Explaining the Musical Ear, with Aimee Nolte

Today we’re speaking with Aimee Nolte, a jazz singer and pianist who has one of the most popular YouTube channels among musicians, focusing on jazz piano with a healthy dose of a lot of the skills we discuss here on the Musicality Podcast such as playing by ear, improvising, and singing in tune.

Aimee’s also a songwriter and recording artist and this year she’s released two tracks from a forthcoming new album. Aside from just being wonderful music, these tracks are remarkable for the way Aimee’s been openly sharing the process of writing, arranging, and recording them through videos on her YouTube channel.

In this conversation we talk about:

  • One important part of Aimee’s musical upbringing which let her make improvising and playing by ear a natural part of her musical identity from a very early age
  • What Aimee’s been discovering as she digs into the topic of tone deafness and helping people learn to match pitch and sing in tune.
  • Aimee’s relationship with sheet music, as someone who was predominantly a by-ear player – and whichever camp you fall in yourself, we think it’ll surprise you.

Listen to the episode:

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

Aimee: Thanks so much for having me Christopher.

Christopher: So I fanboyed out before we hit record because I am a huge fan of your YouTube channel, and I feel like I know you a little bit through those videos, but I don’t know all that much about your backstory. So I’d love to begin at the beginning if we could, and learn a little bit about where Aimee Nolte came from as a musician, as a music educator. What was your own musical upbringing like?

Aimee: Yeah, of course. I remember just being a very little girl and singing a lot. I had musical relatives, at least they enjoy singing silly songs, and so I remember doing that as a little girl. And then we did have a piano in the house and my first major musical memory was going to the piano and figuring out how to play Silent Night by Ear, and then calling my mom and showing her, and then she thought it might be time to get me some piano lessons. So at age five I started taking piano lessons, classical, and then I continued that until I was around 15. In the meantime, I was going to school, and I joined the band.

First I played clarinet in fourth grade and saxophone in the fifth grade and trumpet in the sixth grade, which kind of stuck with me. I joined the Jazz Band in the sixth grade and that’s when I learned that I could have a solo, and what that kind of meant. So I remember the first solo I ever had was actually written out. A lot of [inaudible 00:01:36] way to do that, especially for middle school charts. They’ll actually write out solos in case people don’t know how to improvise or want to. And so I learned that solo and then I changed it a little bit, that’s what I did for my very first solo.

But also around that time, I remember the high school coming to perform for the middle school kids, and there was a jazz choir, and I got to hear several members from that jazz choir scat singing, and I had never even known what that was, but somehow as probably a 11 or 12 year-old that excited the heck out of me, and I just wanted to start trying it. It just kind of opened up the world of jazz for me, so when I went to high school I stayed on the trumpet, and I played lead trumpet in the high school jazz band and I sang in the choir. I also decided around 15 that I probably didn’t have time for classical piano anymore because I was playing three sports also.

So I dropped the classical piano and just started studying jazz piano on my own. I got the Mark Levine jazz piano book, and my high school instructor started burning me … No, you couldn’t burn CDs in those days. He was taking his CDs, putting them on cassette for me. So I had a Sarah Vaughn cassette and Ella Fitzgerald cassette, and I was listening to them all the time. And then when I decided I wanted to study music in college, I had to choose an instrument and I felt like I was probably stronger at the piano than the trumpet, so I chose piano. Yes, studied just piano in college.

Christopher: Okay, well I want to pause the story there because I’m sure our listeners are super intrigued by a few things. You mentioned playing by ear and improvisation coming into the picture very early on, as well as picking up several instruments, these are not super normal things I think for general music education in the US or indeed in the UK. Was there anything in your home environment or anything in your personality maybe that you think made you more receptive to that or more able for that?

Aimee: I think it was so exciting to me. Any time I ever picked up an instrument and could make sense out of it, that just got me excited. I mean I can remember playing my grandfather’s guitar growing up. I’m siting in a room all by myself and figure out everything I could, and I loved that. I think I came from a very small town. Like I said, I started on the clarinet but I didn’t really like the clarinet and so I asked if I could switch to the saxophone and they said sure. There was a time, I remember in the concert band, when we didn’t have a baritone player so the director asked me if I could learn to play the baritone and the French horn at one point. I think he kind of knew that instruments were coming easily to me, and I even drummed at a Jazz Festival when the drummer didn’t show up one year.

