Thoughts On Learning Tunes

We practice long tones. We work on two-five progressions until our fingers bleed. We work on new ideas and concepts. The work is mostly enjoyable, sometimes frustrating, and hopefully productive…

But what is all this diligent dedication for?

Tunes. What else is there?

Everything we do is to play tunes in the way we so desire. Think about it. Nobody cares how great you sound on a G7 chord, but if the G7 is part of a tune, then it matters. It sounds so simple yet I’m not convinced that most people have connected the dots on this subtle fact: All the hard work we do is for the purpose of playing music in the form of tunes.

The standard way of thinking about tunes is that they are this separate entity, a chore, a task in isolation to tackle, just like anything else we practice. From this mindset, people transcribe a solo, they practice the hell out of licks, they even work on developing their own vocabulary…but…they never connect all these things with the tunes they are working on.

If the ideas and techniques you’re practicing are not available to you when you go to perform a tune, what’s the point of practicing them? The goal is to have everything available to you, as if every single thing you’ve ever worked on is a piece of ammo at your disposal ready to be fired at will when you perform a tune.

Everything is connected

Why for most of us is this not the case? Why for most do we struggle when we actually go to play a tune, even if we’ve been putting in the practice time? It has to do with the idea that each part of our practice stays in its own nice little compartment; it’s this idea of thinking of tunes as an isolated entity as I mentioned before.

We play long tones with a beautiful supported sound, but when we go to play Autumn Leaves, we let our sound fizzle to half of its brilliance and depth. We transcribe an incredible Coltrane line, practice it in all keys for hours, but to our dismay, it never materializes when we go to solo over There Will Never Be Another You.

Everything is connected. You practice long tones and tone exercises so that the next time you play Body and Soul, your sound captures people, just as the reason you practice lines is so you understand how to weave through the inner workings of a tune’s harmony. Everything we practice is connected…with all the roads merging when we play a tune.

If everything we practice is connected and it’s all for the sole purpose of shining on the tune selections we wish to perform, why do we practice tunes in such a way that opposes this idea?

The wrong way to practice tunes

The typical way to practice a tune is this: memorize the melody from sheet music by playing it over and over, memorize the chords by saying them over and over until you remember them, and then practicing the scales and arpeggios which correspond with each chord. That’s it. That’s the system that’s supposed to get me where I want to go. By practicing a tune like this, I’ll hear the harmony, my fingers will know where to go to play what I’m hearing, and I’ll naturally (magically?) rearrange the notes in a scale into beautiful lyrical melodies.

This is so far from the truth. I almost cringe reading it back. Yet, this is the way more and more people are learning each and everyday, only to find that years down the line, they can barely play over a blues or hear what the third of a major-seventh chord sounds like. They wonder where they went wrong, frantically looking for answers. There must be something they forgot, or some trick to readjust their method.

…But they can’t seem to find it. They can’t find it because it’s not there. No little trick can compensate for this approach. I know because I lived this experience. I approached tunes and jazz improvisation like this for years, until I finally realized that it wasn’t working.

Deep down I knew that this method was not the way; that it would result in an approximation of what I wanted. But my ego pressed on. I wanted to believe it would work. This must be correct!! So many books, videos, and teachers say to do just this and you’ll play great. It should work!!

It doesn’t work. Don’t waste years like I did finding that out. Once I found out that this method of sheet music, melody, chord changes, scales, and arpeggios was not working, I was eager to figure out what did work.

The right way to practice tunes

What I found by studying for years with guys like Rich Perry is that they understood this fact about tunes early on: that everything is about playing tunes. That’s what your aim is.

It’s not to play high or loud. It’s not to play fast or have the most complicated harmonic concept. It’s to play tunes. You may wish to play fast or play some harmonically complex stuff, but these things are not separate from working on tunes. Because guys like Rich understood this simple concept early on, they always aimed to get everything they were working to function on the tunes they wished to perform; that would be the test for them to tell if they actually learned something or not.

It’s not complicated. It’s actually very simple.

You must use an integrated approach to practicing to achieve the results you want on tunes. No longer think of “learning tunes” as a separate thing you practice, but think of it as THE thing where everything you practice is ultimately headed. I work on my tone, so when I play a tune I sound great. I work on lines so that when I play a tune, I have vocabulary to draw from. I work on harmonic concepts so that when I play a tune I have harmonic concepts to apply to that tune.

