretty clearly.

And then, step number three is hearing chord progressions, because a big part of playing what you hear is being able to hear a song and, I mean, imagine for a second, like, again, no matter what genre of music, if you heard a song on the radio and you just automatically knew what those chords were, like, wouldn’t that just, like, I don’t want to, I don’t know, I don’t like when people say, change your life, that much, because it’s, like, well, that’s a strong statement, but it could change your musical life, right, if you could actually do that. And so, this step number three is all about, you know, hearing chord progressions and it’s amazing in the course how you learn how in intervals, it influences if you can learn chords, and chords influences how you can learn chord progressions. It’s sort of like a stepwise process.

And then step number four is translating what you hear to your instrument, and this is a really important step because at the end of the day, we’ve got these fundamentals of ear training, right? It’s sort of like, you could sort of think of it like the scales of learning your instrument, I mean, maybe you could consider it like that. Well, there’s this part missing, though, and that’s the — connecting what you’re hearing to your instrument, right? I mean, whether it’s learning a song, whether it’s improvising, or anything — or just playing a melody, you need to be able to make that connection. And a lof of musicians don’t have that connection. It’s like the instrument and their ear are separate entities. And what we want to do is, we want to build that relationship with each other, right? And eventually, the ultimate goal — and I’m still working towards it — I think everybody’s working towards this stuff for the rest of their life — we want it to be one sold unit. We want the instrument and the ear to be the same thing, right, like, when you see the best musicians in the world play, it’s almost as if, like, they’re not playing an instrument, they’re just — I don’t know what they’re doing. They’re just playing, and that instrument is just the vessel for them to express and create music. And so, that’s what step number four is. So it’s steps one through four. It’s hearing intervals, hearing chords, hearing chord progressions, and finally translating what you hear to your instrument. And in this course, I just kind of walk you through this process of how to actually do that.

Christopher: Fantastic. And for anyone listening who is thinking to themselves, “Well, I’ve seen ear training before, or I’ve heard about interval recognition apps before,” I’d love to just point out two really powerful things you said, there, Brent, I love are a part of your course, and the first is that you incorporate singing, and, you know, we’ve had an episode of the show all about worrying that you’re tone deaf and whether you can sing in tune. I just say, you know, you don’t have to be a star singer to leverage your voice to train your ears. It’s such a powerful technique and I love that that’s included in your course.

The other really critical thing is, as you said, there, step four, which is connecting with your instrument, because so many musicians make the mistake of doing ear training totally isolated from anything else, or maybe connected with music theory, but that’s it, and we’ve just found time and again what makes the difference to people actually succeeding and enjoying and using their ear training is that connection to the instrument. So, I’d really encourage anyone listening to take those two things seriously. That really does set this course apart from a lot of the other material that’s out there.

Brent: Thanks a lot, Christopher. I appreciate it. And, yeah, absolutely. Singing is really important, because it’s sort of the difference between, you know, if you can hear an interval, you can hear a chord. That’s really helpful, to be able to recognize that and put a name to it, but it’s ony one step of it. To really, truly know if you’ve internalized those sounds, which is ultimately what we’re going for, is if you can actually reproduce that yourself.

And in the course, I talk about if you feel really uncomfortable singing, because sometimes, you know, sometimes for a lot of people, actually, like, singing, it’s hard to hold a pitch. And I totally understand that. I mean, I don’t consider myself a bad singer, but I sometimes, just the technique of my voice, I don’t work on it every day like a vocalist might, but you can hum or you can whistle, too, and a lot of people feel more comfortable with that. The whole idea is that you’re just able to make some sound yourself that will produce the pitch and essentially prove that, you know, you can actually hear that. You can hear that sound.

Christopher: So, apart from heading to and tuning in to the “Learn Jazz Standards Podcast,” if someone is listening and wants to get involved with this new ear training course, where is the best place for them to go, or how can they take that first step?

Brent: I’m so glad you asked. So, I mentioned before — I mentioned before that I have a freebie for your audience, and I really think that anybody — again, any style of music, not just jazz, any skill level can benefit from this, and I want to give you — it’s “The Ultimate Ear Training Blueprint” and a video training series. It’s a great handout, it’s completely free, and I’m just giving it away, basically, just, kind of walking you through those four steps that I just talked about in the little video series and also, at the same time, just a little pdf ebook for you to follow along, “The Ultimate Ear Training Blueprint.” So if you want to check that out, just go to and you can find that there and get started.

Christopher: Terrific. Thank you so much for setting that up. It’s been such a pleasure to have you on the show today, Brent. Thank you for joining us.

Brent: No problem. Christopher, thank you so much, and I really appreciate everything you’re doing at Musical U. It’s just, it’s really important to spread music education to other people, and so, I really appreciate you having me on the show.

Enjoying the show? Please consider rating and reviewing it!

The post An Ear for Jazz, with Brent Vaartstra appeared first on Musical U.