And I loved it. I was just going to do all of that that I could. I mean having grown up a bit and raised some kids too, I think that there’s really something to … The point that I learned about improvisation when I was 11 or 12, like before puberty, so girls especially a lot of times after girls start to mature, they quit being so excited about showing off or doing what comes naturally to them, and they kind of tend to want to hide, so that the boys like them more. They pretend to be bad at things. I don’t know if I really went through that, but for sure at 11 years old I was just stoked. Nothing was scary, I was just excited. And I think my family helped with that, they always were really encouraging of me.

Christopher: Nice, and that touches on something I was keen to ask which was, you had that experience at the age of 11 or so and you discovered improvisation, after that was it that you had kind of tapped into improv so it wasn’t scary and you weren’t really making mistakes or was it just that it kind of let you sidestep that self-consciousness that you might have had, and you were experimenting and falling on your face as much as any musician does when learning to improvise, but for some reason you’d kind of factored it into your identity and you weren’t so concerned about it?

Aimee: I mean there was one boy in high school who could play the saxophone and improvise, and he was pretty good at it, but other than that, it was a very small town. So there wasn’t really anybody to intimidate me, and I thought I could do well at this. So I didn’t feel intimidated. I just tried, and at first when I started listening more, especially I remember I ordered a CD of Al Jarreau, and I remember hearing him scat sing and thinking, “This man never runs out of ideas, ever.” He could keep going for hours and hours and never run out of ideas, and I thought I want to be like that someday and I knew that I didn’t have the ideas yet.

I was just doing things that sounded good to me, and probably not really hitting any wrong notes but I didn’t sound like jazz. I just sounded like somebody noodling around who had a good ear.

Christopher: Got you, and you have some really fantastic tutorials on your YouTube channel about scat singing, which is something that really needs good tutorials because I think a lot of people kind of blunder their way through trying and then decide it’s too difficult or it’s too complicated or they don’t have what it takes, and so I love the way you break it down there and we’ll definitely put a link in the show notes. But for anyone listening who’s like, “What is scat singing?” Could you just give us a brief rundown of what you mean by that?

Aimee: Sure, so I think Louie Armstrong was the first one to really scat sing, and some people said that he did it because he forgot the words. I don’t think that’s true. I think he just felt it in his heart so he did it, but it’s the concept of being able to improvise with your voice. So instrumentalist can play all of these notes, and of course when you’re going to sing you wouldn’t make up words to … What we usually do is sing lyrics but you make up syllables to kind of imitate an instrument and get around to the chord changes. Some people say that instrumentalists are imitating vocalists when they improvise, but I think both are true.

I do teach about articulation and having a very nimble tongue, being able to say quick syllables, and that is all from my trumpet experience and being in big bands and hearing how the directors will take a line like (singing) and actually having the saxophones or the trumpets remove the instruments from their mouths and all of them say it the same way, (singing). He wants a dot on that first note and a dee on the high note, and as soon as everybody can articulate the same way, they can all play the phrase the same way. That kind of thing is magic for me and it’s what I think about a lot when I scat sing.

Christopher: That’s super interesting. And so you started telling the story of your college days there, and you were diving into piano and jazz, tell us how those colleges went and how you developed as a musician from there.

Aimee: All of a sudden I was a very small fish in a very large pond. I knew it would be that way, and I was excited for it but there were a lot of bad habits that I had from not ever having a jazz instructor that needed to be fixed. So I just started fixing things and spending hours and hours in the practice room trying to keep up with everybody else. That was really new.

Christopher: And can you cast your mind back to any particular sticking points or bad habits you’ve developed?

Aimee: Playing the root in my chords, because I had never played with a bass player. By the time I got to college it was just me playing for myself. So for me to take the roots out of my chord voicings, it was like a whole brain shift, and it was really hard. People I teach now I run across that exact same thing with them. And some people just maybe don’t want it bad enough, so they don’t end up doing it. But the people that want it, it’s a whole shift in how you think, so it takes a lot of time.

Christopher: Interesting, and were there any other kind of mindset shifts or musical epiphanies that happened during those years?

Aimee: Well the one thing that was interesting I guess was having to take all of the music courses that all of the classical musicians were taking. That was interesting for me. Some of it came really easy and some of it was a little harder. I felt like I was ahead of them in a lot of ways but in a couple of ways I was behind. So that was always a weird dichotomy of having this jazz sensibility but needing to keep up in the classical world in some ways. I remember my dictation class, I sat through the first class and I went, “This is so easy. I don’t want to sit through this the whole year.” And I ended up testing out of it that first day.

