We are excited to bring you another inspiring edition of Pathways. In this special series of episodes you’ll hear the stories of music-learners just like you, reaching out and lending each other a hand on our musical journeys. We’re speaking with Oli Fuhrmann, a swing dancer and swing dance teacher from Berlin, Germany.
Oli started learning piano and trombone in the last three years to play the music he loves to dance to. He’s eager to try new things and happy to risk failure. You’ll hear how his attitude has really payed off for his music learning and the richness of his musical life.
In this conversation Oli shares:
- Why it was easy for him to start joining jam sessions despite being only a beginner-to-intermediate player – and a few specific tips for how you can make it easy for yourself.
- How learning trombone was relatively simple after piano, and why he realised the importance of a good musical ear.
- How he discovered the power of community support as part of his online learning.
Enjoy this episode and be inspired to be more bold and risk new endeavours in your own musical journey.
Watch the episode:
Links and Resources
Have you picked up useful ideas or techniques in your own musical journey so far that you think could inspire or help others on their path of exploring their musicality? Get in touch by dropping an email to [email protected]! We are always looking for new guests for Pathways and would love to share your story next.
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Oli: Hi, my name is Oli. I’m a swing dancer from Berlin, Germany. Also, now I’m a musician, music learner and this is Musicality Now.
Christopher: Welcome to the show Oli, thanks for joining us today.
Oli: I’m very delighted to be here.
Christopher: I’ve been looking forward to this one because you share so much inside Musical U, particularly on your progress journal Mad Oli’s PJ, Save the Rainforest, Play Music by Ear, is the title and you have such an interesting journey and you’re so open about sharing your learning along the way that I’ve been looking forward to the chance to unpack this and share some of it with our Musicality Now audience. Before diving into all the interesting stuff you’ve been up to recently, I wonder if we could backtrack and share a little bit about where you’ve come from as a dancer and as a musician. How did it all start for you?
Oli: So my journey began very early. I’m 34 years old now and I think already as a child I was always drawn to creative things. I liked writing, so in school the most interesting part for me was always when I could write a story myself and just get super crazy and creative. Then I went into skateboarding because that was the only sport that was creative enough for me and dangerous enough. And then I liked to play a little bit of theater in school, only very little. But then when I moved to Berlin, I explored improv theater at one point, which I found really cool. So that was more this spontaneous creativity I think really sparked me not to have to look into a sheet what to do, but just create it in the moment.
Oli: And one point I also tried out clown, not the dance, but the guy with the red nose or the lady with the red nose, so that was really fun because it’s very honest and it brings the comic from very deep inside. Some of my realest moments was when I was exploring my clown. Then at one point I wanted to start dancing and I wanted to start partner dancing because I thought solo dancing is fun, but dancing with a partner is much more connective. I like finding connections. And then I found swing dancing because I didn’t want to go through these standard dances. And that was 10 years ago and it stuck, I think swing dancing stuck. Really, it was the first thing that I started and didn’t stop until now. I became very engaged in swing dancing, did a lot of classes, learned a lot.
Oli: And then at one point I’d made it my professions, so now I’m actually since five years a swing dance teacher and performer, and this also brought me to swing music. I always liked music. Always when I found a style of music I really dug into it deep. First it was punk as a child, then it was reggae and dancehall and hip hop a lot. I was also a rapper as a little boy. What? 16 years, I was a rapper. Then I just found swing and jazz music, which I really started loving through the dance and I listened to a lot. I started becoming a DJ also for the music for the swing parties. I think three years ago I was like, “I really want to learn more about that music.” Also, I wanted to work on my back posture, so I was writing on Facebook, “Hey, I need a good way to work on my back.”
Oli: And then a guy who was a pianist, he answered me, “Learn the piano, it’s the best way to work on your back.” And I was like, “Oh, why not? Let’s learn the piano.” And that was day zero. And day one I had a piano in my room because I found a friend, she had a piano that she was not using, a digital one, and she said, “Yeah, come by, take it.” I took a car, brought it here and then I started learning my first song on a piano. That was three years ago, a little bit more. And since then I’m also a musician. And that’s the second thing that I started that I never stopped. That’s very, very shortly how I got into music and since then I’ve been just exploring it. It was really, really cool. I love music. It’s the best thing I think that ever happened in my life activity wise.
Christopher: Amazing. Well, that’s quite a statement given all of the creative endeavors you mentioned there from skateboarding to rapping to dancing and now music. So am I right in thinking you didn’t start playing music until you were in your thirties?
Oli: Well basically, yes. I was as a little child, I don’t know what age I was, I started playing the flute, recorder I think it’s called it English, blokfluit in Deutch, that little wooden one. And I still remember one C, I think it’s called, the first C, that’s all I remember. Our neighbor, he was a flute teacher so I learned a little bit, but it didn’t stick. Back then I thought it was, I don’t know. It just didn’t stick. Maybe I thought it was boring, it was not exciting enough for me.
Oli: Also, I had music in school. In high school we had music class two hours a week. I remember actually some stuff now. And I thought just that it was boring, and then I needed to learn the flute again there because everyone was forced to learn the flute. I was like, “No, I don’t want to. I tried it, I don’t like it.” So I was really rebelling all that music. I don’t know why, maybe because I had to do it. Now I feel like I am such an idiot. I should have stuck with it back then, but maybe not because it’s so much fun to learn it now from scratch that I think I’m happy that I am a late learner, late starter, late bloomer you call it. Because now I can can go through the whole process from scratch with an active mind, because I guess when you learn it as a child it’s a longer process and it’s more in the background and you don’t reflect so much about it. But I like to reflect.
Christopher: Very good. And so what did it look like? You said day zero you decided, day one you had a piano. How did you go about learning to play the piano?
Oli: Well, at first I thought “What do I actually want to learn?” Because there’s so much you can learn. And I there’s a lot of classical music, but I’m like, “No, actually why do I want to learn the piano? Of course not because I want to strengthen my back.” It was just a stupid excuse to get a piano. But I want to learn swing music, so I was thinking, “Okay, I need to learn to play swing songs.” So my first song that I picked was Sunny Side Of The Street, which is not the hardest swing song in the world, but also not the easiest. So instead of starting with some really simple song I started with Sunny Side Of The Street.
