About Me

My photo
Atlanta, GA, United States
When I suffered a lip injury that ended my career as a classical trombonist, I thought my life as a musician was finished, but I fell in love with music all over again when Santa gave me a guitar for Christmas in 2003. Even as I was struggling with my first chords, I was planning a new performance career. As a trombonist, I performed with the Heritage of America Band at Langley Air Force Base, the Ohio Light Opera, and in pick-up bands for touring acts that included Rosemary Clooney, George Burns, and the Manhattan Transfer. Reborn as a jazz guitarist, I sing and play my own solo arrangements of jazz classics, am half of the Godfrey and Guy duo, and hold the guitar chair in the Sentimental Journey Orchestra. I have been a freelance music copyist since 1995 and have been music director at Northwest Unitarian Universalist Congregation since 2011.

Sunday, July 28, 2013

UUMN Conference, Snapshots

I had planned on singing with the mass choir this morning to cap off my first UUMN conference experience, but I woke up with a sore throat. I was starting to feel some vocal fatigue yesterday during the reading session, and I was feeling tired in general. I tried vocalizing a little bit this morning, but from my mid to upper register, it just came out as a squeak. I was careful to pace myself singing this week, but still, I sang a lot more this week than I ever have. I think my scratchy voice is a result of vocal fatigue and general conference fatigue. I decided to bug out this morning and head back home. It's a long drive, and I didn't want to overuse my voice, go through another emotional experience, and then arrive home at 3 a.m. after a 12.5 hour drive. If I had done that, this would certainly have become a full blown cold. I arrived home at about 10:30, which is a much more reasonable time than 3 a.m.! I'll get a good night's sleep and hope that some good old fashioned rest will nip this cold in the bud.

As I was driving home, memories from the conference kept swirling through my brain. Here are some random snapshots.

  • The powerful experience of being in a room full of wonderful singers all belting out a hymn for the first time.
  • Being around a couple hundred other people who do what I do and knowing that I'm not alone in this profession. It was fun to swap stories and realize that everyone else shares similar experiences and faces similar challenges. Others were able to offer advice in how to solve some of the issues I face, and even though I've only been a music director for two years, I have my own unique set of experiences, and so I was able to offer help to others.
  • Being asked to play guitar with the band that played in a workshop on contemporary worship music.
  • Being pleasantly surprised to see Don Southworth, who used to be the minister at my own church.
  • Getting daily texts from a friend back home who was checking on my progress. It was great to be at this big conference for the first time, learning as much as possible, but it also was nice to share my experiences with someone back home. It helped me feel grounded, and I began looking forward to those check ins.
  • Realizing, after the valet handed me the car keys, how nice it was not to not drive for almost a week.
  • Hearing everyone in the sanctuary spontaneously sing Sarah Dan's own hymn to her (Meditation on Breathing) after her last speech as outgoing president of the UUMN.
  • Missing the children's choir repertoire and techniques workshop after being recruited to play for the contemporary worship music workshop, and then having someone walk up to me and hand me the music and handouts from the children's workshop without me even asking.
  • Hearing the children's choir sing their first note when they joined the adult choir.
  • Being so tired the last evening that, when I got back to my room, I took one shoe off and then had to take a break before I had the energy to take off the other shoe.
  • Having a profound experience attending the musical meditation service, and looking forward to taking that concept back home to my own church.
  • Looking at my watch on the ride home after five hours in the car, realizing that I would have just then been leaving Dallas if I had stayed to croak my way through the choir pieces, and realizing I made the correct decision for my health.
  • The most profound thing that came out of the conference, at least for me, was a clinician who told us that the secret to good singing is that there is no secret. It is a gradual accumulation of small skills over time.
There's more. It'll all start to sink in after a week or two. I'm looking forward to sharing much of this with Terry Davis, the minister at NWUUC.

Like most introverts, when I experience something new like this conference, I spend most of my time observing rather than jumping in. Next year, I would like to participate more. I would like to be one of the guinea pigs in a conducting masterclass, and I would like to play guitar and sing as much as possible in services and workshops. For the masterclasses, I need to pay attention to the announcements and sign up as soon as possible when there is a call for conductors. To participate as a musician, I need to stay in touch with the people I've met and make myself available.

