Sax on the Web Forum banner

1 - 20 of 30 Posts

·
Registered
Joined
·
1,407 Posts
Discussion Starter #1
I've noticed more advanced players are able to fudge their way through a tune they don't know which seems to happen a lot.

The other day at a jam session a singer came up and asked to sing a song I have never played or practiced. I just decided to sit out.

Later a pro piano friend of mine told me "You could have played through that".

So in this case I asked him 'what key was that in?' and he said what was the first note?..... We had a laugh. The song is more than just one key center - but later I practiced harmonizing it on i real pro (w/o looking at the changes) - trying to listen to where it left the key and it actually didn't sound too bad...not good mind you..but not miserable.

Does anyone have any helpful tips here - assuming you have no real book or phone etc? Or just experiences they'd like to share????
 

·
Forum Contributor 2015-2017
Joined
·
3,253 Posts
Sure. Lots of folks do this. Helpful Hint: Listen.
Helpful Hint 2: Learn some piano. It will help you hear better.


dsm
 

·
SOTW Columnist, Distinguished SOTW Member
Joined
·
23,025 Posts
If you play at a jam session, you'll certainly be faced with this issue over and over again. Which is actually a good reason to play at a jam; it's good practice and ear training. Here are a few thoughts:

The first thing to do is make sure you know what key the song is in and you only need to ask before the song is started (if not, there are ways to find the key center, but you might have to fish around for it, playing into a corner somewhere).

Then, as datsaxman says, LISTEN before you start playing anything. Listen for the song structure (is it 12 bars, 16 bars, AABA form, etc) by paying close attention to a chorus or two. Let someone else take the first solo and listen for the chord changes, V-I cadences, etc. Hopefully it will be a progression you're familiar with (I-IV-V blues, III-VI-II-V, one or two chord funk tune, etc). A lot depends on the genre. On some really simple tunes you might simply use a pentatonic scale. Others you'll have to hear the changes.

Get the name of some of the tunes you didn't know and go home and learn them so when you return and the tune is called again you'll know it.

Lots more tips I'm sure will come up from others here.
 

·
Registered
Joined
·
3,022 Posts
I used to watch the piano player's right hand and try to finger along on the melody as he played the song the first time through. That and really listening could help me to "hunt and peck" through the melody when it came my turn to play. More often than not I would start out ok and then wander off into improvisation when I lost the tune. I did much better on tunes I had heard before but just hadn't played. The piano player I worked with for years in a quartet would hear a new song on the radio driving together to the gig, and when we got there say, "Hey let's play that new song." He would have the melody and changes after one hearing well enough to play the song in public. He went on to get a doctorate and teach jazz and low brass at a local university. I went on to become a "beginning band" director. :)
 

·
Distinguished SOTW Member, Forum Contributor 2017
Joined
·
6,086 Posts
Keep at it....I spent many years asking, “Whats the key?”

Eventually you won’t need to ask anymore.

Of course that’s only helpful with logical progressions, but even odd changes won’t throw you more than once after 1000 or so gigs. There’s always the option to grace your audience with silence when things get too weird...
 

·
Registered
Joined
·
56 Posts
I think it really depends on the jam session. If it's laid back with a few friends, then do whatever, no pressure. If it's highly competitive and "important" people are listening (or you think they are) then I would agree to sit it out. Make it seem like you need a drink or something rather than not knowing the tune.
 

·
Distinguished SOTW Member
TENOR, soprano, alto, baritone
Joined
·
7,444 Posts
Like they say, 'get big ears'. That has been said of me many times "Man, you got some big ears." - and its true - I was born with it I guess. It is hearing more than the average musician when you hear music. It translates to being able to follow changes and learn melodies the first time around. Jam sessions are the ideal place to hone these skills. Don't be afraid to at least ask one of the chord instrument players 'What key?'. You probably will ask that question the rest of your playing life as it is the most repeated phrase in the music business. On a pop record from 1963 (or so), the live version of 'Little Stevie Wonder's 'Fingertips', Stevie finishes the song, then comes back out for an encore with the band playing a different vamp. You can actually hear the bass player (you can see it on the film of the gig) asking 'What key? What key?' in a desperate voice.
 

