REALLY Learning a tune
I know I've typed this a few times in the past, but there've been a couple of requests, so here we go again.
First let me say that this isn't anything that I came up with on my own, this is the approach my teacher uses that he got from his teacher, Lennie Tristano. And for what it's worth, I think ANYBODY at ANY LEVEL will benefit from studying one on one with a player who has a deeper understanding than they do. The following set of exercises work BEST when you have some objective, knowledgable person who can listen to what you are doing and provide guidance to keep you moving in a focused and progressive direction.
1. PICK A TUNE - something from the "standard" repertoire; my 4 tunes are STELLA BY STARLIGHT, THESE FOOLISH THINGS, BODY AND SOUL and ALL THE THINGS YOU ARE. When you pick a tune , you want to find the most vanilla version of the melody that you can. Look in older "fake" books, pull it off some Judy Garland record whatever. The idea is to get as close to the composer's concept of melody and changes than you can. The REAL BOOK (old ones, not the Sher or Leonard versions) tend to contain somewhat dubious transcriptions of specific recordings; again the idea is to get the composer's idea, not Sonny Stitt's version of the composer's idea. Kind of like the game Telephone or doing a book report from reading somebody else's book report; you stand a better chance of coming up with "your" interpretation if you know what the actual original was.
2. LEARN THE MELODY - set the metronome at quarter note=60bpm and PLAY the melody through. Over and over and over and over and over and over so that you can SING the melody if somebody drags you out of your bed at 4am. Get off the paper as soon as you can, I've found that learning the lyric that goes with the melody is a great way to internalize the melody.
3. PLAY A CHORD LINE - what do I mean by "chord line"? Simply this, a line that arpeggiates the changes but with a couple of important parameters:
A. PROXIMITY - you want to use not only root postion arpeggios but also all inversions to maintain "close" fingering and common voices through the tune. For example, a progression of D-7 G7/ Cmaj7 - instead of D F A C G B D F C E G B (root position, root position, root position) one choice could be D F A C D F G B C E G B (root, 2nd inversion, root).
B. IN TIME - the chord line shoudl reflect the harmonic rhythm of the tune. If the chord lasts one bar, the chord line is quarter notes. If half a bar (two beats) the chord line is eighth notes. One beat would be 16ths, two bars would be half notes. Let me know if this is not clear.
3. THE EXERCISE
PART 1 -with the nome at qnote=60bpm( and without the sheet), play one chorus of the melody and one chorus of the chord line, then one chorus of the melody. This is getting the sound of the melody and the sound of the changes in your ear.
PART 2 - For the purposes of this exercise, use the major scale for all major7th chords, the mixolydian for all dominant 7th chords and the dorian for all minor chords. Play one chorus of melody, one chorus of chord line and then improvise one chorus of half notes, ending with one chorus of melody. The half note chorus should try to emphasize MELODY over BASS LINE, you are not "walking two feel" but buidling a melody. It may be a little mechanical at first, but once you relax and let your ear start telling your fingers what notes to use, you can really get to some nice melodic material. Again, this is MUCH harder to do without somebody listening to your progress form teh outside, if you insist on doing this without a teacher, RECORD all of your exercises and listen to them without your instrument in your hands. When you get to the point that you are consistently creating some nice music with half notes, move to the next part of the exercise.
PART 3 - Play a chorus of melody, a chorus of chord line and then play 1 chorus in the following manner: the first 3 bars of each 8 bar section play the melody and then starting on beat ONE of bar 4 begin your improvised line of half notes. So you will have (in a 32 bar tune) 3 bars melody, 5 bars improvised, 3 bars melody, 5 bars improvised, 3 bars melody, 5 bars improvised, 3 bars melody, 5 bars improvised. Again, don't move on the first time you get this to sound like music, wait until you hit that every time.
PART 4 - as above, but the improvised chorus will have the 3 bars of melody dropped into a different place for each 8 bar segment( moving melody). That is, if you start the first 8 bars with meldoy, NO OTHER 8 bar section can start with melody.
PART 5 - as above, the improvised chorus now becomes only improvised half notes and rests. You should play (approximately) as many beats rest as you play measures of half note per 8 bar section.
When you've made it through this whole exercise, you start over and use quarter notes for the improvising rhythmic "denomination". And so one through accent 1 eighth notes, accent 2, accent3 , accent 4, accent 1 triplets, accent2 accent 3, 16ths etc.
This AIN'T quick; I've been studying with Joe for about 10 years now and I'm only up to accent 3 triplets with moving melody. But after about 7 or 8 months of starting this exercise (and a few others) , the amount of sense I made whiel improvising increase exponentially. And all the work I've put into really tearing apart these 4 tunes has translated into me being able to learn and play SO many more tunes. And has increased (along with the other ear training I'm doing) my ability to play tunes by hearing my way through them. If the piano player really knows the tune or if I can hear the melody in my head clearly enough , I can pretty much hear my way through the tune.