That's it! That's my first UUMN conference experience. Now it's time to sleep in my own bed and not set the alarm.

Saturday, July 27, 2013

UUMN Conference, Day 4

Boy, am I tired, but this has been another good day at this year's UUMN conference. The mass choir rehearsed first thing today. Once we arrived, we had about 30 minutes before rehearsal started. I used that time to review a Spanish piece that we've been rehearsing. The notes and rhythms aren't that difficult, and the pronunciation isn't tricky, but when you put all those elements together, it becomes a challenge. I wandered around outside, speaking and then singing my part, and I wasn't the only one. Everywhere I looked, I saw other singers with their heads buried in the music. It paid off, because the choir sounded noticeably better this morning.

Yesterday, a friend of mine texted me and asked what my favorite moment of the conference was. I told her it was the first day, when a room full of terrific singers all sang a hymn together. This morning I texted her a correction. My favorite moment of the conference was this morning, when a children's choir joined the adult choir. Talk about angel voices! That was a spectacular moment, and I can't wait to sing that piece of music with them tomorrow morning.

There was another time slot for workshops after the choir rehearsal, but I wasn't interested in any of them, so I practiced guitar instead. The first few days of the conference, I tried to go to everything, but you can't keep that up all week. It was relaxing to spend a little time alone under the trees and play guitar. Your typical guitarist would sit under a tree and strum folk songs, but I was practicing scales and licks. It works for me.

After lunch, we enjoyed an intergenerational service that included the children's choir. One thing I noticed about all of the services was that the order of service often included instructions for the hymns. For example, we might all sing verse 1 together, then low voices sing verse 2, high voices sing verse 3, and everyone sing again in verse 4. I liked this. It was nice to stand silently through a verse and enjoy listening to other people sing. I could see it in other faces, too. I think it helped us appreciate each other more.

Lunch followed the service. I took my lunch and my instrument to a jam session. Dana, a bass player who had played in a lot of the services and special events, caught up with me. "Are you the jazz guitar player?" "Yes." He invited me to a jam session, and I told him that I was already planning on going. I met him upstairs. It was just the two of us for a while. Before we jammed on anything, he put a piece of music in front of me and asked if I could play it. I kind of showed off by not just playing it, but creating a guitar arrangement on the spot. Okay, I more than "kind of" showed off. Then we played it together. Then he put another piece of music in front of me, and we read through that. Then Dana said, "I might have a gig for you." He was leading a workshop on contemporary music in church services and asked if I wanted to play with the band. "Sure!"

The funny thing is that I had been watching the musicians that most frequently played for the special events. I had been planning on asking someone how I can be one of those musicians next year. Next thing you know, I'm playing a couple numbers with them. Be careful what you wish for! I had a great time playing with the group, I got to take a couple solos, and it was a terrific workshop. I will definitely be in touch with Dana and these other folks to make sure I can do some more playing next year.

The good news is that I got to play in that workshop. The bad news was that it shared the same time slot with a workshop on children's choir technique and repertoire, but here's the great thing about this bunch of people: One woman knew I was interested in the children's choir workshop and expected to see me there. When she saw me setting up for the contemporary music workshop, she realized that I was going to miss the children's choir workshop, so she took extra copies of the music and handouts and gave them to me. That was incredibly thoughtful of her.

Later in the afternoon, we had our final choral repertoire reading session. This session focused on Unitarian Universalist composers, most of whom were at the conference. There were some terrific pieces in that pile of music. When I get back to Atlanta, I'm going to have to make some difficult decisions. I've been exposed to a lot of new choral music, and I've found several pieces that would work well with my choir. Unfortunately, my music budget has limits, and so I'll need to sit down and decide which pieces to order. I guess I'll just have to earmark the rest for later.

The final event of the day was a children's choir concert. I was (and am) exhausted. I was afraid that I would fall asleep during the concert, but those kids sang so well that I couldn't have slept if I had tried. (Well, maybe if I had tried.)

