This blog is in response to the questions I have received in the past about learning tunes. Throughout my time in college I was encouraged by my mentors (especially trumpeters Jeremy Pelt and Darren Barrett) to learn as many tunes as possible. They both possessed huge repertoires which really gave them the luxury to play really diverse sets whenever I had the priviledge to hear them live in Boston. I was also inspired to learn as many tunes as I could in order to combat the monotness of hearing and playing the same tunes at jam sessions around town. That’s still prevalent but I always do my best to encourage young cats that come down to my session at Wally’s on Sunday afternoons to learn as many tunes and not to come down week after week to call and play the same tune. When I started to go down to the jam sessions at Wally’s when I moved to Boston, I was advised to learn the tunes that were called that I didn’t know. So I learned those tunes and called them the next week or the week after (especially if they weren’t played when they were called initially). So to learn these tunes I either had to go out and buy the record or check it out of the library at NEC. I was fortunate to live in Boston where there were a handful of great record stores at the time (Tower Records in Boston and Cambridge, Looney Tunes in Boston and Cambridge, Newbury Comics, Mojo Records, Planet Records, and my favorite Stereo Jacks in Porter Square!).
When I got into the habit of checking out records in order to learn tunes, naturally my record collection grew. I developed this habit of buying a record in order to learn a tune but in the end I learned all of the tunes on the record. Imagine wanting to learn 10 tunes in a month, going out to get the records, and learning all the tunes on the record! That’s easily 100 or so tunes in that period. I am a pretty fast transcriber (because I have absolute pitch) and it was fun for me at the time still is. I always made sure to learn tunes that I really dug so there are obviously tunes that really didn’t touch me and I never got around to learning them. Don’t get me wrong, I’ve committed thousands of songs to memory that I’ll never get to play outside of my practice room, but there are hundreds of thousands of tunes that I don’t know that I should know. I consider myself to be a constant work in progress in that respect.
In my opinion, there are several useful ways to learn tunes, but I don’t think that there’s a magic bullet that will get anyone from start to finish any faster than the next person. Everyone has to put the time in to really hone their ear skills and once our hearing becomes more acute, learning tunes becomes much easier and fun.
Here’s one method that’s geared towards memorizing chord changes that was given to me by trumpeter John McNeil. This involves playing the piano.
1. Play the first chord to the song on the piano in time (maybe using a metronome or tapping your foot).
2. While playing the first chord of the song, say the 2nd chord out loud.
3. Play the 2nd chord in time.
4. Say the 3rd chord out loud, etc.
I’m sure that you all see the pattern that’s taking place now. This exercise is designed to allow you to “think ahead” when improvising. This way you are more equipped to anticipate the chord changes instead of playing in a reactionary mode (not saying that that is bad, you just add another asset to your playing with this).
When I begin transcribing a song, I start by lifting the melody. I try my best to absorb all of the inflections that the player on the record displays. I try to inhale when they inhale, exhale when they do, etc. Once I’m done transcribing the melody I move on to the bass line/part. Depending on the fidelity of the recording and the playing of the bassist on the record, this process can be daunting at times. I’ve found that there are times when the bass is either drowned out in the mix or the bass is out of tune or being played poorly. One thing that I do to remedy this is to listen to what’s happening at the same part of the form throughout the duration of the tune because what the bassist plays in the 2nd chorus may be a clearer than what is played in the 1st chorus.
In many cases once you have the melody(s) and the bass line transcribed, the harmony of the song becomes more obvious. If it’s not apparent then you can transcribe the playing of the chordal instrument on the record. If it’s tough to play back what’s being played at the time, then try singing the notes in question. In most if not all cases, if it sounds right to your ears then you are probably correct. You can also transcribe the solos to figure out the correct progression to the tune. If there’s a G chord in a particular tune and you’re having trouble figuring out if the chord is major, minor, or suspended, then check out the solos. If a B is played most of the time during in that measure during the solos then it’s probably going to be G major.
More to come!!