But like the sight singing class I thought I’d just have to look at notes and read them and sing them and that was easy for me, but not using hand symbols to sing solfege, that was a big challenge for me to have to … If I saw a line that went (singing), I could sing that easily, but to go (singing), even now I struggle a little bit to do that quickly, I have to think, and then to do it with hand symbols. And they made you use two hands at my school to do the hand symbols. Anyway, and then music theory, I knew the names of all kinds of chords, but I didn’t know the classical names. When you talk about a Neapolitan sixth or a French or German sixth chord, I had to give them all other names. I had to be like, “Oh, that’s actually a minor four chord in the first inversion, right? I had to make up all these different ways. So that was always a little bit of a battle, and I didn’t see that coming really but worked through it.

Christopher: And I have to ask the bland question then of looking back, are you glad you had to learn those things? Is this the kind of, “Oh, I did it at the time and that was fine,” or was this, “I finally learned this stuff that has served me well,”?

Aimee: Those classical things like German sixths or whatever, I don’t think I’ve ever used that again, and nobody ever makes you analyze a figured bass after you leave college. But for my own purposes, of course I analyze things all the time but no, I don’t use those classical terms that I use. You learn about form in analysis, that was helpful to learn about, but I’ve never had to say, “Oh, that’s a sonatina,” or, “This is a concerto.” I just don’t dive into that world very often. I know a lot of people do. I tend to stay more on the jazz side of things.

Christopher: Sure, and I have seen mention of solfa and solfege, however you’d like to call it, on your YouTube channel, is that something you continue to use or you’ve internalized? Or was that kind of a detour from how you were naturally hearing things and thinking about things?

Aimee: I’ve realized that solfege is important for many singers, especially singers who don’t play an instrument. I haven’t actually taught for … I taught on and off, but not very regularly until the last couple of years so I’m kind of figuring out things like that about different people and what they need, especially people from other countries.

They grow up singing solfege, not so much America, and then they use a fixed “Do”, right? So in America we move our “Do”. If we’re in the key of G major “Do” is G. If I’m from France “Do” will always be C, and if I’m in the key of G I’m still going to call C “Do”. So when I teach other people I try to tap into those things so that I can connect with them and talk in their language.

Christopher: Interesting. Yeah, we’ve past episode of this podcast, unpacking that fixed versus movable “Do” thing and it definitely trips up members that musically you occasionally … because we use movable “Do” and that to me is the most useful kind of solfa, solfege. I feel like a fixed “Do” you’re just putting different names on the CDE notes, but when you’re coming from that world, I guess like you found with the classical terminology, it can be quite hard to divorce your mental associations and attach a new name to things.

Aimee: Absolutely. Even the fact that Westerners call the distance between one note to another a whole step or a half step, but we’re the only ones that do that, everybody else says semitone and tone, right? And quaver and semiquaver.

Christopher: I see, fantastic. So that kind of broadened your horizons in some ways that were useful and some ways that were maybe not so useful. Were there any particularly memorable experiences or people that you connected with at that time that shaped who you went on to become as a musician and music educator?

Aimee: Absolutely, and when people ask me if they should go to college to study music, I always tell them that the main reason to go to college is to meet people, that was it for me. I met other people finally that we’re interested in the same things that I was. They study music all the time and get excited by music, and want to play all the time and want to write and all of that was just all of us finally … It felt like we were all somewhere else and then we all would just come together and somehow you’ve got these instant friends who want to do the same thing you do, that was so fun.

I had several bands that I played in. One in particular, we were called The Brian Neil Quartet, and my friend Brian played tenor and soprano saxophones and we were very all on guard. We were all writing things like, “This whole song is based around the note B, and that’s all we’re going to say about this song,” or, “This whole song is on this one episode of Star Trek.” I don’t watch Star Trek but my bass player did and so he had to explain the whole episode and then we we would all play our impressions of this episode of Star Trek.

Christopher: Tremendous. I love that.

Aimee: Yeah, so I mean we had so much fun just kind of figuring things out. And in those days one of the guys in our band decided … He was actually an Osmond. His uncle was Donny Osmond, and his aunt was Marie Osmond and they said he could come live in Branson, Missouri and play for them and do all of their country shows and that was going to be his living. And we all thought that he was the biggest sellout. The big question was, “If Kenny G was going to hire you right now, would you take the job and you could have the job the rest of your life?” And we all said, “Absolutely not.” That would be just like prostituting yourself for music. Anyway, you grow up a little bit and you realize that absolutely, you should have taken that job in Branson, Missouri and he did and made way more money than the rest of us.