Oli: So I found a YouTube video. I looked a lot of YouTube videos, find an easy version, but then mostly the easy versions I didn’t like, they were too dull. But then I found one that was very easy, but it also had that swing ragtime feel. And it was actually, maybe I shouldn’t say that, but it was like just a preview for some online class, and I didn’t want to take the online class so I I just watched the preview over and over again. It was just a little snippet and I slowed it down and I just tried to copy that guy was doing. So it was just me copying what I see for basically the first half a year.
Oli: That was what I did most of the times; watching videos, trying to copy what people doing. Started getting a little bit an idea of the theory and everything behind it. And then I got my first piano lesson which I think was really good because the piano teacher, he gave me some more ideas on what to work on that are not just learning songs, but actually understanding what’s behind the songs. So since then most of my focus is to learn music and being musical and all the different chords and stuff.
Christopher: Gotcha. And I believe you had a number of teachers on the piano, is that right? You didn’t stick with that one, you tried a few different ones.
Oli: No, exactly. Actually, I got as a birthday present after playing piano for a month or two. Of course I told everyone, “Hey, I’m playing the piano now. Support me because else I’m not going to stick to it. I need people poking me to continue it.” That’s a good way actually to keep yourself motivated is to include other people. So then I got a voucher, I think I still have it somewhere but I’m not going to look for it now, that was for my first piano lesson. So that I got for my birthday. And of course I didn’t know any piano teachers so I got a recommendation from a friend. She said, “Yeah, this is a really good jazz pianist.”
Oli: And it’s like, “Oh, I’m just going to split. I’m going to take it.” And I took a few lessons with him, maybe five or six to give it a chance. And he’s a great piano player and also he’s a good teacher, so I’m not at all stopped with him because I didn’t believe in his capabilities, but I just realized that it’s not exactly what I want because I had it in my head already from the beginning this very concrete goal; I want to play swing music for dancers. So I want to play jazz but I want to play it in the style of the ’20s, the ’30s, the ’40s, and this pianist, he was very modern. So the first song we started with was Autumn Leaves, which I think most of the times people start with Autumn Leaves when they learn jazz because it’s such a great song to explore many assets of jazz.
Oli: I still don’t know it because I decided “No, I don’t want to learn Autumn leaves, it’s too modern.” So instead I looked for pianists that play in the bands that I like to hear from Berlin. So I found a pianist who was also a great teacher and he started with a song with me, that was Dinah, which is I think actually written in the ’20s or even in the 1910s, I can’t remember. So also very nice song and much more the style I want to go. So that was my first song and also now the first song that I’ve started learning in all the keys, because that’s what you should do. I’m very slow with that, but now I can play it in at least two or three keys somewhat. So I tried out a few teachers to see.
Oli: I also believe that teachers are great. They give you good ideas on what to work on, but most of the time it should be you working when I’m working, so I decided I’m only going to take a new lesson once I feel stuck. So right now I have a lot of stuff to do so I don’t take lessons, but the moment I feel stuck I will take a lesson. Or if I just want some new inspiration, I’ll take a lesson. I do have a plan to take more classic piano lessons at one point. I was actually wanting to start it already, but then came corona so now I’m like, “No, let’s wait a little bit.” Because I realize I know a lot of little things on a piano, but my technique probably is not the best, so while I’m still young I want to give my technique the chance to become proper. Yes.
Christopher: Gotcha. I think that’s such an interesting point about mastering one thing before going back for more. I remember Steve Lawson who I took bass lessons with for a while, definitely viewed it in those terms. For me coming in as a fairly experienced musician and music learner, he didn’t need to be there every week telling me to do my homework, and if I hadn’t had time to practice it wasn’t going to be that productive for us to sit there and him watch me practice, which I think is what happens a lot of the time in weekly music lessons. So it was much more, “Here’s some stuff, come back in a couple of months when you’ve really kind of figured this out and explored it and have questions about it.” And then each lesson becomes this really intense focused master class almost, and it’s up to you in between to follow through on all of that.
Christopher: And I think there’s value in both. If you’re not self-motivated or you are just at the very beginning of learning music, I think it can be really valuable to have that weekly reliable check-in so that you at least know you’re going to have that session and do some work in that session. But as you say, otherwise if you have a handle on your own practicing and your own learning, and particularly as an adult learner you have the where with all to go away, figure all that stuff out, get your fingers to do what they’re meant to do and then come back to the teacher so they can be most productive in that lesson with you.
Oli: Yes, I agree. It’s good sometimes to practice with the teacher because the teacher can tell you if you’re doing it right or not. And especially I often have a hard time focusing on little details, so I play an exercise but I play it half good and then if I at least in the beginning have the teacher tell me, “No, no, but you need to move your hands more like a wave,” or whatever, then it drills a little bit in my head and then I have an easier time to practice it. And this is also when I appreciate when the teacher tells like, “Yeah, even if you’re not coming to class, send me a video so I can feedback you.” So that’s what I like to do sometimes, I just film the progress and get just a short reminder of what I could be doing better that doesn’t need to be a one hour class.
Oli: I think everyone should basically find their own mix of what works for them. Of course, if they have a lot of money and they like having a teacher standing there telling them what to do, probably super effective, also it just costs a lot. But if I would have infinite money, I would pay the best piano teacher just to stand next to me playing all the time and telling me what to.
Christopher: So I think so far, Oli, your story probably sounds fairly normal for people. You had an interest in music that you picked up fairly late, you got an instrument, you took some lessons, you tried one teacher, you tried another, you made some progress. But I think where your story starts to get particularly interesting and different is the actually jamming and jam sessions became a part of your music learning fairly early on I would say, compared to most people who would stay in that kind of private bedroom phase for years before they felt able to go out there and play. Could you tell us a little bit about how you got involved in that?
