A Life by Ear: Jazz Guitarist and Composer Dr. Stefan Hall

A-Musical-Live-by-Ear-Jazz-Guitarist-and-Composer-Dr.-Stefan-Hall-800
Dr. Stefan Hall teaches Medieval Studies at the University of Wisconsin-Green Bay, yet since childhood he has performed, composed both jazz and classical music, and taught jazz guitar. Today he performs with numerous jazz ensembles. Our team member Marisa Balistreri talked to him about his life in music.

Q: Did you grow up in a musical home?

Yes. My dad listened to music nonstop. He liked Simon & Garfunkel. Then he thought that he needed to be “cultured” and turned to Brahms and Beethoven. My mum listened to the Eagles, the Rolling Stones, and Willie Nelson. So I got to hear all kinds of stuff.

My mum played piano. I guess growing up in the 50s and 60s, it was one of the things that young ladies needed to do. She couldn’t play a note by ear. She had piles of lessons and doesn’t remember any of it because she didn’t do any of it by ear. It was all sitting there playing the little black dots on the page.

Q: Did you play any instruments?

dulcimerDad rented me a saxophone, but that was a disaster. But there was still the piano in the house. I didn’t learn like my mum: I improvised. To this day I can sit down at the piano and play something interesting.

My mum also had a couple of mountain dulcimers. I played around with one of those and it was really easy. The major scale is just marked out for you, you can’t mess it up. I essentially learned how to fret and to string on that thing.

Q: How did you start on guitar?

My birthday came up. I’d saved some money and I went down and bought a guitar for like thirty something bucks. It was a nylon string folk-type of guitar and I thought it needed a whammy bar! I used to destroy instruments trying to modify them.

Q: How did you learn guitar?

I listened to Led Zeppelin and played along with the recordings—not note for note, but I would find notes that fit with what they were playing. Playing along with recordings is still my go-to method in my learning and my teaching.

Q: Did you have any sort of formal music training at this point, like music theory?

No. This was entirely by ear. After about a year or two of this, my dad could see that the guitar wasn’t going away. Four lessons and that was it. I didn’t like the teacher.

Q: You’re learning to play guitar by ear and at this point do you know how to read music at all?

Stefan HallNo. I’ll tell you how I learned to read. I’d seen one of the high school jazz bands come along and they had this incredible guitar player. I wanted to be that guy; I wanted to be the star of the show.

All we had in junior high was a choir. I went to the choir director and just asked her, “Do you need a guitar player?”

She asked, “What can you do?”

I said, “I don’t know but give me some music, let me join in.”

She gave me two songs. I had no clue what was going on. I went home and I asked my mum, “Could you play these and tell me what the notes are?” She got me through the two songs and I was playing with the choir.

I knew I had to step up my game if I wanted to be in the jazz band in high school. I went to the library—I’m not making this up—and I checked a book called “How to Read Music.”

It was a struggle, I taught myself how to read and write music, then I played in the high school jazz band and that was fantastic.

Q: How did you learn jazz?

I played along with recordings, the Marian McPartland’s Piano Jazz radio show—even while watching Fred Astaire movies. There’s lots of jazz standards in them.

Q: Were you writing back then?

Yes. I was writing tunes and practicing them on the side with the jazz band bass player and the drummer.

One day the band director asked if the rhythm section wanted to play a feature at the next concert. I imagine he was thinking some pop tune. I said, “Well, I’ve written something and we’ve been rehearsing it.”

We played it for him and he put it on the program. That was my debut as a composer.

Q: You were so deep into music! Why did you choose a career teaching English as opposed to going into a career in music?

I didn’t want to be a music major in college because I didn’t want to be classically trained.

What’s more, I chose medieval studies—that’s even less lucrative than being a musician! It took a lot longer to get a degree. Let’s say I didn’t choose the path of least resistance.

Q: How important do you think it is to study music theory then?

Music theory, reading and writing music are absolutely important skills to a jazz musician. Rote memory of a particular piece, concentrating solely on performance technique and getting it just right every single time—that’s not jazz, that’s classical music. In terms of my personality, I don’t want to play it the same every time.

So I poached music majors and we formed our own bands.

 
Anibal Rojas saxophone, with Stefan Hall, guitar

Stefan Hall with jazz saxophone great Anibal Rojas

Q: How would you describe yourself as a composer?

Interesting. “Schizophrenic” because, in musical terms, I do hear many voices. Then I translate that to the page… Or maybe without direction? Directionless is maybe a better term because, even though I’m a jazz musician I get into a classical composition mode where I want to compose string quartets, or pieces for piano and solo instruments.

When I was in graduate school, I’d sit around and compose string quartets—composition was a way to procrastinate instead of writing my dissertation. I composed four or five full string quartets with multiple movements during graduate school.

Q: So, as a composer, you would describe yourself as a directionless, schizophrenic procrastinator?

Well, if you put it that way…!

Of course, I kept composing jazz tunes. In Gypsy Trip we’re playing a piece right now that I wrote in high school—a bossa nova based on a love theme from the TV show Conan the Barbarian.

Q: Tell me more about Gypsy Trip.

It started out with one of my students. We were looking for music that fit his aggressive nature. We were both into Django Reinhardt—Gypsy jazz is simpler harmonically but very physically demanding. You have to play hard but also the guitars are typically larger. They have a longer scale length than a typical archtop jazz guitar. There’s more room between notes and your fingers have to stretch.

 

Gypsy Trip (1)
From there we expanded. Horn players, singers—fantastic musicians. Everyone has a degree in music except for me. We take the energy of gypsy jazz, explode into more complex rhythms and more sophisticated modern jazz harmonies, more original compositions. Tango, swing etc.

Q: For ten years now, Gypsy Trip has done very well in Green Bay, Wisconsin. How do audiences in this culture respond to jazz?

We’re not playing rock and we’re not playing country, but we are still playing interesting danceable acoustic music. There’s novelty, but in another sense we have a nostalgic sound. Even people who are turned off to esoteric modern jazz—they enjoy our band.

We’ve released our first CD, Alt-Nostalgia, and have composed almost another full-CD’s worth of tangos.

Q: You’re also involved in several other performance projects…

Yes. I play with a fantastic faculty jazz ensemble here at the University of Wisconsin-Green Bay. And I loved playing with modern jazz saxophone virtuoso Anibal Rojas when he joined us at our faculty concert.

Q: Between your college teaching, guitar teaching, composing classical music and jazz, and all these bands, do you have time for anything else?

After all this original music, it is really feeding me to go back to my roots in jazz standards with Trio del Mare, with bass player Gillian Evanoff and you, of course! [Easy Ear Training’s Marisa Balistreri]

 

Trio Del Mare (1)
We’re digging up standards that don’t get played as much. Great old songs, chosen for their interesting chromaticism and harmony, like Cole Porter’s “So In Love.”

Q: The lyrics are incredible, the melody, the harmony, everything about them—they’re perfect!

Then there’s “Too Late Now” from the Fred Astaire movie: “Royal Wedding.” I transcribed it by ear, and I loved it, and I’ve only heard maybe three other people play it. It’s got the most wonderful bridge that goes into a melodic minor and you just don’t hear it coming—it’s just absolutely fantastic.

Dr. Stefan Hall credits much of his musical success to his simple but effective ear training method, and applying music theory. Find out how and why you can learn from the greats without leaving your room in our next installment of this fascinating interview.

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