Ed, wow. What a great post. I'm gonna give this a try and get back to you.....
Yep. I'm learning that way (with minor variations)
Wow that sounds serious. I remember you talking about taking months to figure out a tune. So this is what it is? Super cool!
I'm going to have to try it too.
That's some pretty serious stuff. Nice!
I would add something I know is controversial to some people, but man does it work wonders: learn the frickin' words, if words there be. It provides automatic rhythmic sense and phrasing to one's interpretation of the melody (and to the overall performance). And then, play the song (all of the exercises above, if you want) in different keys. If it seems daunting, don't get hung up on the task of playing it in all twelve keys; even learning a tune in three unrelated keys will suddenly snap it into focus. Especially when it's a tune like Stella or All The Things that unfortunately rarely get called in multiple keys.
Oh yeah, and I forgot: another great trick is John McNeil's thing where you sit down and play the chords on the piano, saying aloud the name of the next chord as you do (so in Stella you'd play E half-diminished and say "A7 flat nine," play A7 flat nine and say "C minor seven"); then you do it saying the chord two bars ahead, then three bars ahead, then four, etc. That's hard! (For me, at least.) Some tunes are harder than others (Stella may not be the best one to start with...), but it helps you think of the whole thing at one time and structure your solo or bass line with the bigger picture in mind.
Man, you're getting better at 'splaining it, too! It was good before, but it's mo' better now.
Killer stuff, thanks much.
just plugging in for future reference. thanks.
Thanks Ed, you're very generous taking the time to type this out. Man, you should save it as a word file and insert it into a thread whenever asked about it. One question, are you working on all of these tunes at the same time? Or is each one in a different stage of development?
This seems like a REALLY comprehensive way to learn to improvise over tunes. What do you think of the tunes Isn't it Romantic, Groove Merchant, I thought about You, and All the things you are this excersise? I have been doing the ear training stuff you have typed here before with some degree of consistancy for the past year, and really consistent for the past 6 weeks or so and im starting to build up some momentum.
And finally, do you need to study with a teacher who has done this stuff themselves? Or would it be wise to go to a teacher and say "can you teach me this?"
Thanks for this great post! I've been frustrated by the difficulty in 'really' learning a tune. :help: My teacher has me learning a tune this way:
1) Learn the melody. Be able to play it through.
2) Play through the tune arpeggiating the changes. Simply playing the third and root of the chord in a two beat feel to start.
3) Walk through the changes.
I thought my approach was good, but you've really taken it up several notches. Surely something to strive for.:hyper:
The system Ed has explained really works!
I've studied with Ed's teacher, Joe Solomon, for three months and that is been the first time I've really internalized the songs in a musical manner ...great, thanks Joe!!! and thanks to Ed for his posts!
This is fantastic. I should send you money.
thanks Ed and Joe, I've found this really useful since you posted it ages ago.
I'd add something, though - when learning a song look at what the melody notes are over the chords. That way you cen get away from hearing a generic 5 chord or whatever, and hear it in the context of the melody.
For example, I'm currently working on 'Dont Blame Me'. In the bridge, theres a sharp nine over a major 7th chord. My teacher pointed that out, and how it colours the whole feel of the chord, and that bar is no longer a major chord like any other chord.
The only thing I have to add here is to really learn to hear each chord as a sound and not a solution to a math problem.
you hear the chord as a sound, you relate your sound to it.
I have been making my students solo over the changes to a tune before they learn it. I comp on my acoustic bass guitar and they solo - and listen. I am hoping it helps them to learn to hear the sounds of the chords instead of the math behind them.
Of course then we get to working out every detail of tune.
Obviously Ed's post lays that out for us.
Ed, would you mind hijacking this thread with some Tristano recomendations?
I have listened more to Konitz and Marsh, I have cetainly heard Lennie, but it is time to go deeper.
theres some beautiful recordings with Lee Konitz, Gene Ramey and Art Taylor, from April 1955. My copy are on a cheapo compilation, so not sure what they were released as, but the tracks are These Foolish Things, You go to my head, If I had you, Ghost of a chance, all the things you are. To my ear these are more interactive with the rhythm section than other lennie I've heard, and I really reccoemnd them.
For the sake of this process does the arpeggiations need to be in order ie 1357, 3571 etc or can they be mixed up (for instance 7513)?
When going from one chord to the next do you worry about voice leading (7th of a V7 chord going to the 3rd of Imaj7)?
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