Anyway, that’s kind of a tangent but I had some great experiences meeting people that helped me my whole life.

Christopher: One video I really enjoyed on your channel recently was a conversation with a chap named, Steve cool, who you referred to as a mentor, and I’d love if you could just speak to why you chose that word in the title of your video because it’s something we’ve touched on on the podcast before and something I think gets bandied about among musicians. They think they just need the right mentor and they’ll break into the music industry or they think they’re stumbling so much because they have a teacher but what they really need is a mentor. I’d love to hear your perspective on that. Maybe the difference between a teacher and a mentor or the different roles those can be.

Aimee: That’s a great question. Steve is the one who got me in to BYU. I auditioned for him, and I think from the beginning I kind of knew that he saw some potential in me, and that made him special to me from the beginning. Sometimes you have teachers that don’t particularly pay attention to you and you can still learn a lot from them, but Steve did pay particular attention to me and let me know that he had hopes for my growth. I think that’s kind of key. And then I tried out to be in the combo that he coached which was the Dixieland band, and I did that because I have a big love of ragtime music and I thought I could put in some of that, what I already knew.

And then Steve, he was just a champion for everybody in that Dixieland group. He got us gigs everywhere. I almost had as many gigs with that group that was associated with the university than other gigs, even traveling gigs. He got us like a tour, we went to Washington DC. And also what he did was he sold me his 73 Suitcase Fender Rhodes for $300. He said, “Aimee, I’m going to get rid of this and I think you could use it.” I’ve still got it. I’ll never sell it. And then he would just give me all kinds of opportunities. He’d say, “I think you can sing. You should sing with my band.” Because I wasn’t really singing in those days and then he’d feature me on a couple of tunes and gave me things to listen to. He’d say, “You need to learn this whole record. Take it home, listen to it.” Extra projects, coming up with ways to challenge you.

And I think hope is probably a key word in a mentor, that they’ve got some hope for your development.

Christopher: Wonderful. I love that description. I think you’ve painted a really lovely picture of what a good mentor can be like and the kinds of things they can do for you, and I should say it’s a reciprocal relationship. I’m sure he would speak very highly of you and be very glad to have adopted you or taken you under his wing in that way.

Aimee: I don’t know you have to ask him.

Christopher: So I think from what we’ve talked about so far, the listener is probably thinking Aimee is a very free and creative musician, and she just always kind of pick things up by ear and figured it out herself. What was your relationship with sheet music during this whole time? Were you someone that that all came easy to or was that just a totally different world or somewhere in between?

Aimee: Well I did grow up playing classical piano, so that was always the world where my teacher would put a new piece of music in front of me and tell me to do my best, and that’s always been important. I always knew that was important. I especially knew what a great skill that was when I remember being in my form and analysis class, my last year in college, and whenever we would look at a piece of music the professor would call out, he would say, “Can anybody sight-read this?” And there was one girl in particular that could come and she could sight-read anything. I would look at it and in my head I’d say, “I probably could,” and then she would get up and play it and I’d be like, “No, but I can’t do it like her.” So I never raised my hand for that. It was always that one girl. But that was a pretty cool skill.

I think I didn’t use it so much until I started accompanying, so that was several years after high school when I decided to make some money by accompanying choirs. And I realized that in order to be a good sight-reader you need to sight-read a lot. So even right now I keep a job where I accompany five choirs from one school, and I go do that one day a week. I’m not really doing it for the money anymore. I’m doing it for the sight-reading. The summer will pass and then I’ll have to go back and do it again at the fall and I’ve lost some of my skill, but by the end of the school year I’m pretty darn good at it. So there are times when it’s important to sight-read. For me, I’m not playing big band charts anymore, people aren’t throwing charts in front of me, but that was also important in college when I had to play big band charts. I was so glad for my ability to read, especially for the rhythms.