·
Forum Contributor 2017
Joined
·
1,217 Posts
Yes, there's absolutely no shame is asking 'What key?' Even on songs you already know, if a singer is involved, it may have to be in some key you haven't been playing it in, so it's still a legitimate question. And very often, the person who tells you the key will add something like "And the bridge modulates up half a step." No big deal, actually, because it's common communications practice on stage. Once I was playing in an impromptu trio at a birthday party, and half way through a song I had never heard before, the keyboard player poked his finger up, so that I'd know a modulation was coming.

For practice, I like to put cds on and play fill-ins and solos, finding the key centers as I go. Sinatra is great for this, but so is Willie Nelson, Ray Charles, Diana Krall, etc. You can also start off with the less complex country and blues cds. An hour of playing to every track can be quite a valuable workout.
 

·
Just a guy who plays saxophone.
Joined
·
3,591 Posts
Why not ask the key? Relative pitch is way more common than perfect and on a tune you don’t know, it helps to pick the melody faster if you know where to start.
It really depends on the session, the players present, and the crowd...so many session players forget the crowd. I’ve been to some sessions where it didn’t matter if someone was up there flailing through some shiz they had no business playing. Been to many more where taking up stage time playing nonsense meant bad vibes because others are waiting for their chance to blow. Generally, If you don’t know a tune it’s better to exit the stage...in some places you’d still get played off the stage.
 

·
Forum Contributor 2016, Distinguished SOTW Member
Joined
·
12,799 Posts
Reminds me of the first time I played "Have you Met Miss Jones" on a gig. It sounded easy enough although I didn't know where it was going on the bridge. Never the less, I decided to wing it. Killed the A section but when I got to the bridge my "winging" it plan failed miserably. Probably the worst 8 bars I had ever played. As soon as I figured out the key of the measure it was now in a new key. I was in the wrong key the whole time for that 8 bars.

I try to listen to the bass notes when key changes happen. If I can latch on to that it gives me a big clue as to where the root motion of the chords is going........
 

·
Registered
Joined
·
1,266 Posts

·
Registered
Joined
·
3,793 Posts
If you don't know the song, you don't know the song. Nothing worse than people hacking their way through a song they don't know playing "fills". Just don't.
 

·
Registered
Joined
·
773 Posts
Jerry Coker's book "Hearing The Changes: Dealing With Unknown Tunes By Ear" is an excellent book that will help train the ear to recognize chord progressions. The basic concept is getting familiar with progression cells, i.e. II-V-I, or IV-#IVdim-I, etc.. Tunes are listed that utilize the particular progression cell you are learning. Some piano skills are necessary.
 

·
Just a guy who plays saxophone.
Joined
·
3,591 Posts
Reminds me of the first time I played "Have you Met Miss Jones" on a gig. It sounded easy enough although I didn't know where it was going on the bridge. Never the less, I decided to wing it. Killed the A section but when I got to the bridge my "winging" it plan failed miserably. Probably the worst 8 bars I had ever played. As soon as I figured out the key of the measure it was now in a new key. I was in the wrong key the whole time for that 8 bars.

I try to listen to the bass notes when key changes happen. If I can latch on to that it gives me a big clue as to where the root motion of the chords is going........
That’s a tricky bridge to catch on the fly!
 

·
SOTW Columnist, Distinguished SOTW Member
Joined
·
23,025 Posts
If you don't know the song, you don't know the song. Nothing worse than people hacking their way through a song they don't know....
You've just described a typical jam session :) :) I'm joking!! Well, sort of. The OP is asking about a jam and inevitably someone will call a tune that not everyone on the bandstand, at a jam, will know. If they are halfway decent musicians, they will be able to fall in and play something that works. Unless the tune has a million changes and is way out of the 'mainstream,' in which case, sure, it is best to go sit down and have a beer. Some tunes shouldn't be called on a jam session (but that's another issue). I mean, if you don't know the head or signature lick on a 12 bar blues tune, you still can play a decent solo and some backing riffs, assuming you can play the blues, that is... Same with funk tunes and a lot of jazz tunes. It's a matter of how well you've developed your ear and how well you know and recognize 'typical' changes.

Still, it's a good idea to learn some of the tunes likely to get called, but the question was in regard to a tune you don't already know.

The one thing that is absolutely essential for a jam session is a good drummer (and bass player, for that matter). Anyone running a jam should get that part figured out with a good, solid house rhythm section and knowledge of any drummers who show up. Again, a bit of a deflection from the topic, but important to note, imo.
 

