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"Primacy Of The Ear" by Ran Blake with Jason Rogers


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"Primacy of the Ear" reflects MacArthur Fellow Ran Blake's personal (musical) philosophy, which includes the principles the Contemporary Improvisation department was founded on 40+ years ago. It goes into why one might want to learn by ear, and describes exercises as they are given at NEC.

Ran's book is actively being used as a textbook in New England Conservatory's Contemporary Improvisation Department. I've also corresponded with teachers who are using it to some degree at the Queensland Conservatorium.

Ran believes that the act of "hearing" music in one's mind is really a type of memory - an ability to recall musical sounds - and that this memory can be exercised and improved upon.

Ran feels that an improviser's music is more authentic, honest, and organic if it is based on what the improviser hears rather than what s/he might construct theoretically, or might play based on finger patterns or a display of instrumental technique. The thought is that if a musician's style is truly grown from influences that he loves and integrates into his own memory, then that style will be purer and truer to the musician than if the musician has only studied prescribed mechanical exercises (exercises where pitch/rhythm choices are created in advance from theory, an etude book, etc.). This implies that the musician's style will be more unique as well, because it is based on more personally chosen material.

There are aspects of music that one can pick up by ear that are lost on the page. This is especially advantageous when the musician starts learning music outside of the well known areas of Western music.

Ran's own style was created this way - he really doesn't work in any other way.

I feel the book is important because it addresses an area that doesn't usually get much coverage - the role of listening and learning by ear as part of developing as a musician. So often it seems that books will outline theory or exercises and then include a token mention of listening as a footnote.

A Little More History - my role in the book

There was a time when I used Ran's techniques in depth and my music grew a great deal. I also developed a number of extended exercises based on his teaching which I found useful. However, a good part of my confidence in the approach came from teaching it. I taught Contemporary Improv classes and ensembles at NEC for a few semesters and the feedback was very positive. I had a number of comments from students saying things like "I never really heard music like I do now", and "This is the most valuable class I've taken this year". To be fair, there were one or two students who didn't like it either, but I have confidence that the approach can change a student's level for the better if that student is at the right place developmentally and does the work.

"Primacy of the Ear" is a book on the teaching method of Ran Blake, who was a mentor of mine at the New England Conservatory of Music. The material is all his, but I put it together into the book. Perhaps it could be entitled "Primacy of the Ear, by Ran Blake, as told to Jason Rogers". I wrote the book based on Ran's hand written notes, question and answer sessions with him, many hours of conversations and concert going, and basically living with and knowing Ran's teaching methods very well. Beginning in 1989, I studied with Ran for a couple of years. I had to record our lessons and then listen back to them during the week to try to understand what he was telling me. Later, I worked as his office manager in the Third Stream Department for a year and a half, and was a teaching assistant in a number of his classes. I eventually became a part-time faculty member at NEC, teaching the intro class, ensembles and an improvisation studio. I was also a trombone instructor for the NEC Extension Division and at Northeastern University at this time. Ran and I were close personal friends for many years, and at one point I played trombone in his professional group around the Boston area. Ran is well known for befriending and helping a number of college age students trying to get started and I am thankful that I was one beneficiary of his kindness and generosity during that time.

The book took me thirteen years to write, and I started work on it in 1997. There were some notes that had been put together by various writers and assistants before I came aboard, but they bore little resemblance to the book as it is today. I'd like to mention Eric Byers here - I was able to make use of some of the work he had done as I was getting started. Pat Donaher teamed up with me for a couple of years sometime in the early 2000's and he was a big help in breathing new energy into the project at that time. Also extremely helpful in finishing the final draft was the editor Gardiner Hartmann. I am not sure I could have finished it without him, or at the very least it would not have been as polished. I fondly and appreciatively remember the efforts that Doug Briscoe put in to an extremely rough version at one point. Dave Fabris often gave much appreciated moral support during the process, and there are many others who deserve thanks as well for help along the way.

I got involved with the book because of two factors. I had asked Ran one time what the most important part of his career was - playing, recording, teaching, etc, and his response was that his main passion was to communicate his teaching methods which are fundamentally based on learning music by ear. He had done so much for me over the years that I decided I would help him communicate this message however I could. The second factor came about when Gunther Schuller read a draft of notes on the book. This was in 1997 when I worked for Gunther's GM Recordings. I was at Gunther's house on the day he read it. He mentioned to me that I was heavily quoted in the draft, largely from a couple of lectures I had given at NEC. (I was not the only one quoted. This is typical of Ran, because his tendency is to quote others and give others room to be heard, even in what was supposed to be his own book!) When Gunther let me read the draft, I felt that my ideas were not very well represented (it was only a draft at that point). I told this to Gunther and he said "Well, you better get involved then". So I got involved at that point in the Fall of 1997. Years later, I made a decision that, as important as the quoted ideas were to Ran, that only the ideas I could attribute directly to Ran and that were typical of his teaching would be included.

I remember the first time I heard Ran's music, as a young student. He was performing live with Dominque Eade. I had been growing frustrated with the boundaries of jazz, and heard Ran re-inventing songs - and the whole genre - from scratch, on the spot. I thought "If I understood how Ran is thinking, what he is doing, then I would understand what it is to be a true artist". Well, I'm sure there is no one way to be a true artist, but this book is the closest I'll get to understanding the thought process and teachings of Ran Blake.