I'm back at the hotel now. As soon as I finish this blog, I'll pack my things so that I can check out quickly tomorrow morning. Our final event is a service tomorrow morning, and then we'll all say our goodbyes. Following that will be a long drive back to Atlanta.

Friday, July 26, 2013

UUMN Conference, Day 3

Another day at the UUMN conference in Dallas. I continue to learn a lot – much more than I could possibly process. I'm glad I'm taking notes! I also learned that handouts from the sessions will eventually be available on the UUMN website, so that'll be helpful.

We started with another service, and then we had an excellent plenary session. By the way, I had to look up "plenary" to learn that a plenary session is a session that everyone can attend. There typically four or five things happening during any given time slot, but nothing else is scheduled during the plenary session. If I learned nothing else today, I know what a plenary session is. Anyway, the plenary session was a good one. The focus was how to use technology to enhance a service rather than just using technology for the sake of using it.

After the plenary session, we had another good choir rehearsal. I am a conductor who stops and starts frequently, which I'm sure exasperates my choir. This conductor does the same thing. Now I know what it feels like to be on the receiving end. That doesn't mean I'll change! It just means that now I know how it feels. (I'm sure my choir members will be amused to read this.)

One of the choir pieces is in German. I can fake my way through Spanish, Latin, and Italian fairly well, but not German! The conductor talked us through it. I made notes as quickly as I could, but I wasn't able to keep up. Fortunately, my roommate is an opera singer who is used to singing in German, and he's agreed to help me with my pronunciation.

I brought my guitar and managed to fit in an hour of practice during lunch. I noticed yesterday that a few others brought instruments and managed to find rooms to hide away to practice a little. (It's a big church.) I followed suit and did the same today. I'm enjoying the conference, but it was nice to have a quiet moment with my guitar. I don't think I'll be practicing on my own tomorrow, though. A piano player spotted me today and remembered from the newcomer introductions that I was a jazz guitarist. He invited me to a jam session tomorrow during lunch. How can I say no to a jam session?

Following lunch, I attended a piano literature workshop. From this workshop, I received information about collections of piano music that work well for services. I'll take that list home and give it to NWUUC's accompanist and to the piano players in the congregation.

After the piano literature workshop, I attended a session by Paul Tucker, our choir director. His talk was about unifying a choir with vowels and relative volume. Frankly, I was out of my depth in this session, but maybe what he told us will make sense after I've had more experience as a choir director. I did pick up a few good tips, but I honestly found myself wishing that I had attended the workshop in creating a musical meditation service, which was going on at the same time. This is why I'm glad that each workshop's handouts will be made available on the UUMN website.

We ended the day with another choir repertoire reading session. We read through a lot of music for advanced choir. There was some challenging music in that batch! It was beyond what our choir can currently handle, but we did read through one piece that I think would be within our reach. Also, I had engraved three of the pieces that we read today. Again, I had to resist the urge to elbow the person next to me and let him know whenever we sang a piece that I engraved.

There is a banquet tonight, but I am just too tired to go. I am absolutely wiped out. I'm going to grab a bite and then turn in early. Tomorrow is a longer day, and I need to rest up.

Thursday, July 25, 2013

UUMN Conference, Day 2

My friend Sarah Dan, who is the outgoing UUMN president, came up to me this afternoon and asked how I was liking the UUMN conference so far. The first words that burst out of my mouth were "I'm learning a sh*tload!" It's true. If I wrote about every single thing I learned today, I'd still be typing tomorrow morning. Here are the highlights.

We began the morning with a music service. Each service this week has a theme. Today's theme was "Better Together." We sang a few songs from Las Voces del Camino, which is a Spanish language Unitarian Universalist hymnal. I really enjoyed those songs. I bought a copy during lunch, and I'm strongly considering introducing the hymnal to my congregation back in Atlanta.

After the service, we had a meeting. Meetings aren't exactly my cup of tea, but my goal is to absorb everything I can this week, including things like meetings. I'm glad I stayed, because I learned about an upcoming hymn writing contest! The most beautiful moment of the meeting was after Sarah Dan spoke her final words as president. When she was finished, the people spontaneously began singing her Meditation on Breathing, which is a very popular song to sing among UUs.