Oli: Yes, that’s a good question. How did I get involved in that? I mean, from the beginning, but before I started playing music, I saw a lot of music happening. In swing dancing, I think compared to most of the other dance styles, there’s a big focus on live music and it gets even bigger all the time. So, you always see on the big parties and the big workshop events, there’s always several live bands and there’s some dance camps that attract the musicians and the dancers that also really like to jam.
Oli: There’s this one big camp in Sweden every year, it’s called Herräng, it’s five weeks in the summer, and they have a lot of live music on stage. But what also happens is they have three or four pianos around the camp. So in the nights at 4:00, 5:00 AM, people start jamming. It’s many dancers that are also musicians that just decide like, “Oh, we’re too tired to dance, let’s play a bit.” So they get together with music. So, already some years ago I really got excited too. “Oh my, this is so cool. I just want to do that too, dance a while and then join the jams.” Actually I think once or twice I sang there and I’m a bad singer, but back then I didn’t even know anything about music, but I was like just because I don’t care. I’m just like, “Yeah, let me sing.” It’s probably going to be not in key, or in the wrong key, or whatever, but people always loved it because it’s more comedy than singing. But I enjoyed it too.
Oli: So I really got drawn into this like, “When I start an instrument, this is what I want to do, I want to jam.” So when I started an instrument, I started immediately to seek out ways to jam. So in the beginning I was super bad, so I was like, “Hey, maybe I’ll find just one or two people that want to play with me because they’re kind.” So I got together with one or two friends that were already musician, and said, “Here play with me. Here, this is the only song I can play. I can play Sunny Side of the Street and Z, so play it with me.” So we played a little bit, so I started to learn that it’s much harder to play with someone else because you need to listen to them too.
Oli: Also, then I started to realize how important it is to practice with the metronome because then it’s almost like playing with someone else, except the metronome was always perfect, but no one is perfect. I started finding a few friends to play with. Then I think that was probably the second year of my music journey. The first birthday I got a private lesson. The second birthday I got a jam session. That was really cool. It was actually super fun because a friend of mine and also a dance colleague, she was like, “Yeah, I’m having a little gathering together in the dance school. Come by, we’re just going to hang out a little bit.” So like, “Okay, sure, I’m going to come by.” And I come by and there was a surprise party for me. And they have a piano, a real piano, which I was not expecting at all because it was my friend’s piano. She had it in Stuttgart. I knew that she has this piano and I told her, “Bring it to Berlin, bring it to Berlin, it’s just standing around there not being used.” And she’s like, “Yeah, maybe eventually.” And then secretly she brought it to Berlin and then it just stood there, the piano and then like, “Yeah.” And then there was, I think maybe it was not my first jam session, but one of the first jam sessions and it was organized just for me. So then I was like super excited and we celebrated my birthday and we also jammed to music.
Oli: Since then I think I’m just trying to go to all the jam sessions that I can find. And in Berlin it’s pretty great because there is a few jam sessions for this old jazz music, which I think is already pretty cool. I was also in modern jazz jam sessions, but it’s much more fun to play the old music. And I know most of the musicians that play here already since I’m a dancer, so they play for us all the time. And I started talking with them before and also since I’m working in a dance school, I organized artists. So, I booked some of them before. So I think that’s quite good for me because they know me and they are like, “Yeah, sure, play with us. Come little Oliver, play with us, we know you’re bad, but just play with us.” And I was like, “Yeah, I know I’m bad, but I’ll play with you.
Oli: so I think just helped me a lot because even though I can’t play, I started playing with other people and this took a lot of my fear to play with other people. And I found out that actually people are very kind to you. If they see that you’re trying and that you’re honestly trying, then they’re very happy to include you in their circles even though you’re a beginner musician. I can just recommend everyone find musicians, find friendly musicians, because I think you see if there’s like the super high level jam session where everyone is super like, “Oh, we’re going to flame everyone that is not good.” Then maybe it’s not the best jam session to start. But if you think the musicians look friendly, and they’re sympathetic, friendly, if they look friendly, just ask them if you can play your song with them and they’ll be happy to have you play with them. And even if you play one note only that works.
Oli: I listened to a lot of your podcasts and there was one, several episodes, that point out that rhythm is the most important thing. It’s much more important than playing the right notes. So if you just find one note or just always play the bass note of the court that is played and you just play rhythms. That’s enough, and people will love it more than if you play as a solo.
Oli: One musician who I played with a lot, he told me, “Oliver, it’s amazing. Your rhythm is always very good. I don’t know what you do, but your rhythm is always great. You got to work on your pitch because sometimes not a single note that you’re playing is inside the harmony. But you know what also the last note you’re playing is always right on the spot. So maybe you’re just this super advanced, modern jazzer that makes fun of all of us. Are you?” He didn’t say it exactly like that, but yeah, I don’t know, it was a funny quote.
Christopher: I think there’s a couple of really valuable lessons there for people. The first, or the second being what you just said about rhythm, that a lot of music learners have better rhythm than they realize and they almost certainly have a better ability to improvise or play rhythm by ear than they do the pitch side of things. And when you’re in an improv or a jam session context, that’s really helpful to focus on that and be like, “Okay, I may not play every note in the scale and do far out jazz harmony, but I’m just going to make sure my rhythm is rock solid and really tight and that will make sure you don’t stand out like a sore thumb.”
Christopher: But the first lesson in there that I wanted to highlight was your tip of finding a friendly jam session and not being afraid to dive in. And I wonder if we could just focus on that for a little bit longer because this is really intimidating for a lot of music learners and I think you’ve probably de-stigmatized a little bit and removed some of the fear factor by sharing your own story there. But I wonder if we could go back to some of those first jam sessions and just talk a little bit about was it intimidating for you or not? If so, why? Or if not, why not? And what literally were you doing? Like when you say there was a birthday jam session for you, I’m sure that sounds great to everyone, but I’m sure there’s also a lot of people watching or listening who are like, “What does that mean? What was he playing? How did he know what the songs were? Did he need sheet music? How did that work?” I wonder if we could just unpack that a little bit for people so that they understand what that’s like.