Christopher: Interesting. Yeah, I love how it comes across in your YouTube videos. Your attitude to sheet music I think is a really healthy and admirable one, in the sense that if you look up some jazz piano tutorials on YouTube there won’t be a note symbol in sight, and everything is just oral and they are kind of anti notation or at least anti staff notation. They’re like, “As long as you can read a lead sheet or chord chart rather, that’s all you need. And obviously you have people at the other end of the spectrum who are just more on the classical end, who are like, “Note by note, if it’s not on the page, it’s not happening.” And I think there are a several of your videos where it comes across that you’re like, “This is a useful tool.” You can jot ideas down in whatever way makes sense to you. It doesn’t have to be note-perfect, classical staff notation, but this is part of who you should be as a musician or who you can be and the toolkit you can have.

Aimee: Absolutely, it is a toolkit. There are ways to write that we all need to be aware of. There are ways to listen we all need to be aware of. There are ways to speak to each other that we need to be aware of. Yeah, it’s a whole mess of things we need to be well versed in.

Christopher: Absolutely. I would say in the middle of that mess, but certainly somewhere in that mess is singing, and you are one of the few people I feel is as passionate about tackling this question of helping people start singing or get past any mental barriers around thinking they can’t sing. And so I’d love to unpack that a little because on your channel it comes across in two ways. One is you’re obviously a singer yourself, you have say, scat singing tutorials which are terrific and you’re speaking to people who consider themselves able to sing, but you also have say, piano tutorials where you’re talking about figuring things out by ear or arranging. And it’s very clear you consider the voice a tool in that toolkit, it’s not just an instrument that you perform with, it’s something you can use.

So I’d love to hear how you approach that and how you help people understand the usefulness of their voice.

Aimee: It’s funny. Some people just sing, and they do it and they’re not nervous about it and they’re pretty good at it. When I say good at it I don’t mean that they have a good voice, I mean that they can hear a G and sing a G. But some people have never really tried or seen the purpose of it, and that’s a hard thing to tackle. I’m realizing that if they’re not used to using their voice to match pitches, music comes much more difficult to them. So I mean I have a whole video. I think it’s my most successful YouTube video called, How To Figure Out Chords To Songs, where I just have it playing on a speaker, like a Billy Joel song and a Beatles song, and I think we chose Eleanor Rigby and I actually play the music and then I stop it and I say, “Okay, we’re listening for the bass note, so listen close to it. What’s the lowest tone that you can hear?”

But then my rule is before you go poking around on the piano to try to figure out that that’s an E or something, before you even touch your piano you have to sing the note first. So you’re listening, (singing). You’re listening for that low note. You could hear. You stop the music. You think for a second and you sing it and then … But there are many people who can’t hear that low note and reproduce it with their voice. If they can do it, it gives them such a head start, which is why I have another video called, How to Get Your Kids Into Music, and it all has to do with singing. People ask when their kids should start taking lessons on an instrument and five is a good answer because I think that’s when your fingers can respond to what your brain wants them to do a little better, but until then and after then, sing and sing and sing.

Yeah, so another thing I do now is for people who have trouble with that, and for people who don’t have trouble with it, I think it’s a good exercise for everybody. To take some time every day and do what I call point and sing, and I do have a video about that too. It’s where you touch notes on your instrument and you sing them. So first maybe you don’t know where C is so you want to find it and then you sing it, and then you just kind of move your finger to a D but you don’t play it and you sing it and then you check, “Am I right?” “Yeah, I’m right.” Okay, now you try an E, C, D, E, and then you check and then you try skip, C, G, then you check. Oh, good. Okay, let’s try a C to A-flat. (singing). Oh no, I’m wrong. (singing). Like that, and you’ll make some mistakes and sometimes you’ll get it right.

I love that, because I think to sing and play your instrument is a way to guarantee that when you improvise, you’re playing the beautiful melody that you want to be playing.

Christopher: Love it. That’s a terrific exercise and yeah, couldn’t agree more with that framing of where singing fits into the picture even if you’re not, first and foremost, a singer. I’d love to take one step backwards and tackle this topic of someone who was listening to you say all that and thinking to themselves, “Well that does sound kind of useful and I can see how I would benefit from that but I can’t sing. I can’t sing that note. If I hear it, I can’t sing it back.” And you have this tremendous video called I think, Are You Tone Deaf? Where you go out in the streets and you literally check if people can match pitch, and I won’t spoil the ending but we’ll have a link in the show notes.

You have to go and watch Aimee do this, it’s tremendous. But most interestingly perhaps, you’ve done a follow-up video recently. Particularly, in the context of using your voice to help you play by ear and you sat down with a gentleman who was concerned he couldn’t match pitch and kind of worked through it a bit with him.