Then we had a mass choir rehearsal for this Sunday's service. Dr. Paul Tucker is our conductor this week, and he is excellent. I learned a lot about choral conducting simply by watching him rehearse us. I found myself trying to sing and take notes simultaneously, which is not an easy trick! In particular, I learned a simple way to teach a choir how to sing proper vowel sounds. I'll be using that exercise with my choir when we start rehearsing again in August. Aside from observing and taking notes, it was wonderful to sing with a huge group of excellent musicians. The baritone section along had 20 strong voices!

Lunch followed, and then I attended a choral conducing masterclass given by Paul Tucker. It was an excellent masterclass, and I picked up a few new conducting techniques. There were three conductors signed up to be guinea pigs, and they were a good mix. One had obviously had good conducting training, one was a pianist with no formal training, and the other was an opera singer/voice teacher who also had no formal training. At a future conference, I would really like to be one of the conductor guinea pigs.

After the choral masterclass, I attended a workshop on vocal technique, which focused heavily on vowel sounds. This was all good information, which I'll put to good use with my choir. The thing that really stuck with me was what the clinician said at the end of the workshop. "The secret to good singing is that there is no secret. It is an accumulation of small skills that add up over time." How true! And it helped me put this week into perspective. I'm not going to come out of this workshop being the world's leading expert on choral vocal technique. Instead, I'll be leaving with a little more knowledge than I had before I came. These new skills will eventually become a regular part of my bag of tricks. Later on, I'll go to another conference or take part in a workshop and come back to my congregation knowing just a little bit more. My choral conducting, knowledge of UU music, guitar playing, repertoire, guitar teaching skills…it will all improve over time. I just need to stay curious, keep learning, and stick with it.

Before we broke for dinner, we had a choral repertoire reading session. We just read through a pile of music. Some of the music was forgettable, but there were a few standouts. We all received complimentary copies of the music. I marked the ones that I thought would work particularly well with my choir. I'll do the same tomorrow and the next day, and when I get back, I'll decide which pieces to order for the choir. I recognized one of the pieces, because I had engraved it for Santa Barbara Music Publishing. I had to resist the urge to inform everyone around me that I had engraved that piece.

After dinner, there was a singing meditation service. I've been trying to think of different approaches to a music service. This was a beautiful service, and I think I'd like to use this concept with my own congregation. There was very little speaking…just a lot of chanting (using chants from a variety or religious sources), and a lot of silence.

So that was my day! I'm looking forward to tomorrow, especially the rehearsal, another workshop by Paul Tucker, and the next choral repertoire reading session.

Wednesday, July 24, 2013

UUMN Conference, Day 1

This was the first day of the UUMN conference. I started the day off early in the hotel's excellent fitness room with a few other early risers. I was tired from yesterday's trip, but it was important for me to establish a healthy routine right away. After my workout, I came downstairs to see if the hotel offered free breakfast to guests. The receptionist told me that those in the executive suites received a free breakfast, and other guests could enjoy the hotel restaurant (and if the prices are anything like their dinner prices, I could probably blow $20 on scrambled eggs). So, no free breakfast. Alas. I went out to hunt and gather, and I was fortunate to stumble across a place called Southpaw that offered nothing but healthy food choices at a reasonable price. That'll be my breakfast place for the rest of the week.

Today was Professional Development Day. The UUMN conference is for all members of the UUMN, but this session was for church professionals. Since this was a gathering of musicians, we all started with a song, and we halted the day long session to sing from time to time. It was a powerful experience to sing with these people. My professional singing experience is all small group jazz. I love the intimate style of jazz singing, but it was thrilling to sing in a room full of professional musicians. I can't wait for tomorrow's conference choir rehearsal!

The session was on Adaptive Leadership. It sounds like a dry topic, but it was an interesting, enlightening session. I highlighted a couple ideas that I would like to try with my choir right away, but since the session lasted all day, it's mostly a blur. I took notes, and I'll digest the information later.

After this long session, we had a couple hours to ourselves. I used that time to practice guitar and grab some dinner.