Oli: Yes, I think to be honest, one big advantage I have is that I’m very comfortable being on stage already. So that’s maybe why it was easier for me to do it. But also I think that’s not an excuse for other people to say like, “No, I’m not going to do it because I’m not already an improv theater person.” I think being on stage you can do a very good job hiding. So I think even if you feel not so comfortable, somehow you can play more in the back in the beginning so people will not recognize you so much. So I think you can create your own safe space on stage. I mean, that’s of course it’s good to know a few songs. Like if you know melodies of songs, that’s very safe because then you don’t need to improvise. But you say like you’ll go into a jam session, you say for example, I know the song Dinah in F, I can play the hat. So let me just play the hat and then afterwards I’m going to be quiet. And that’s the safe, but it’s also very prominent, because if you’re playing the hat, maybe to clarify, playing the hat means you are going to start a song playing the melody, not alone but probably with the whole rhythm section behind you, but you’re going to basically be the first person they hear, and it needs to be at least decent I guess for the song to start in a good way.
Oli: But since you know the melody and you can play it, it’s going to be simpler than improvising. So, that’s one start, I think, that’s what I do sometimes. There’s a few songs where I know to play the melody but I don’t know the harmony, so improvising will be super hard for me, but I can pay the middle. And even if I would play a solo, I would probably play something along the melody. The other thing that is really good, is to start reading chord sheets. I have, this is maybe just for the video version, for example, this is a chord sheet. It’s a song I found on your baby and you see that, for example, it starts in the A part with the C minor and the A seven and D minor, D seven and so on. So, if you can play arpeggios with your instrument, for example, you play a D minor arpeggio, you can play it as a D, F and A. D, F and A, yes. D major would be D/F sharp and A.
Oli: So if you can play those in your instrument and then for simple songs, it’s quite easy to follow the structure of the song if you just have a sheet like this. You can have it printed out or there’s this super great app iReal Pro, which I think you’ve talked a lot already in podcasts, where you can get basically for most of the jazz standards you get the course in some version. So you have this and you just play along. You put it somewhere and then you can already play very simple solos, plus just playing the bass notes. That’s when I, I mean, I didn’t say that yet, but I play also the trombone. So when I started playing with the trombone and jam sessions, that’s what I did. I have the sheet and I only played D minor for one bar and I played A seven and I played D minor, then I played D seven. So it’s still what I’m doing most of the time when I’m playing a song I never played, I just played the root notes. So then you have different pitches lower or higher. But basically with this you can’t go wrong because it always will fit and if you played in a nice rhythm it will always sound nice too. And if you listen a little bit to what the others are playing, you can find a good way to blend with the rest of the band without bothering them. And actually you will contribute maybe only a little bit, but you will contribute and people will be like, “Hey, you’re really cool, you’re playing very nice. Nice accompaniment”.
Oli: So I think this is a really simple way to start, just playing good notes. And then if you start learning the whole arpeggios, you can decide which notes to play. This is theoretically for me much easier than practically. But for example, if you have a D minor, a D minor is D, A and F. I wrote it down here, and then next comes an A seven which is an A, then comes a C sharp and then comes an E and then comes a G. So what you see there is for example, the A is in all the notes, the home first four bars, you could basically just play A all the time and it would fit.
Oli: But you could also find a nice line. For example, you play in the D minor, you start with an A. Then when the A seven comes, you play a G, because the G is the seventh of the A seven. Then comes the D minor again, you play an F and then comes the D seven, you’d go up to the F sharp, so have a nice line. You play, A, G, F, F sharp. And it fits perfectly with the harmony and you need to change only a little bit. And then you use a bit of rhythm. So there’s some very simple ways where once you explore these, and this is what I’m working on right now, I’m not really good at it, but I think once you understand connecting these dots, you can do a lot in jam sessions without knowing a lot.
Christopher: Fantastic. I think that was a lovely illustration of the step-by-step progression you can go through in terms of the complexity of what you contribute in the jam session. And I think it just really makes clear that point, that you can sit in and just play root notes or sit in and just contribute the melody because you know the melody, and start from there and get comfortable. And then maybe next week you’ve done your homework, so you know this other song you’ve figured out some way to play a little solo or something, and you can do the preparation beforehand to keep moving yourselves forward. It sounds like that’s the kind of approach you’ve been taking.
Oli: Yes, that’s a lot of the times what I’m doing, yeah.
Christopher: And so, when, why, and how did trombone enter the picture too? You mentioned that there, but we hadn’t really talked about it.
Oli: I started with the piano because I always was impressed by pianists and by the piano, especially like if you see this grand piano, it’s such a huge instrument and you can do so much stuff. So I was like, “Oh yeah, if I’m going to learn an instrument, it’s going to be the piano.” And I didn’t consider that it’s really hard to carry up the armor with you. But most of the times there is a piano in a venue where there’s a jam session. So, actually I think pianists are lucky, bass players are not so lucky, because bass is almost as hard to carry as a piano, especially if you’re talking about playing an upright bass. But there never are any basses in a jam session except if you bring one or if there’s a bass player already. So, I think piano is lucky because it’s often there.
Oli: But also I realized it’s easy to start on the piano but it soon gets very complex. So of course, if you just play one note at a time melodies, probably piano’s the easiest instrument to play one melody line at a time because you just need to press the buttons, you don’t even need a good ear if someone tells you which notes to play. But it doesn’t stop there because you’re expected when you play the piano, you’re expected to use both hands and then there’s already like … I mean, if you play on another instrument, in trombone you only use one hand. The second hand you hold the trombone and the first hand you move, I guess if you play a saxophone or clarinet, you need to use both hands but still you use them in a very similar fashion. While as in the piano, you use the hand one to hit chords and it’s totally … And I’m playing now since three years the piano, and I really have a hard time getting quick enough somewhere where I feel I can go into a jam session and shine on a level that a pianist would shine on. Because of course, I can sit there, I have my chords and I can play all the chords with two handed voicings and block chords and a steady rhythm, which is fortunately what you’re expected to do in old jazz. Just hammering on the keys, which I like. And then one point, you learn the stride, so you go… That’s what I’m learning now. But as soon as I… Ah, piano solo, I’m going back from this to… Because that’s all I can do. I cannot even improvise with chords properly.