Could you talk about that a little?

Aimee: Yeah, he wrote to me and said … Because I do have that, Are You Tone Deaf? Video, and then I also have a video called, Asking People If They Can Melody, and that means, can you think of melody in your head and then play it? And he wrote to me and said, “Aimee, you’re presenting this like anybody can learn it and I’m here to tell you that I don’t think I can.” But he was really cool in his email and so I could tell he was a pretty chill dude, and so I said, “Let’s do a lesson. I’ll give you a free lesson and put it on Skype if you’ll let me record it.” I said, “I don’t know what will happen. Maybe I’ll fail. Maybe you’re right.” And in that case I won’t publish the video, but maybe we’ll discover something and it’ll be of use to people, and we did. It was kind of crazy.

I was trying to have him match my voice and I do find that when you have a man who has trouble matching pitch, it’s often because he can’t match the timbre of the female voice. So I always shoot for a really high note because that’s when a man’s voice sounds like a woman’s voice is if we’re both up in our falsettos. So anyway, I was trying to get him to go (singing) I think, and he was going, (singing), and I’d say, “It’s got to be higher than that and he’d go, (singing). So my trick usually is to say start at the bottom and we’re going to go all the way up till we get there, so (singing), and usually people can do that.

So I spent too much time trying to get him to do that in that lesson before we realized that … I think at one point in the lesson I just plucked a note on the piano and then he plucked the same note, and I went, “How did you do that?” And he goes, “I don’t know,” and I said, “How about this one?” And I pluck another note and he hits the same note. I was like, “Oh my gosh, that’s almost like perfect pitch.” And he goes, “Well, with the piano.” I said, “Really.” So I hadn’t run across that before, but since then people are writing to me saying, “It’s the same for me. I play the trumpet, and if I hear Miles Davis play a note, I’ll find that note on my trumpet and it’s not that hard.” So that kind of blew my mind and I’m not done thinking about that yet because it’s a lot to take in, but it did help me to know that maybe some people who have trouble singing are good at it but just with a certain timbre.

Christopher: Yeah, absolutely. I think it was when we had Ben Parry on the podcast, he was pointing out that asking singers, asking a choir to tune accord to the piano is kind of a futile exercise in some sense because it’s actually really hard for us to tune our voice to the timbre of the piano, and it’s something about that audiating yourself singing the note. It’s hard to imagine yourself when the timbre is so different I think. And one thing that we found helpful anyway is kind of what you just described, which is separating out, can your ear do it? From, can your voice do it? Because we found a lot of people actually their ear is hearing what they should be singing but they don’t have the vocal control to make it happen themselves or in some cases the reverse, like they can move their voice around fine but they’re not taking a moment to hear or imagine what they’re trying to hit.

It’s certainly not a simple question, and I think the more people that are talking about it and experimenting, the more we can get past that kind of cultural baggage of, “I’m tone deaf, I’m just not a singer.” And then so I love the videos you’ve been putting out for that reason. They’re just kind of breaking this open in a really interesting way.

Aimee: Thanks, that’s nice. Yeah, I think so too. I was going to say, if people have a hard time like that guy couldn’t match with his voice what I was doing, I don’t spend a lot of time on that. I’ll typically tell people, “You should take some voice lessons,” and I know that’s expensive but it’s so much more helpful to have somebody who … I’m not a trained vocalist, so to have somebody who can explain to you about all of the physiology of your body then I think it’s better. So yeah, you need to be careful when you start to try to learn to sing if you never have before. Taking a few voice lessons can go a long way.

Christopher: So one of the things I really admire about your channel is although you are a jazz specialist, you are not kind of pigeonholing yourself and your viewers in the advanced end of music and music theory and technique as, with all due respect, some jazz educators do, and that I think can leave a lot of people feeling a bit left out or like jazz is out of reach for them because just to get started seems like a big leap compared with diving into pop or rock music or even classical. I wonder if you could share some of that kind of inclusive spirit with our listeners when it comes to jazz. If someone is listening and has always enjoyed jazz and would love to get into it in their own music making, are there any avenues or ideas you found helpful to help people kind of get a grip on jazz?

