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Learn a Jazz Tune in Three Steps

Jazzed Magazine • Basic TrainingMarch 2010 • March 24, 2010

1. Melody

From an accurate lead sheet, play through the melody from three to 10 times with a metronome set to a medium tempo.

After you find yourself playing the song while not really reading the notes anymore, turn the sheet over and play it again from memory. If you make a mistake, just continue playing to the end of the melody.

If you weren’t able to play all of the melody correctly, try to play through the part where you made the mistake, still without looking at the lead sheet. If you can’t play it correctly without looking at the music, turn the lead sheet over, take a look at the area in question, play through that part two to four times, and then cover up the sheet music and play that section of the song again from memory.

If successful, play through the entire melody from memory again. If not, play the part where you made the mistake, from the sheet again five to 10 times and again without looking at the music, and then try to play the whole song from memory once again.

Repeat this sequence until you’re completely comfortable playing the song from memory.

2. Chord roots

Now turn the lead sheet over so you can see the melody and chords again.

With a metronome, play through the roots of the chords in time.

You could simply play quarter notes, or make up a syncopated rhythm as illustrated in this example:

"Come Rain or Come Shine"

While playing chord roots may not be as overtly compelling as the typical melody, you will find that they very often carry a sublime interest and charm in themselves. This is especially true of songs with unusual progressions such as “Stella by Starlight,” “I Remember You,” and “Invitation.”

Memorize the roots of the chords in the same manner as you memorized the melody. Again, if you make a mistake go back as many times as is necessary to be able to play it from memory.

3. Chord qualities

Take a look at the lead sheet again and play 1, 3, 5 of each chord. For example:

"My Foolish Heart"

"Out of Nowhere"

Play this pattern through the chord changes three to 10 times at a moderate metronome setting. Chordal and rhythmic accuracy along with feel is the goal here, not speed. Once you’ve memorized this pattern, try a new one, such as 1, 7, 3.

There are an abundance of permutations that are possible.* You might spend hours, days, or even weeks on one song when you apply a multitude of permutations to a song’s chord progression. This is a good exercise for your fingers, ears, and mind. The more variety of ways you play the chords, the better you will know the song and the chords themselves.

As you use this method, each successive song that you learn will come more quickly than the one before as your mind becomes more familiar with the process and the different types of chords.

Apply this method to any song, and you will be able to play the melody and improvise over it from a position of melodic and chordal knowledge. Couple this with broader musical experience, and you’ll be able to offer a relaxed and natural musical performance.

*1, 3, 5, 7
3, 5, 7, 9
7, 3, 5
7, 3, 9
1, 2, 3, 4, 5
5, 4, 3, 2, 1
1, 10, 7
1, 10, 5
et cetera

Composer and saxophonist Ed Harlow has played with Tony Bennett, Paquito D’Rivera, and the orchestras of Glenn Miller, Artie Shaw, and Tommy Dorsey. An alumnus of New England Conservatory, Harlow publishes his original compositions through Advance Music.

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