Oli: So I want to become a pianist on a level where I can actually freely improvise with two hands, but long way. And a year ago, a friend of mine, he left his trombone in Berlin. Because he’s from Belgium, and he was like, “Yeah, I’m going to come every now and then to play, but I don’t want to carry my trombone.” So he bought a second trombone, and he left it in Berlin. I said, “Ah, here’s a trombone. How does it work?”
Oli: And then I figured out, “Ah, I can make a sound.” And then I started learning the trombone. And this really opened me into much more possibilities, because the trombone is… I love it. It’s a really nice instrument. And you can only play one note at a time, which is a limitation. But because of that it is much more freedom because you can express yourself in much simpler ways. You can alternate how you play the note.
Oli: So you can make a lot with like how you blow into the instrument, which in the piano, the only thing you can do is you can press more or less hard. That’s simplified I guess. I mean, great pianists, they can do a lot of stuff. And also, I don’t want to say that trombone is an easier instrument to learn, but I think since I already knew a lot of the music theory then, I mainly needed to figure out how the instrument works technically.
Oli: And yeah, so I think I made much quicker progress with the trombone. So after playing one year I feel much more confident playing in a jam session with a trombone than I play with the piano. Also there’s mostly no trombone players in jam sessions because somehow people don’t like to learn the trombone. I don’t know why. It’s the best instrument. I’m always the underdog with the trombone and I love it.
Oli: Also, I think that’s probably the most important thing that the trombone adds. I really needed to start listening and being able to also produce the sound because in the piano you don’t need to produce the sound. You know that the C is here now. You know that the C is here. So you press the C and it comes.
Oli: But in the trombone, you know that the C is there, but there’s also five other notes there. So you need to actually play the pitch that you want. This is the mouthpiece and you should be able to play a song only on the mouthpiece.
Oli: So you have one pitch and then you can change the pitch. Then you can play all of this. And then if you play a song you could… I’m going to mess it up so much. But my favorite song, Dinah.
Oli: So you can play the whole song just on the mouthpiece and then the trombone is basically just like a speaker that makes it louder. And then of course, you need to know where each note is because that’s how the instrument works. That a C sounds only if you’re in a certain position, but so yeah, with the trombone, I started really paying attention to also listening to what I’m playing.
Christopher: Absolutely. And you’ve made some really great progress with your ear over the last year or two. Could you talk about some of the dedicated ear training stuff you’ve been doing?
Oli: Yes, definitely. So I don’t know when I realized, but at one point I realized to be a musician, you need to be a good person with your ears. That’s how you saids that term. A good person with your ears. So, first I just started with apps. I looked what apps are there out there. And I don’t know if I tried all the apps out there, but I tried a lot of ear training apps. Most of them are focusing on hearing pitch… How you say?
Oli: Intervals. So you need to hear a major third, a minor third and this stuff, which I think is super hard. I’m still very bad at this. I found one app which I think is my favorite app. And it’s called functional ear trainer. Probably you know it, right? And I think what’s great with this app is that it doesn’t focus on learning intervals, but it focuses on recognizing notes in a key center. That’s how you call it.
Oli: So for example, the app, it plays you a progression in a C major scale. So you can change the progression it plays. In the beginning, like the easiest is you start with a 1–4–5-1 progression. So you hear the chord, tonic chord, subdominant chord, dominant chord, tonic, which is a C major, F major, G major, C major.
Oli: And afterwards it plays you a note, just a single note and your task then is to tell which note it is. And in the beginning you’re thinking, “How do you know after hearing this, how do you know what note this is?” But actually you get progress quite quickly with that one, I feel like. Especially with the diatonic notes, after using the app for some weeks, I could already hear clearer in random keys.
Oli: So there’s levels. First you start only with C, only with the lower half of the scale, the upper half, then the full. Then you start with random octaves. So the progression is always the same, but it might play a C very low or very high. So you need to start listening to the pitch relatively outside of the box of this one octave. And then, the most challenging level is when they randomize. So each progression that comes is a totally different key. So your brain always needs to switch. Okay, now we’re in C major, now we’re in F major, now we’re in B-sharp major.
Oli: So yeah. And then you do the same with minors. All of this is super easy after a while. When it gets super challenging is when you add chromatic notes because that’s what I am now and I’m failing all the time. Because once you hear a note that is not in the key in the diatonic frame of the key, it totally confuses me. Now I cannot even hear anymore this notes that are in this scale because this one note blew me off.
Oli: So yeah, that’s where I’m right now with the app. I don’t use it so much anymore but this is I think my favorite app and the only app I’m going to recommend here outside of Musical U obviously. And I think once I started with Musical U, this helped me a lot because there I started to move from thinking about intervals to thinking about solfege, solfa. Because I was like okay I’m going to do this first roadmap that is learn to play by ear.
Oli: Oh, interval or solfa? What? I don’t know. What is solfa? And then I read, we recommend solfa. And I’m a very naive person, so when people recommend me to do something, I’m, “Okay.” So I started understanding solfa and I’m still trying to figure it out, but in the beginning it was totally… How you say? I didn’t make these connections as to how should singing the notes in solfa help me with anything, but I was just like, I don’t care. I’m just going to try it out. Everyone says it works.
Oli: So I just believed them and slowly, slowly, sometimes I actually hear the notes in solfa but I still have a lot of work to do, but it helps just as a tool also. For example, singing a melody in solfa to start connecting the dots. For example, when we’re having Dinah again, is if you’re thinking of Dinah, if you learn it in C. Let me think. It’s G A G A C D E G E C D E C D E G E D E G E D C A G G G.
