Category Archives: Education

Part I: Get your chart together.

I recently was asked by a local musician to play an upcoming CD release show.  “I’ll send charts and a CD to you.” Two days later, a binder arrived in the mail with meticulously hand-notated and arranged charts. Forms were clearly marked and even written under the song titles, repeated sections and endings were all explained. Rhythmic hits were notated. This person had even put all the pages facing each other, so if a chart were two pages long, there would be no page turn.  In short, AWESOME (totally.)

As I tenderly leafed through the pages, my heart swelling a little with happiness, I thought,  “Why, beautiful charts, are you such an odd occurrence? Don’t people realize that having nicely notated arrangements is one of the keys to a successful rehearsal, or even performance?”

I thought about a gig I had done a couple years ago.  I was assured, “Don’t worry, we’ve got charts for everything.” I arrive to the performance ready to read and…Oh look, they’ve given me piano parts! In short, AWESOME (sarcastic.)

My actual experience on stage:

OK, game face. We’re starting. This is ON. At least there are chords written above the staff…Oh wait…those aren’t chords, those are…chord shapes for a ukulele? Seriously?  Is this 1920?  Ok. Can I transpose that on the fly? It might be easier to go back and read the left hand of the piano…Man, there are a lot of notes on the staff. I should probably find the lowest one…look at those effing ledger lines. WHY ARE THERE SO MANY!? I don’t have those notes on my bass! Transpose everything up an octave or two!…what chord is that? Oops, it was an inversion, I just screwed up the harmony.  It would be really helpful if I had heard this song before so I could make it up.  How are we already on page 5,  WHY IS EVERYTHING HAPPENING SO FAST. I think we just skipped a whole section of the tune because we definitely did not play that part…wait, we’re…here now? WHAT THE HELL IS GOING ON.

I’m pretty sure I drank a beer during the break.

In the end, it turned out to be a fun night. But it could have been an AWESOME night, and much less of a headache, if different music were placed in front of me.  We’ll get more into that next time…


Oh hi, Bach.

I’ve been listening to a lot of Bach lately.  It started last month when I decided to break out my trusty old Dover edition of the Well-Tempered Clavier and follow along with Keith Jarrett’s recording. (And if you haven’t checked out Keith Jarrett playing classical music, particularly Bach, you owe it yourself to find a recording. He approaches the music with a certain buoyancy that could only come from a world-class jazz pianist, and he manages to refrain from making his Keith noises. But I digress.)

Despite the fact that the Well-Tempered Clavier is written for keyboard, I decided to try playing through some of it on my bass. I mean, why not?  Navigating it on the instrument presents a unique set of challenges, but it also seems to lay in a surprisingly accessible way. That seems to be one of the real beauties of this composer – his music can be transferred to practically any instrument, and it will work. Because it’s Bach. I had no idea at first that this little experiment would become an obsession. I just figured it would be a great way to shake things up a bit and try something new. “Let’s play!” I thought to myself. “It will be fun!” I thought to myself.

Now before I go any further, I’m not here to talk about how cool I am playing the Well-Tempered Clavier on the bass. If you could sit in and hear one of my practice sessions, you’d probably cringe. I’m literally putting on a recording of Keith, opening the book and hanging on for dear life. Sometimes I’ll go back to a passage to work out a fingering for a nice little technical exercise, but for the most part it sounds like squeaks and squawks as I surrender the notion that I’m actually supposed to be able to play my instrument.  I must keep up with Keith! There is no turning back! No stopping! No soup for you!

I continued this musical punishment for a couple of weeks, not really knowing why I was doing it, but knowing that I couldn’t stop. And then one day…it happened…I was at a jazz gig with a guitar trio, playing standards. I noticed my bass lines felt a little bit different. They were spinning themselves almost beyond my control and perception, and it was effortless. I could almost SEE my note choices before playing them, each one leading logically to the next and to the next in hyper speed….I started to laugh with the realization that I was essentially creating counterpoint the entire time. “Haha! Bach, you sneaky little bastard, I GET YOU.”  I was surrounded by a sudden feeling of warmth, as if his spirit were descending to say, “There, there, you small, ignorant child.” And then…

I was left in the cold. Just like that. Once my brain had been alerted to the fact that it was doing something REALLY COOL, it proceeded to ruin it. I TRIED to play contrapuntally. I failed miserably. I became frustrated. Instead of just reveling for a bit in this clairvoyant moment, I let my ego trample all over its beauty.  “Stupid Kim,” I berated myself, “You know NOTHING.”