After dinner, there was a reception with all the conference attendees. There was food at the reception, which I had to pass up because I had already eaten dinner. Rookie mistake. The next time I go, I'll know to wait and grab some grub at the reception! Although I'm comfortable in front a large group of people, I don't do very well in big social settings, so I was a wallflower. I'll be more in my element tomorrow, taking part in workshops and singing in choir rehearsals.

That was my first day. The rest of the conference is filled with choir rehearsals and workshops. I've had a chance to look over the schedule to choose from a wide variety of workshops, and I'm looking forward to learning and singing a lot!

Tuesday, July 23, 2013

UUMN Conference, Travel Day

This was a long day! I left Atlanta at 6 a.m. and arrived in Dallas 13.5 hours later for this year's UUMN conference. As some of my friends can tell you, I get lost easily, so I accidentally added some bonus miles and added about 15 minutes to my trip. The drive from Atlanta to Dallas was long, but it was quite easy. All you really have to do is  get on I-20 and drive west for 800 miles. The roads in Dallas were confusing, however, and after congratulating myself for making it to Dallas like a pro, I missed my exit and got turned around. I used the maps app on my phone to figure out where I was and plot a new course. Without that app, I might still be driving around.

After I got settled into my room, I went downstairs to grab a bite. I heard a familiar laugh and didn't even have to look to know that it was my old friend, Sarah Dan! It was nice to see a familiar face. We talked a little while, and she introduced me to a few people before we parted. We'll see plenty of each other this week.

I returned to my room and met my roommate, Bert, who had come in while I was out. Bert seems like a nice guy. He's a music director at a Seattle church. We chatted for a while, and then he left to meet an pianist with whom he'll be performing later in the week. Bert is a classical singer who enjoys listening to jazz. I'm a jazz singer who enjoys listening to classical. So there you go.

After Bert left, I went upstairs to check out the fitness room. It has about half a dozen heavy duty treadmills, a few weight machines, a large rack of dumbbells, yoga mats, and lots of space. Some hotels have a so called fitness room that looks more like a large closet with a few rickey machines crammed into it. Not so with this hotel. It's a very nice room with good equipment.

I'll try to get a good night's sleep tonight. Tomorrow it begins! I've mentioned this before, but I've been looking forward to this conference. It'll be an exciting opportunity for me to grow as a musician and as a church professional. I also look at this conference as an important responsibility. Northwest Unitarian Universalist Congregation will be reimbursing me for all my expenses this week, and they also paid my conference fees. While this is an important week for me personally, I also realize that NWUUC is investing in me and expects me to return with an even deeper sense of purpose and professionalism.

Here's what I hope to come away with this week:

  • Ideas for starting and maintaining a children's music program, and as much information as I can absorb about working with children's voices.
  • Being exposed to lots of choral repertoire and deciding what new pieces to order for my adult choir.
  • Lots and lots of ideas for running a music program. I may be able to implement some of these ideas right away, and I may have to put some others in my back pocket for the future.
  • Networking! I'd like to get to know other church music professionals. I already met someone who works with UUMN publications, which could lead to music engraving work.
At the same time I'm doing this, I'd like to keep up some guitar practice. I won't have time to practice as much as usual, so I'll focus on scales, arpeggios, and memorizing songs. I would also like to maintain my weight this week and find a good BBQ place while I'm here in Texas. Those two goals aren't mutually exclusive, as long as I make use of that great fitness room and don't order a Fred Flintstone sized platter!

Monday, July 22, 2013

UUMN Conference, Day 0

I never thought I would actually be excited about going to a conference. I guess there's a first for everything. Tomorrow, I'll be heading to Dallas for the annual UUMN conference. UUMN is the Unitarian Universalist Musicians Network. I've been music director at Northwest Unitarian Universalist Congregation for two years. So far, the job has only been 10 hours a week, which leaves just about enough time to lead a choir and plan music for services. After this summer, the job will increase to 15 hours a week. Most of those five new hours will be devoted to starting up a children's music program, and the rest of the time will be spent on rehearsing a church band.