Oli: And so now you need to learn this in all the keys. Why? I mean, yeah, of course. But it’s so hard. But if you learn it in solfa, you learn it’s So, La, So, La, Do, Re, Mi, So, Mi, Do, Re, Mi, Do, Re, Mi, So, Mi, Re, Mi, So, Mi, Re, Do, La, So, So, So. So now you know it in all the keys because you just need to think of what is the key of F for example. You know the So in F is C. So you can sing C E C E F G A E… C A F G A F G A C A G A C A G F D C C C.
Oli: Something like that. I hope it was correct. So yeah. And then you can start translating it in all the different keys and solfa is a great tool to remember. You can also use numbers so you can just 5-6-5-6-1-2-3-5-3. But yeah, I guess solfa is good because it stays almost the same in every language. So if you talk to someone in French, you can still use solfa and you don’t need to do cinq-six. Because who knows French, Right?
Christopher: French would be a dangerous one. They like to use fixed do over in France and that can get confusing.
Oli: True. True. And the Spanish too. Yeah. Yeah. I had a few funny encounters with this because I knew some musicians that’s learned in fixed do, so I’m always discussing with them about it.
Christopher: Well that’s very cool. And obviously the solfa approach is very compatible with the functional ear training. They’re both working in terms of scale degrees rather than intervals.
Christopher: And you made a comment, before we hit record too, about online learning and the value of community and that was something you were thinking about for your online swing stuff that we’ll talk about in a minute. How was that useful? If we compare say the app learning and the Musical U learning you were doing?
Oli: Yes, that’s one thing I realized that helps a lot. I mean I started with the apps, but with the apps you only get very little support. I mean you get technical support if you need to, but probably also you could reach out to them and ask blahblahblah. And some app producers will maybe be more helpful than others.
Oli: But out of the box, the app works like this, that they give you a structure, you work through the structure. Sometimes it’s well explained, sometimes not so well explained, but it’s very static. So there’s no interaction. Also I learned a lot with YouTube videos, which is basically the same. You watch the video, you try it out a few times. And I think if you’re a very good person to self-motivate yourself and self-structure yourself, then this can work great because you can make your own training plan and you stick to something.
Oli: But I’m a very curious person, but I’m also a very easily distracted person. So often I do an exercise, I do it as long as I find something better or something different, then I move. And that is actually what I thought in the beginning when we talked about mastering something. I’m really terrible at mastering something. Because I do something until I get bored and then I do something else.
Oli: So that’s why I was very hesitant to decide for any online program in the beginning. Because I was like, yeah, I mean I get all those online videos for free. And why should I pay for something like this? And how can I make sure I’m going to stick to it? Because I know I’m really bad at sticking to things, which is, I think, one of the good things to have a real teacher because the teacher that can kick your butt and makes you stick to it.
Oli: And so it’s like, “No, we’ve got to do this exercise one more month because you’re still not good at it.” So who tells me that in an online course? But at the same time I love listening to stuff. So I found the Musicality Now podcast and I also like doing stuff from the start. So I listened to it from episode one. And I think now I’m episode 120 or something.
Oli: So I still have a lot to go and I don’t make any exceptions. I did make now two exceptions because I really wanted to listen to some Pathway episodes before I do this. But I listen to the first Pathway episodes, the Nick Cheetham, right?
Oli: And the other one I’m listening to right now, Sharilynn Horhota. And I decided to listen to them because I wanted to know what’s happening here, so I’m a little bit prepared. And also was super interesting, both of them.
Oli: But basically, yeah, from the start I really loved the podcast because everything you covered there is right down my alley. The whole notion of that there is no such thing as talent. Or the growth mindset versus the fixed mindset is all stuff that I encountered before because I was through my swing dance career, I started digging a lot into learning and practicing. And so I actually read a lot of the books that are also covered in Musicality Now. Like how’s it called? The one where they talk about talent.
Christopher: Talent is overrated, maybe.
Oli: Yeah. Yeah. No, it was… What’s it called? I don’t know. I’m bad with names, but you had the guy in the interview then who talks about, I think one of the things they observe those chess girls, they learn chess. And so basically everything is about learning. And ah, it’s with the deliberate practice and stuff.
Christopher: Is it Professor Anderson?
Oli: Yes, yes.
Christopher: Sorry, Anders Erikson.
Oli: Erikson. Yes. So I listened to that one and I was like, “Wow, that’s such a great book.” And then a few months later you cover it. And I was like, yeah. So there was a few of those instances where you had very inspiring people there and also basically the whole mindset that I felt through Musical U was really appealing to me. Also the idea of learning the music, learning by ear and all of that stuff. So I was like, “Okay, I’m just going to give it a shot.”
Oli: So at one point, I just signed up to Musical U membership. I was like, “Oh, they don’t even have a free trials.” So I was, “What the heck, I’m just going to sign up.” And then there was like, “Oh yeah, and when you signed up for a month, but you save so much if you sign up for a year.” And so, “Oh, what the heck, I’m just going to sign up for a year.”
Oli: So yeah, I don’t know when it was, I think maybe some months ago. So I started Musical U. And then I realized what I really love is the friendly community around it. So of course I’m also like the structure’s very nice, so you have these roadmaps. And I was like, “Okay, I actually have a plan what that I can go through. So I don’t need to make a plan from scratch, but I’m also flexible to change it.”
Oli: So of course, instead of doing one roadmap, I started with two roadmaps because I want to learn to play melodies by ear and chords. So I decided to take both roadmaps at the same time. And from the start, what I really loved was the interaction with, for example, Guitar Stew, who is answering all the time. Then I also quickly met, WeeHaukTaw. What’s his name? I’m sorry.
Christopher: WeeHaukTaw, yeah, Andrew.
Oli: Andrew. Yeah, Andrew and Stew. And then at one point I met Adam because he interviewed me. And there’s just a lot of support coming and just I was like I stopped, I was like I never wrote a journal from a practicing. But then they recommended a Musical U. So I was like, “Okay, I’m going to start writing journal.” Then as my first post I already get a feedback, “Oh great to have you here and so nice to hear about your journey.” One thing is really nice is the encouragement you get because, yeah. So they actually take the time, you actually take the time to read what I’m going through to, listen to examples when I record them and give me advice and point me out to new things.