·
Distinguished SOTW Member, Forum Contributor 2011
Joined
·
13,023 Posts
I'm a regular in the same jam that JL is also a regular in. As usual, he said many of the things I would have said if I got here first. :) Read JL's posts. He knows what he's talking about.

Mostly I play keyboard in the jam because JL is blowing tenor and doing a damn fine job of it. Once in a while, we jam horn section parts together. That's always a lot of fun. But I wanted to say that one of the things I've gotten from the jam is learning to play tunes that I've never played before, especially on keyboard. Work on developing the biggest ears you can, listen for the chord changes and the key (although as others have said, you can ask for the key). I can usually get the basic structure and chord changes of most blues and rock tunes that I've never heard before. I can get some of the more basic jazz tunes, but sometimes those tunes have a unique chord change or unusual structure and you have to listen for it. Sometimes I just ask before they start in and someone will answer -- it's a 12 bar all minors or all dominants but with a 2 change or a #5/b6 or it's 1 4 then 2 b2 down to the 1 or something like that. I helps to know and think in terms of numbers rather than chord names, although some players can't say it in numbers and always say the chord names. Learning common forms and chord sequences helps a lot, as well as going home from the the jam and learning the tunes you just heard that you didn't know. I always try to remember the names of tunes I was a little unsure on, then call them up on utoob or find chord changes on the internet (frequently wrong) but all in the service of learning tunes I don't know so the next time they come around, I'm much more ready. Some tunes have really idiosyncratic changes or a quirky melody line or a strange bridge. Those tunes should never be called at a jam, but if someone insists on it, ask if everyone else knows the tune. If a bass or guitar player doesn't know it, stop it right there. If the jerk calling the tune insists on doing it anyway, walk away. Do not reinforce that un-jam-like behavior.

Edit: But if everybody else says they know the tune, go for it. And play along. One of the ways to learn a tune that you don't know is to play along with others who do know the tune. The more you do it, the more you can do it.

Edit2: The OP said "a pro piano friend of mine told me "You could have played through that". That's probably true, depending on what the tune was. I want to encourage you to take a chance the next time this same situation comes around and try playing through. You might play a few clams but you are the one who will wince in pain and most other people won't notice. The secret is to not show your pain but play on as though you intended to do that. This is good advice that I can almost never practice. Remember what Miles Davis said: “Do not fear mistakes - there are none."
 

·
Forum Contributor 2010-2016
Joined
·
1,706 Posts
Lots of good advice here. Release your fear and have a go. Lots of tunes seem complicated, but when you're working them out on the fly you'll find strategies for simplifying them in your mind. Play simple, find something melodic to hang onto. Anticipate common changes. Enjoy, it beats just sitting around listening to others.
 

·
Registered
Joined
·
2,820 Posts
The best way to learn how to do this is to play along to recordings - it used to be a standard part of my practice to play along with the radio and try to match what I heard. Good way to learn tunes too... If you have one of those streaming services (Apple music/Spotify/Napster/...), choose a record a day, preferably one you haven't listened to (much) and just play along with it. Choose artists whose sound and style you admire, but don't get stuck in just one artist. This is not transcribing, which is also very useful, but just trying to hear what the music is doing and be a part of it and fit in to the best of your ability.
 

·
Distinguished SOTW Member, Forum Contributor 2009
Joined
·
5,387 Posts
Pick 3 songs a day out of a tune book and just walk the changes on your horn for 5 minutes each tune. Don't worry about the head, you are just working on chords for now. After a few days you'll start to hear II Vs and when it goes to the IV and other common changes in bop tunes. When that get easy do it by memory, and arpegiate the chords. For your ears and ability to play a melody, pick a pop song or happy birthday or anything and play it in all 12 keys. I do two and sometimes 4 convalescent jobs a week. At one the guitar player and I will play songs we know but deliberately in the "wrong" key. that forces us to think and it also sometimes moves the lines around. So we play Blue bossa in my C# or over the rainbow in my Ab. . All this can become very easy over time. But its like working out at a gym, gotta hit it often over time or you get little back K
 

·
Registered
Joined
·
47 Posts
Figuring out the key isn't difficult. Entering in, one can have fun with an "off" note, just consider it part of the dissonance, make it sound like it is the part of it. Eb, Bb and C instruments, one gets used to playing in "off" keys, like B, Db, even C#. Helps to know how to play in all keys.
 
1 - 20 of 30 Posts
Top