I'm excited about the new music developments at Northwest, and I'm also feeling the need to expand my own horizons so that I can grow along with my music program. That's why I've been looking forward to this conference. I'm also going to get to see my good friend, Sarah Dan Jones, current president of UUMN and former music director at Northwest UUC. I've engraved some UUMN publications and worked with a couple people over the phone. I'm looking forward to finally meeting them in person.

I'll be updating my blog as I attend the conference. I'm packed, the car is gassed up, and I'm ready to go! Tomorrow is a long travel day. It's 11.5 hours, according to the directions. As long as the traffic is flowing (knock wood), I'll add an extra hour for breaks. Wednesday is when the real fun begins.

Monday, July 15, 2013

Lesson #11

I am continuing my practice of blogging about my jazz guitar lessons with Dave Frackenpohl, who teaches at Georgia State University. This helps me wrap my head around each new assignment, and I hope it helps others who may be on the same path.

I found parts my previous lesson assignment to be quite challenging. We started off playing my transcription of a Zoot Simms solo over It's Only a Paper Moon. The original solo was in C, and part of today's assignment was to play it in B-flat. This was one of the few things that I had an easy time with. After that, I played an arrangement of Triste from The Brazilian Guitar Book. This was a big challenge for me. I fumbled through a couple measures, but for the most part, I played it okay. Considering that I was struggling to just puzzle out the fingerings a couple weeks ago, I was satisfied with my progress on this song. It's a very nice arrangement, and after I get it under my fingers, I'll add it to my regular repertoire. I had also memorized the melody and chords for Triste. I was ready to comp or solo over the chord changes, but we didn't get to it today. We then played Autumn Leaves. My assignment was to find a solo in G minor and transcribe it. I fell in love with an absolutely gorgeous Paul Desmond solo in F# minor, so I transcribed it in F# minor and then learned it in G minor. We didn't get to the final part of my assignment, which was to take a Joe Pass solo (I'm Beginning to See the Light) that I had transcribed in C and then play it in B-flat. I was ready to play it, and I think I would have done a good job. Even though I only had to transpose it one step down, I found this part of my assignment to be a big challenge. It's one thing to transpose a single note sax solo down a step. It's quite another to transpose a Joe Pass chord/melody solo! Even though we didn't get to it, I'm glad Dave made me transpose that solo. Every big challenge takes me one step closer to being the guitar player I want to be.

The new assignment:

  1. Transcribe the Kenny Burrell solo from his classic recording of Chitlins con Carne. I requested this assignment, and I'm super excited about it! I love Kenny Burrell's playing, I love this tune, and I love this solo! I really enjoy soul jazz, and it's hard to pick a better guitarist than Kenny Burrell to dive into the style. The terrific thing about soul jazz, which has a heavy jazz/blues vibe, is that it can help add a touch of blues to anything else you play. I've been learning from a TrueFire.com CD called 50 Soul Jazz Licks You Must Know. I'm only on lick #4, and I'm already starting to find places to infuse bluesy licks into other jazz standards. I'm looking forward to seeing what I can come up with after studying Kenny Burrell and working my way through the soul jazz licks CD. 
  2. Transpose the Zoot Simms Paper Moon to F. Just when I thought I was finished with It's Only a Paper Moon! I had already spent two weeks transcribing the original solo, and then we had to skip a lesson, so I spent four more weeks playing the same solo in B-flat! The purpose of transposing the solo to F is to force me to learn it in a different area of the fretboard. I'm not sure how much I'll enjoy playing the solo for another month, but it has some cool licks, and it's good to know how to play those licks using different fingerings. Paper Moon used to be one of the weaker songs in my repertoire, but not anymore!
  3. Keep working on the Triste arrangement. There are a couple spots to iron out. I was going to continue working on the solo on my own anyway, so I'm glad it's part of my next assignment. I'm looking forward to being able to include this arrangement in my own repertoire.
  4. Learn Smoke Gets in Your Eyes. I requested this song specifically because I'm terrible at it! I play a couple times a month with a quartet. The leader usually calls this song, and it trips me up every time. With some intense practice, I will no longer need to fear soloing over these chord changes!