Oli: So this really helped me motivating for a long time to stick with Musical U. Basically do it every day, right? Even though it’s just a little bit, I just write something. So, and I think this is what makes it very valuable next to the content that is also very good. But just having this interaction, like having coaches. Which is more like the experience you get from a real teacher than, that you would get from a static online course.
Christopher: Yeah. I don’t want this to turn into an ad for Musical U. You’re very kind to explain so much there. But I think it’s important to highlight that point about community. Because learning in isolation with an app can be really frustrating for people. I think whether it’s at Musical U or elsewhere, that environment that you learn in is so important.
Christopher: I also wanted to highlight one other thing there which is, you did your part. You’re sharing in your progress journal. You also post videos on Facebook and Instagram with what you’ve been working on lately or little demonstrations with trombone and [sulfur 00:58:46] little videos. That is what allows you to get the feedback and support you need.
Christopher: I’m sure you take the same attitude at jam sessions or with your local musicians. Where you tell them what you’re up to and how you’re getting on and that gives them the chance to help you. I just wants to highlight that because I know a lot of music learners are reticent to do that. Because until I’m really good, I shouldn’t talk about what I’m doing. Until I really know everything, I shouldn’t have a conversation about jazz harmony. When actually that’s what gives you the opportunity to learn.
Oli: Yes, exactly. I think am, yeah, just can encourage people to put themselves out there. Share the progress, not share the results. I mean, sharing the result is great too. Because then you get the admiration like, but if you work at it in secret and then you show it. A, it takes much longer because you don’t get any support. I think also people appreciate what you’re doing, if they know the progress. So, if they seeing you from the start. That’s like, I mean from day one I started posting on Facebook my progress videos. Now people tell me, “Oh man, it’s so great! How much you’ve progressed from three years ago and I’ve watched your videos all the time.” Even professional musicians tell me that they’re watching my videos.
Oli: I mean, it’s friends of mine or like, there’s this band leader from London. They have a band Shirt Tail Stompers. They are really great band. I know him a little bit because we had them in Berlin for a concert for workshop for a while. But I’m not besties with him. So I wouldn’t expect him to follow me up for what I’m doing. But last year in October we were talking and he was like, “Oh, yeah by the way, I’m always delighted to see your posts on Facebook. It’s so great to see that you’re progressing in the music.” Just so great to hear that from a professional musician. Is also a great to hear from your friends. But you’re sort of expecting your friends to be interested in what you’re doing. But you don’t expect some role model you’re having to be interested in what you’re doing. So I think putting yourself out there, it’s scary, but it also has a lot of unexpected benefits.
Christopher: For sure. I want to finish up by talking about what you’re up to at the moment. We already mentioned your Instagram account and your Facebook page. Where you’re sharing some of these progress videos. But I think you’re also organizing your own jam sessions these days. Is that right?
Oli: Yes, I do. I mean right now it’s a bit difficult, but-
Christopher: For sure. So, if you’re not watching this when it is being recorded. We’re in the midst of the Corona virus lockdown at the moment. So everything in person is a bit on hold. But in theory up until recently.
Oli: Yes, I think this was from the very beginning, a very important thing for me. That I bring together the people that I like to play with. I think it was also covered in one episode or some somewhere I hear it, “If there’s no possibilities for you to go out and play you have make the possibilities.” So I knew there was possibilities, but I also was scared to, I cannot go to all the pro jam sessions. So I want to create the possibilities.
Oli: So, fortunately I have a good network of friends and musicians and dancers. So I first, what I did, I started organizing a jam session to play for dancers. So I actually talked with a musician. He was interested and we organized once a month, a jam session with good musicians, with professional musicians and they played at our social dance parties once a month.
Oli: But this was already, for me it was a low barrier. Because I felt more comfortable jumping in there jamming. Because people know me and people know that I’m organizing the jam sessions. So they’re like, “Where should I do it, If not there?” I paid those people to play so I can also play with them. Actually even do this with bands these days when we book bands. I pay them to play. So I’m like, “Hey, I can play with you?” That sounds weird. But yeah-
Christopher: No, I think it’s fantastic. I think it highlights the importance of what we talked about earlier. Which is remembering you don’t have to do something incredible whizzbang complex. You can sit in with a band and do something very simple to contribute. That means any opportunity, even if the musicians are amazing. Even if you’re paying them to play, you can sit in and do something. It doesn’t need to be the top of the game.
Oli: Yeah. Yes, exactly. But so this was just the start. I organized this jam session. Through that I get contact to more musicians and then I, they also encouraged me, “Hey, we have a jam session here, so come to this jam session.” So through organizing my own Jen session. I got also more invited to join other jam sessions. Which was great.
Oli: But this was still very much like, I organized good musicians, I play with them to put my own level higher. But I also wanted to have a playground for like-minded people on my level. So I started organizing more training, practice jam sessions. Where I invite musicians that I know that are play on my level and encourage them also to play. I’m in one band project and it’s called Oakland Swing Orchestra in Berlin and this is like a… It’s a very nice project with amateur musicians coming together.
Oli: So, I knew a lot of musicians through there. So I invite them, “Hey, come jam with me.” Try to get more just because in the orchestra, it’s a lot about. We have simple lead sheets, but we play very structured. We tried to decide before we play a song, with structure we are going to play. But I’m like, more like, “No, we need to decide it on the spot.” That’s just our plan. Let’s not discuss 10 minutes before a song because that’s not going to work in a jam session. You’re just going to say, “I’m going to start, going to play at F, I’m going to play the hat, follow me.” That’s what we’re practicing in those little jam sessions.
Oli: Then at one point I was like, “Yeah!” I talked to Daniel, to Spiva who is a musician I work with most. I do the jam sessions with him too. I told him, “I want you to have a workshop for jamming.” She’s like, “Yeah, I’m up for it. Let’s do it!” So we did a workshop and people loved it. Then I say, “let’s do a course.” So we organized a six week course. Which, with him.