Aimee: Good questions. I think the reason that I don’t … I mean some of my videos are fairly advanced I’d say, but it’s always been important to me not just in music but in life to try to put yourself in somebody else’s shoes. I think that’s really, as humans, the best way to understand each other. So if there’s ever something that you don’t understand, whether it’s in any kind of subject of academia or maybe socially, to really try to put yourself in the other person’s shoes, to come at it from their angle, and that always helps you to understand better. So when I teach music I try not to teach it as somebody who already knows a lot of stuff, but I try to put myself in the place of the person who doesn’t know much stuff yet.

I try not to talk down to people, but I’ve had teachers before and you ask them, “I don’t really understand about how to solo over a half diminished chord,” and they just start playing, “Oh, I did this.” And they just play for 10 minutes straight, and you’re left feeling like, “I’m never going to be able to do that, and I don’t know what you just did. You didn’t teach me anything.” I hate that. So in my tutorials, I kind of rarely play and I think it turns some people off. They tell me I talk too much. Sometimes that’s like a comment I get, “Too much talking. I unsubscribed,” or, “I clicked away.” But to me, to be able to explain something to somebody is so much more than just showing them. Sometimes you need to show, but I don’t want to show off to people I’m trying to teach and make them think that they’re never going to get to that level. I try not to do that as much as I can, so as not to intimidate people.

Christopher: Well I think one beautiful example of that was actually with your recent single, The Loveliest Girl. You put together this amazing video showing behind the scenes of how you arranged and then recorded what is quite a distinctive orchestration, and some musicians would have done that as a promotional thing and just kind of demonstrated or just kind of shown what they did, and been like, “Aren’t I so great?” But you did not, you did the opposite as you just talked about. You really kind of took the time to break it down and explain to someone. Like if someone was curious to know how did I do this, here’s how I did it. And I just thought it worked beautifully and we’ll definitely link to that in the show notes because I think it was really instructional, not just in its material but in the way you taught it, and that you were willing to take the time to break it down like that.

Aimee: Thank you. Maybe that’s kind of backwards, isn’t it? In that instance I wanted the viewers to be able to step into my shoes and see how I came at that, because I mean people might think that I wrote for bass clarinet, clarinet, bass flute, alto flute, and flute. And I knew that I wanted that kind of woody sound in the song and I wanted it to sound orchestral, but I had never written for woodwind quartet or quintet before, and so I thought I’d kind of share my thought process and tell people what I tried that worked, what I thought of that didn’t work and why it didn’t work, and how exciting it was when it came together, that’s because that was my journey with that song. So yeah, I wanted to share that.

Christopher: And let’s step back and talk a little bit more about that journey because this was your first release as a musician in several years I believe, is that right?

Aimee: Yeah, I think since 2009.

Christopher: And where did the song come from?

Aimee: It actually came from a friend of mine, Matthew Clark wrote it, and he had sent me his SoundCloud link, because we were just friends and he said, “Oh, I doubt it a little bit,” and then I went to his SoundCloud and I started listening to the songs that he had written and they blew me away. Not just this song, but he’s got a handful of songs that are just very clever. So the song, the story of it is what grabbed me, the lyric. It’s about a young man, young woman laying in the grass together and he tells her that he notices how there’s shadows on her face from the sunlight, and she asks him what he’s thinking about and then he tells her a story. And it’s actually the story of what if you were the sun beam, the little photon that had a dream of how his life would be and then he died on a dark moon somewhere, hundreds of years from now, but somehow you were lucky enough to make it down to earth and fall right on the face of the loveliest girl.

I love that, and then of course the cords and the melody were so beautiful also. I just thought that I really wanted to make something out of it.

Christopher: And I think it’s so interesting, I think you mentioned this in that video I referred to but I thought it was really interesting that what captured your imagination there wasn’t a jazz standard. It wasn’t ragtime like you referred to before. It wasn’t your normal ballpark or your normal home ground but it stretched you in a different way, and particularly you mentioned there a woodwind orchestration, that’s a bit of a departure for someone who is a jazz piano player.

Aimee: Yeah, good thoughts. He only played his acoustic guitar and sang it, and it was kind of singer-songwriter folk, kind of sounding like a picking guitar, so that was a struggle for me. But there was actually a record that came out not too many years ago by Laura Mvula, I don’t know if you know that record, where she wrote a whole lot of songs and they really were songs that could have been any genre, but the way that they were orchestrated made them fit into the Jazz category. And I’ve also listened a lot to Ginga. He’s a guitar player, a songwriter, an arranger, singer from Brazil who writes these very beautiful complicated melodies and chord changes and usually orchestrates them for like six flutes or woodwind quartet or something like that, and I’ve also been listening to [inaudible 00:44:33] Pascal.