Thinking in terms of this integrated approach yields an effective method to practicing tunes. Again, it’s quite simple. Everything you practice once learned in isolation must be applied to tunes. Remember, that’s where all the roads merge. That’s how you get the “stuff” you so desire into your playing. Funnel everything you play to this point.

Got the sound you want when you play long tones? Great. Play the melody of a tune really slowly with perfect long tones. Get that sound that blew you away when you were practicing long tones to come through when you’re practicing There Is No Greater Love. No longer think of your tone exercises as “upkeep.” It’s the sound you actually want to play with when you play tunes.

Created an awesome concept using pentatonics? Wonderful. Practice a tune and figure out where that concept can be applied and each time those places arise where you can use it, do.

Transcribed a Dexter line that flows ever so naturally through the harmony and learned it all keys? Excellent. Know exactly where you can use that line over a blues and use it every time those places come up in the blues form. Practice over-using it like this in literally every spot it could possibly go. Play in time. Use different modes of accompaniment: by yourself, with a metronome on 2 and 4, with a play-along track, with a Dexter recording…

This is how you learn to play over tunes (which is mainly what “learning tunes” means). You take the things you’ve transcribed, developed, created, or discovered and practice using them over predetermined spots in tunes. The more you practice in this formulaic non-spontaneous way, the more spontaneous and free you’ll be when you improvise. Sound counter-intuitive? It does sound that way, but it’s not in practice. It works because what’s happening is you’re teaching your mind, ear, and body how to put these ideas and concepts into context in real-time.

The more these things work their way into your subconscious, the more willing they are to take on a life of their own. It’s as if they need to be taken out of their glass display case and used to be given energy. Without putting these concepts and lines in to the context of tunes, the real-life situation, they never mature. Let your hard-work reach its full potential by making sure to get all your vocabulary and techniques fully functional on the tunes you’re working on.

When you have practiced in this manner, then practice improvising while drawing from this well of knowledge. Be creative by mixing up pre-determined material and completely improvised material. More and more you’ll understand how the former inspires the latter. Practice tunes in this manner and you’ll really learn them.

Learning tunes does not mean, I know the melody, I know the chords, and I can play the chord/scale relationships. It does mean that you can hear and play your own interpretation of the melody, that you can hear the harmony and therefore understand where it is going theoretically (yes, you know the changes inside and out, but in a much deeper way than simply by name: you can hear them), and that you can create clear melodic statements by drawing on the vocabulary and concepts you’ve practiced.

“Learning tunes” is not this boring chore of memorizing sheet music and practicing scales and arpeggios. It is the whole point of what you’re doing, where all your effort should head towards.

So now you should see that this integrated approach of taking things you’re working on and moving them towards tunes is how you learn to play well on any tune. The other parts mentioned–learning a tunes melody and chord changes–are just as straightforward. To learn the melody, why use any tricks or shortcuts? Just go to the source. Turn on a recording of it and learn it directly off the record. Get your hands on as many versions of the tune as possible. Youtube alone probably has dozens.

How do you learn the changes? Same way. Use your ears. It’s not nearly as difficult as you think when there are so many versions of every tune available to us. Think about how much more difficult it would be if you had to drive down to a record shop, find the LP if the small shop had it, put it on your turntable and keep carefully lifting the needle back to various spots of the record. We have it so easy today. We even have programs like Transcribe that will slow down the music and loop it for us.

After you’ve spent some serious time trying to figure out the changes by ear, you can always double check them with a reliable source, which is actually quite difficult to find. Start using your ears and soon you’ll be able to quickly tell which chords of a chart are accurate and which are bogus.

There’s no harm in glancing at a chart, just don’t let it become your crutch. It’s so tempting to rely on the chords in a fake book to guide you through the harmony. Once you go that route, it’s difficult to quit. Just listen to the music and enjoy the process of discovering things out for yourself. It’s much more enjoyable and rewarding to do your own work.

And now we’ve come full circle, from understanding how everything we practice is for the sole purpose of performing tunes in the manner we so desire, to realizing how to practice utilizing an integrated approach where all our practice of language and concepts matures and becomes a part of us through playing tunes. Most importantly, remember that everything you practice is connected and that all roads lead to performing tunes.

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