Whenever it comes up, Dave likes to show me what he calls "trick guitar fingerings." These are just little tricks that are unique to guitar players that are easy and sound really cool. In this case, the trick guitar fingering was inspired by some chord changes in Autumn Leaves. This is over a 2-5-1 in minor. We were in G minor, so I'll use Am7b5 to D7 to Gm. If you play an Am7b5 (the "2" of Gm), then move that same fingering up three frets (a minor 3rd), you get a D7alt (the "5" of Gm). Move that same fingering up another four frets (a major 3rd), and you get a Gm6. It only sounds good in the middle or upper register, and you want to play voicings that use either the middle 4 strings or the highest 4 strings. Some of the voicings only sound right if there is a bass player. I'll be working on this "trick fingering," and I'm looking forward to being able to use it on a gig.

I continue to be happy with these guitar lessons. We work on specific songs, but we use these songs to study concepts and develop skills that I can transfer to other songs. I find that the more deeply I study the material that Dave assigns, the more comfortable and confident I am in my overall playing.

Wednesday, July 10, 2013

Memory Work

I've been spending a lot of time memorizing music lately. It's assumed that I'll have my music memorized for my own guitar lessons, and I've been memorizing my own performance repertoire.

There are three main reasons I'm memorizing the music I perform most frequently:

  1. To connect more deeply with my audience and with the other musicians.
  2. To develop a deeper understanding of the music.
  3. To set up less equipment! I'm all for minimizing my gear. It will be a great day when I don't have to set up a stand and a big book for a gig.
Most of my repertoire consists of jazz standards, which means that I have a lot of chords to memorize…a LOT of chords! Some songs come more easily because I've either played them for a long time or because they follow a common format.

Here's my standard routine for memorizing a song. This prepares me to sing, comp, or solo over the chord changes. I follow this routine even with songs I've played a long time. I've found that, while I've memorized some chord changes through sheer repetition over the course time, I can get lost when I have to improvise a solo without a lead sheet, because I've been relying on muscle memory rather than a better understanding of the chord structure.
  1. Learn the melody and the words. Sing and play the melody over and over again. Sing it in the car or on a walk. Sing it to your dog. It should be stuck in your head so much that it drives you a little crazy. Even if you don't think you'll ever sing the lead in a performance, sing the melody when you practice. The melody is your guiding light when you're comping or soloing.
  2. Then learn the chord structure. Although jazz songs typically have more complicated chords than blues, rock, or folk songs, there is always a form. Find sections that are the same or similar, so that you can understand the overall form of the song. If you've learned the melody, then you are already familiar with the structure of the song. Have I mentioned that you should learn the melody?
  3. Outline the chords. So you think you've memorized the chords? Think again! Now try going through the song, outlining each chord. I'm not talking about arpeggiating the chords using whatever chord shape you want. For each chord, play the root, 3rd, 5th, and 7th in time. If the chord lasts 4 beats, then you can play R357 as quarter notes. If the chord is a half note, then you'll have to double that up and play R357 as 8th notes. Once you can play R357, reverse it. Start from the 7th and play downward 753R in time. Bonus points if you can sing the song while you do this. This will not only deepen your knowledge of the chords, but it is a HUGE help in learning to improvise over difficult chord changes.
  4. Improvise over the chord changes. You can practice improvising to a track or to Band in a Box. If you really want a challenge, improvise unaccompanied, with a metronome clicking on beats 2 and 4 to keep you honest (or clicking only on beat 4 to really test your sense of time). If you can improvise without accompaniment and keep a tempo, it's going to be a breeze when you play with accompaniment.
If you think this sounds time consuming, you are correct! Yes, it takes a lot of time, but this is some serious quality time with the music. It'll take me a while to go through my repertoire like this, but it'll be worth the effort. I've found this approach to be very satisfying. I'm learning my music more thoroughly, and I'm able to close the songbook a little more often when performing.

I don't want to minimize the ability to read music. Any guitarist who plays in a big band or a pit orchestra will tell you how important it is to be able to sight-read. I will continue to keep up my reading skills, but I'll deepen my understanding of music through memorization.

Oh, and learn the melody.