The most common mistake in this process is for a student to skip the learning-by-ear portion, maybe because they are frustrated or overwhelmed, and sneakily find a lead sheet to learn the song. If you do not attempt to learn the melody by ear, you are denying yourself the chance to grow and develop your ear training skills. Listening is one of the most important elements of jazz, and if we shut off our ears, we are at a disadvantage. Please try your hardest to work out things aurally. It may be painful and time-consuming at first, but I promise that it gets easier with time. Many of my students get hung up because they are impatient and want immediate results. Instant gratification unfortunately does not occur in learning music! Take a deep breath and push through, you can do it!
The same situation occurs when it comes time to learn scales, arpeggios, or jazz vocabulary in other keys. I cannot emphasize enough how important it is to learn your scales, arpeggios, chords, and vocabulary in all twelve keys. When I began learning ii-V-I vocabulary, I would want to give up whenever I stumbled upon a difficult key. Now I regret not pushing myself more because I feel that I still clearly favor certain keys over others. You want to get to the point where you are so comfortable that you don’t care whether a song is in G or G#! Believe in yourself, be patient with yourself, and go at your own pace. It is so much more worth it to push through and put the time in now, rather than to skip over the hard stuff.
Lastly, when a student is working on a tune, I recommend finding as many different versions as possible. It is important to hear how a vocalist phrased the original lyrics. It’s also important to hear if some people play at a certain tempo compared to others. Don’t stick with just your instrument either! Find versions of the melody performed on trumpet, piano, violin, saxophone, vibraphone, and more. It all helps to inform your own performance of the tune. Check out when the recording was made and who was performing on it. Did they do anything particular with it? Sometimes there will be a popular introduction or way of ending a tune. Other times people may change the style of a tune to a bossa or a ballad or a waltz. Pay attention to detail and try to figure out how you want to play YOUR version of the tune.
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