And so I had all these influences up in my brain, rattling around, and I thought you can. You can take any song even if it just sounds like a singer-songwriter song and arrange it in a way that you fit your idiom. And actually the newer single that I’m writing for right now … It’s not going to be a single, it’ll just be part of the album. But it’s a song I wrote a long time ago that by all means should be a pop song, but I’m exploring with it to see how I can make it fit to become more jazz-like. I think that’s really fun to do.

Christopher: And your latest single is again a bit different, Falling Snow is similarly lyrically really interesting which you might not acknowledge since I think on this one you wrote the lyrics yourself, but for me anyway as a dad of a young kid, definitely moving lyrics, and could you talk a little about the origin story of that one maybe and how it’s different from The Loveliest Girl?

Aimee: Yeah, absolutely. That was just a melody that came to me. A large part of the melody just came to me very quickly, and it’s not very special. It goes, (singing). That came to me pretty quickly and just those chords in and of themselves can be found in Autumn Leaves or Fly Me To The Moon, they’re very common kind of chords. So the melody I probably knew 16 bars of it when I sat down, but I said to myself, “This is boring. I need to take it somewhere,” and then the rest of the song becomes much more interesting but hopefully in a very melodic, organic kind of way. And then I finished it and sat on it for a couple of years because I couldn’t think of a lyric to go with it, and I kept trying really hard to write a lyric and I couldn’t do it, and then my oldest son went away to college and I thought, what if I wrote about that.

I had actually written the first line. The first line says, “I watch you walk away, your footprints filled with snow, and icy silence falls upon my troubled heart.” My husband helped me come up with that first line and I always liked it but I just couldn’t think of anything to finish the story. And so I thought, well my son’s kind of walking away, and then it just came from there. I wrote the whole thing in about an hour or two while I drove to Arizona at 2:00 in the morning one night.

Christopher: Well I was going to ask you what your songwriting process looks like but I feel like it’s probably a redundant question having just talked through those two songs. You are working on an album, can we assume that every song is going to be as different and interesting as those two examples?

Aimee: Yes, for sure. That’s why I chose, The Falling Snow, as my second single because it was very different from the first one. I was actually talking to my son Miles, my oldest son, and I said, “I do want to bring back the woodwind orchestration for other songs on the album, but do you think I ought to do that for the second single?” And he goes, “Well are you going to do it for every song?” I said, “No.” He said, “Well then don’t do it otherwise they’re going to expect it.” He was right. So I said okay good, there is going to be some more elements of fundamental jazz like bossa nova and some swing on my album that maybe jazz listeners can identify with, but there’ll also be things that stretch.

I saw this Eric Reed quote in DownBeat Magazine maybe six months ago, where he basically said, “If you want to do it and it makes you happy, don’t be afraid of what other people are going to say.” At least in music. I mean I guess you could apply that in life too, but I thought, “All right, that’s what I’m doing.” So I have some songs that are more like pop songs that I’m reworking to make them interesting and beautiful I hope. There’s a lot of searching going on in this album for me and I won’t give away my album title yet but it is kind of a search.

Christopher: Fantastic. Well I always feel a little bit guilty on this show when I interview someone and they talk about this really interesting music they’re making, and we don’t include a clip for people to actually hear it, but then I remember that the best thing to do is just send them to listen to the song properly. And so we’ll have links in the show notes to both of those songs, as well as really great videos. Aimee has done behind the scenes kind of video for Falling Snow as well, and so we’ll have direct links to those in the show notes, as well as where you can go to buy those songs and listen to them properly.

Aimee it has been such a pleasure to talk with you. Just leave our listeners with a pointer to where they can go to learn more about you, maybe watch some of these amazing videos we’ve been talking about and hear your music properly.

Aimee: Absolutely. I feel bad for you because that’s a lot of links to look up and copy and paste, but the best place is my website aimeenolte.com. I’ve got a wonderful man named Marco who runs that website for me, and every single new thing that I put out on YouTube, he makes a page for it right away on my website. So anything you want is there, even some MP3s to download. Worksheets that go along with my videos are there. Yeah, that’s the best spot.

Christopher: Terrific, thank you again Aimee. It’s been a real pleasure.

Aimee: No problem. Thank you so much.

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The post Explaining the Musical Ear, with Aimee Nolte appeared first on Musical U.