This topic seems to come up a lot, so I thought it would be worth a good post. This is more-or-less the procedure I’ve settled into. I feel that it helps immensely with the learning — and most importantly, the retention — of new tunes.
So here it is in just 6 easy steps:
1. Start off with a good recording (actually, it’s usually best to have several recordings of a tune since you’ll notice a lot of variation in the interpretations). At first, don’t really “try” to do anything. Just listen to the tune for a few days and get a feel for it.
2. At least one of those recordings should be by a singer. So after you’ve heard it for awhile and the tune is in your head, transcribe (write down!) the lyrics on a piece of paper and keep it with you. Sing the melody to yourself and only look at the paper if you forget something.
3. Now with your instrument, try to play the melody. Use one of the recordings and play along. Pay attention to the key(s), phrases, the intervals, etc. Try then playing the melody on your own, thinking of the lyrics and “singing” through your instrument. Try different positions, starting on different strings, different keys, etc.
4. After you REALLY know the melody (could play it blindfolded with little or no effort) start to tackle the chord changes. Use a fakebook for a reference if you like, but don’t necessarily believe everything you see. Compare them to the chords on the recordings and make notes as you find differences (there are usually a bunch). Consider how the chords fit under the melody notes; do they fall on the same beats as the strong notes, or do they fit in the spaces in between the melodic phrases (like most of the arrangements of Autumn Leaves). Practice the changes on your instrument, and then practice SAYING them out loud (this is actually great to do when you’re away from your instrument, just think the song in your head and name every change, if there are spots where you get stuck, go back and pay special attention to those). Do this until thinking the changes is natural to you (it can take some time).
5. Then you’re ready to start trying to improvise. Try using the melody as starting points at first and just embellish with notes that you hear naturally around the strong notes of the melody. Then practice arpeggios on each chord (you can do this by running each chord from the root at first, but then you should begin trying to find smoother places to “connect” each change). After doing this for awhile, try playing the scales for each chord (that’s pretty easy if you’ve learned the arpeggios, since you’re essentially just learning to fill in the missing notes.
6. Eventually, you want to follow Charlie Parker’s advice “Master your instrument, master the music & then forget all that & just play.” And remember that he also talked about a time in his young life when he practiced something like 12 – 16 hours a day! Learning music is simple (but “simple” doesn’t always mean “easy”).
And now I’m off for a 3 week tour of Italy (you can see where I’ll be on my website at www.rickstone.com/calendar).
All the best!
~ Rick Stone