So I’ve decided that maybe it’s time to stop listening to Bach for a bit. I’m getting too close to the sun and flirting with disaster.  I think if I just get out of my own way and let the experience sit, it might actually grow. And hopefully the next time I do something really neat, I won’t realize it.  I’ll keep you posted.


How to quickly learn a pop tune.

While most musicians dream of performing their own material, creating beautiful and original artistic statements, many of us at some point in our careers will find ourselves in a cover band.  A casual, club date, corporate gig, general business, wedding group, whatever you want to call it, you’re going to find yourself on stage playing culturally relevant and probably horrible contemporary pop tunes to a roomful of people who could not care less about you, they just want to DANCE.

Just as there is a standard repertoire many  jazz musicians can pull from their head (“Autumn Leaves”, “Blue Bossa” etc) so, too, exists “the list” in the pop world.  For experienced players, this list could be in the hundreds. How could one person possibly retain and learn all that information, let alone perform it well on stage?

Well, a lot of it does happen over time through osmosis.  (I have no idea how many times I’ve played “Superstition” but I’m betting it’s in the hundreds.) But most of it, however, comes from having a well-defined method for learning new tunes. While not everyone’s brain works the same, the suggestions I’d like to offer here have worked extremely well for me. Though these tips are decidedly bass-centric, they can apply to many instruments.

This should seem obvious, but it doesn’t mean that you find a recording of the tune and immediately try to learn it. Listen through the whole thing without playing your instrument. This will alert your ears to what might be tricky about the tune, or to the fact that there are literally only 3 chords happening for 3 minutes.

Just because a song may start on an E chord, doesn’t mean that song is in E.  How do you determine a key? Listen to the chord progression. Some pop and rock tunes can be tricky in this regard, but if a song starts on an E7 and then spends a majority of its time moving from A to F#- to D to E, there’s s good chance that song is in A, or at least a good chunk  of it, which leads me to my next point…

Yes, you might have thought you were done with roman numerals after your theory classes, but sorry,  being able to analyze chord progressions with roman numerals is probably one of the most important skills for the professional musician.  By using this method, you will start to really HEAR chord progressions, and notice how similar progressions occur in many different tunes. This will start to reduce your learning time, and also allow you to easily move songs to different keys. Imagine you’ve learned a tune in the original key of A, and then a singer requests to do that song in  C#.  Trying to move a pretty standard progression of A/F#-/D/E can be a major headache if you aren’t thinking “I to vi to IV to V.” Although anything in C# is kind of a pain.  Is Db any better? You decide, but whatever you do, don’t forget to smile and say “no problem. ” Thanks, singer.

Whaaa? What to do you mean? “Surely I’ll screw up if I don’t have every bar memorized!” Actually, you probably won’t. You’ll probably have a better shot at success if you start to think about a song as big chunks of music instead of individual bars. Learn the chunks. The verse is a chunk. The chorus is a different chunk (step back: Determine what is the verse and the chorus!) Many times songs will move between these two parts in very predictable, even bar phrases, and can play themselves if you don’t think about it too hard. If something seems a little off then it is time to…

Is there a part of a song that makes you shake your head or seems a little off? That probably means an irregular phrase or interesting chord choice. These are the little things to watch out for, and can sometimes be the hardest to remember. But if you set yourself up from the start to have those irregularities highlighted in your in mind instead of the entire tune, chances are you will nail it while playing.  Like those extra 2 beats at the end of a second verse going into a chorus. This relates back to learning the song in chunks. If you think about the song as big puzzle pieces, often times they will fit together nicely, making the oddly shaped pieces stand out and easier to remember.

Even if your goal is to have a song memorized, it can sometimes be helpful to jot down some notes while learning. I have my little notebook full of scribbles. Usually I’ll start with song title, key, and type of feel. From there I might briefly write down the parts with their roman numerals or the little things I’m likely to forget.  Find a shorthand notation system that works for you.

So there you have it. It can be slow going at first, but your musical brain needs to be exercised daily,  so over time, this process will become easier. And if you have suggestions or tips that have worked well for you, please share!  Happy learning!