Never Forget a Tune Again

Ever spend a lot of time learning a tune, only to realize that you’ve completely forgotten it a few weeks later? When you’re not achieving your desired results in pretty much anything, check your methods. What’s your process? What’s your approach? After detailing your current methods, you can then easily modify them to realign yourself with your goals.

If your current method of learning a tune is: find the Aebersold play-along track, flip it on, read the written music and go on like that for hours, days, or even years hoping for the best, just stop now. While there are countless ways to use play-alongs effectively, this is not one of them.

I’m not going to dwell on this point because I say it in nearly every article: learn the tune from the recordings. I know it’s difficult. I know it takes time. I know sometimes you can’t hear what chord it is or what the bass player is playing.

For any given tune, dozens of recordings exist. On any given track, dozens of courses go by. There are plenty of opportunities to figure out what’s going on harmonically, rhythmically, and melodically in virtually any tune.

This article could end here. It could end here because if you spent a significant time to learn a tune off the record in this manner, you would have the ability to easily recall that tune. Sure, you may have to think about it for a minute, or clear your mind and hear it in your mind, but within a minute it will come back to you if you learned it in a thorough manner from a recording.

Being thorough with tunes

What do I mean by thorough? I mean thorough, like when Maude in The Big Lebowski tells the dude, “Go see him Jeffery. He’s a good man. And thorough.” Jeffery goes to see the doctor as Maude suggests and he’s thorough, just like you’re going to be the next time you go to learn a tune.

Take your time. Most recordings you love are musicians that have been playing that same tune for several, if not more, years. Again…Take…your…time. What’s the rush? 99% of standards contain the same basic elements. Master one and the next one will be exponentially easier.

Take four bar segments and loop them in Transcribe. There’s no reason to play the entire tune over and over when each chunk of four bars provides enough challenge. Learn the melody in these four bars. Learn the chords. Apply ideas you’ve transcribed from other solos over these four bars. Loop it until it’s ingrained in you. Until you hear the chords operate in your mind when the music is not playing. Hear everything. It’s only four bars. You can do it.

Maybe spend twenty minutes, an hour, an entire day, or several days on those four bars. What ever it takes to get inside them. You don’t have to work harder…you just have to work smarter. Rather than trying to tackle the whole tune, you focus just on these four measures. It’s actually less work. Twenty minutes on four bars. Nothing difficult about it.

Then, be honest with yourself. How do you feel you sound on those four measures? If you’re not satisfied, keep at it. It’s not magic. If you don’t like your product over those four bars during practice, you’re not going to suddenly love what you play during performance, at least not consistently, which is what we’re all after. Consistently sounding how we want to sound.

Once you are feeling confident, approach the next four bars just as you did the first four. Continuing in this manner throughout the remainder of the tune is being thorough.

So much for not dwelling on the point of learning tunes from recordings. And just because the article could end after this point, there’s plenty of other advice that helps to retain tunes.

Clarify what makes a tune special

At age 19, I attended Jamey Aebersold Jazz Camp in Louisville, Kentucky. I had an outstanding experience. For anyone who has not attended Aebersold’s camp, I highly recommend it. Besides spending time with some incredible professionals and playing with some excellent musicians, the camp provides a positive environment full of encouragement.

While there, they placed me in a superb combo led by outstanding pianist, Dan Haerle. Many combo coaches are passive. Dan’s combo instruction was anything but passive. He commented and helped every student, articulating in a friendly manner exactly what he felt they needed. He worked with each of us until we all noticed obvious improvement in each others playing. He also played frequently and shared many of his own methods for approaching improvisation.

One thing he said about learning tunes I’ll never forget. He said that tunes in the standard jazz repertoire consist of mainly the same things, however, each tune has something unique about it. When learning a tune, he said, ask yourself what makes that particular tune unique or special?

Clarifying what makes a tune unique helps in the ability to retain it. For instance, thinking about the tune “All The Things You Are,” what makes this tune special? There’s no one right answer. I’d say that one aspect of this tune that makes it unique occurs in the sixth bar.

The harmony progresses in standard cycle movement up to that point, when suddenly it moves up a tritone to a V7 of III, and resolves to III major the following bar (Sometimes the harmony in that sixth bar is a one measure ii V. My point’s not the precise chords, but simply that this measure  makes this progression unique). This measure and sudden turn to the III major chord sets this tune apart from other tunes.

Knowing these peculiarities in each tune you learn will make them more easy to conceptualize, making them easier to retain long-term.

Play tunes in all keys

Learning tunes in all keys goes hand in hand with learning tunes in a thorough manner. Learning sections of tunes in all keys, followed by entire tunes in all keys, will ingrain a tune in your mind and ear to a great extent, making it quite easy to recall it at a later date.

Once you’re competent over the first four measures of a tune as discussed previously, just add one final step before moving on to the next four: take the four bars up a half step and work on them in that key, followed by the other ten.

However, there’s no reason to rush into learning tunes in all keys. I prefer to learn a whole tune in one key first. Whenever you do decide to tackle other keys, know it’s no different than what you did to learn one key. Take a small part of the tune and work on it. To ease into learning tunes in all keys, try learning a blues in all keys first.

The evolution of working on a tune

You have your whole life to work on a tune. It’s not like you learn a tune in a couple weeks, and that’s it. These tunes are dynamic entities, constantly changing vehicles for your own creativity. You spend some time learning a tune from your favorite record, practice with it, study it, immerse yourself in it, and then leave it for a while. Then you return to it and try new things you’ve learned with it. New language, new concepts, new arrangements. The tune evolves as you evolve.

Listening to Marion McPartland on Piano Jazz the other day, she mentioned to her guest that she’d like to play “Stella By Starlight” with him, and her guest commented that he’d heard her play it years prior. She casually responded, saying that her current version would be very different than what he had heard a few years back. Case in point of how a tune grows with you over a period of years.

Develop an emotional connection to a tune

So many people embark on a tune as if it were a chore, homework, or an exercise…and it sounds that way when they play it. The standards are not boring, dumb, or out of date. If you think a tune like “All The Things You Are” has any of these traits, you’re greatly mistaken.

If you have this attitude, perhaps when you hear “All the things You Are” in your mind, you’re hearing a watered-down play-along track plop off the harmony, instead of something like Paul Desmond & Gerry Mulligan playing perfection.

Find beautiful versions of tunes that you’re working on. Versions that you find beautiful. Not something someone says you should like, but something that resonates with you. A performance that makes you overcome with feeling. As Bill Evans said, “Jazz is feeling.”

When you discover this feeling in a performance of a standard you’re learning, you can’t help but let it enter your soul. Developing a genuine emotional connection with a tune will help your mind & ear remember the tune because your mind & ear will actually want to let it in and remember it.

In the movie Hitch, Will Smith says, “Start each day, as though it were on purpose.”  Similarly, learn each tune as though you want to, and it will be there when you need it.