Oli: So six weeks long we focused on learning how to jam music, swing music with simple methods. So, and it was so, I was like, “Yeah, if we get together seven, eight people, it’s enough to do it. Let’s try make a lot of promotion. Get seven, eight people to get it.” In the end, we had so many signups that we needed to do two groups. So we had in the first round, we had 30 beginner and amateur musicians that want to learn to jam jazz music.
Oli: So yeah, now this is the third, it was the third course round. So we’re doing this a since four and a half months now. Now we’re having a little break because of the Corona. But hopefully soon afterwards we going to continue. So this is a really cool project. Where we have a teacher that teaches us how to jam. Then of course we organize a lot of practice jam sessions.
Oli: So yeah, just bringing a lot of people together. For me, my big vision is. I’m working as a dance teacher for swing dancing and as our school focuses a lot the dancing. But we also more and more feeling connected with musicians. So one of my dreams is to bring this so close together that it’s sort of intertwined. I want to start a house band for the school with the musicians that come out of those classes.
Oli: So it’s going to be an amateur band. Maybe we have a few more experienced musicians to make sure that we always drive a good swing. But the idea is not to have a professional band playing for dancers. But to have both scenes grow at the same time. So then at one point hopefully, we will have… In the dance classes we can have live music. Because we are so many tiny musicians that we can put three of them in a class and they can play for the dancers.
Oli: So yeah, now since everything is sort of on hold. I’m thinking of course, ways to do this online. So one very dedicated friend of mine, Andrea. She’s started as part of this jam session course. I mean, I know her from being a dancer. But at one point she’s like, “Hey, I played the guitar as a young person for many years. I don’t do it so much anymore. But I actually want to try play swing.” So in the beginning she was very hesitant, but then she joined a group and now she practices more than I do. Which is crazy! She plays five or six hours a day and she’s going.
Oli: She also started an online initiative now because the jam course, it cannot happen. But she’s like, “Yeah, let’s have a, That’s My Online Jam.” So we have this group where we can just share progress with each other. We start having a little project. I don’t know, probably you know it, where one musician plays different instruments and pats them all together. So we think, we can do that with several people. So we decide on a song each plays their part and then we cut it together. So we have a little online jam. So, yeah, so a lot of stuff happening.
Christopher: Fantastic! Yeah, and I love the idea of bringing together the music education and the dance education in that swing genre. Having that everyone kind of grow up together or improve together. That’s very cool. Given the current circumstances, your swing school has been focusing more online. You have a website at swingstep.tv, is that right?
Oli: Exactly! Yes, we actually, I mean we’re focusing since a long time on local classes of two cities in Berlin and in Hyderabad. Also, on workshops, we have several big workshops internationally. So we’re reaching quite a big crowd of dancers. But it still like, we reach either local dancers in the cities are or we reach international dancers through the big workshops that happen once or twice a year.
Oli: All of this is shutdown now because of the social distancing that is very important. But we have of course, a running business. We have 10 employees or more and we need to keep going. So it’s like, “Let’s do online classes.” So now everyone is working really hard. I think within three days we set up a completely new platform online for online classes. Now the teachers are recording the classes. So on Monday, our first online course round we’ll start.
Oli: The good thing is that now everybody can join. Not only if they’re in Berlin or Hyderabad. So yeah, on swingstep.tv, you can learn swing dancing online. It’s still very in the beginning, of course. We just setting up the basics. But we’re actually trying to get, I’m trying to bring in inspiration from Musical U. Because I’m taking the Musical U memberships. So, sorry for stealing your awesomeness.
Christopher: Please do.
Oli: But also, I mean we do have a lot of experience through the offline classes with giving feedback and giving advice to students. So our courses are built in a way that you have once a week, you get a video, it’s a full lesson like you would get it offline in a class. But of course you cannot interact with the teachers. But it’s just 60 to 90 minutes, where we show you what to dance to. Then there’s going to be music where you can dance and watch us dance. But basically it’s a lot of watching by doing, learning by watching and doing.
Oli: But then also there’s going to be our teachers takes time. Where every student can reach out to us and ask for advice personally. So it’s like, not really just happens during class where go to the teacher, “Hey can you help me with this? Now it helps, it happens basically when you have time you can reach out to us and we’re like, “Yeah, okay, work on this.” Then you can continue working. So it’s like we’re trying to find a good combination of online material that you can just work through on your own. But also giving possibilities to get guided advice, personal feedback. We’ve never done it. So, it’s going to be a super exciting, how it works out. But everyone so far is very excited. So on Monday we’ll see how the first round goes.
Christopher: Wonderful! Well, I’ll be watching that with interest and particularly if you start bringing in some of the music education side of things there too. Oli thank you so much for joining us today. I think we’ve talked about some really fascinating things that will be helpful for people. We’re going to put links to your Instagram and Facebook pages in the show notes for this episode along with swingstep.tv. Any parting pieces of wisdom or advice for those watching or listening.
Oli: Advice, just do it! Do it like Nike says it, right? Just do it! If you’re scared about it, it’s an indication that you should do it, I think. I mean there’s two parts, there’s of course, sometimes you’re scared and you know that you’re scared because it’s dangerous. But if there’s a tiger in front of you. It’s probably not a good idea to do it. It’s also not a good idea to run away, I think. But I don’t have advice for how to deal with tiger.
Oli: But I have idea how to deal with the Tiger Wreck. It’s a very good swing song. But yeah, sorry. But yeah, if you feel you’re scare but also excited about something. You realize you’re just scared because you’re thinking you cannot do it. Just try it out and you will fail but it’s great. You’ll learn through failure. The more often you fail, the more fun you will have.
Christopher: Wonderful! A good message to leave people with. Thank you Oli.
Oli: Thank you, Christopher. It was a real honor to be on this podcast. I’m going to enjoy listening to myself.
Christopher: About a 100 episodes from now.
Oli: Yes, yeah, maybe I skipped to that one once it’s out.
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