In the ongoing series where I answer your questions, this next one comes from Frederick Pucci who asks:
My question is about the use of music charts (including iPad) on a gig. Ideally, you memorize all the material, but practically speaking, that’s not always that easy, especially if you play with more than one group or do fill in work. What is your feeling on this?
Great question Frederick! My first response would be “Judge not, lest ye be judged.”
Then I went and looked up that quote to make sure I got it right so no one would judge me.
Then I read more about what that quote really means and found it to be very interesting. The point is not to say “Nobody’s perfect therefore we shouldn’t judge anyone.” But rather to judge people by the standard that we judge ourselves – basically to worry about ourselves before worrying about what anyone else is doing.
So to answer this question, I’m just going to tell you a bit about my process for learning songs, when I use charts and when I don’t, and to not pass any judgement on anyone else.
For me, whether or not I use a chart depends on the context of the performance. I play a lot of different styles of music with a lot of different musicians in a lot of different contexts. If I’m playing a Girls of Nashville showcase and I’ve been given a week to learn 25 different songs, you’re damn right I’m using my iPad. The songwriters performing aren’t using charts to sing their own songs but the rest of the backing band is using them. But I still know the songs well enough that I can sing tons of harmony parts too. I’m lucky that I have a mind that can fairly easily retain musical information. Now figuring out the Nashville interstate system after 12 years of residing there? Not so much.
Speaking of interstates, I’m going to tell you a secret. I do most of my learning while driving. Dangerous? Maybe. Effective? Definitely.
So to help you cut back on chart usage, I now present:
“Clem’s Patented Learn As You Go (to the grocery or the mall or Starbucks) Method For Learning Songs On The Go!”
*Disclaimer* This method only works if you have a trained ear and can easily hear intervals as a song progresses. If you want to go chartless, it’s always gonna come back to ear training. If you wanna dig into some ear training, I highly recommend Berklee Online’s ear training class. I took it myself post-graduation and its got GREAT tips that will help you out tremendously in this department.
- Listen, listen and listen some more
If I’m learning songs for someone like Amos Lee or an audition or something where I’m going to hopefully be a permanent fixture, I listen incessantly for days before sitting down with an instrument. I sing along, I absorb the song as much as possible. I sing the bass line out loud with the song. I sing aloud the numbers of the chords along with song (1,4,5 etc…) I pay attention to the lyrics, what the story is saying and really truly understand the meaning of the song so I can reference that meaning to keep me on track. The more you can get the song in your soul, the better. If you can sing it, you can play it.
2. Establish song keys and then visualize what your hands will be doing
You can make a list of all the keys of the songs you’re learning. I use a pitchfork app which gives me an A440 and I can then riddle out the key to whatever I’m listening to based on that pitch reference ‘cuz I can hear ‘dem intervals. You shouldn’t be playing with your phone in your car so just go home and sit with your instrument and figure out the keys. But it’s a good app to have if you’re on a plane or somewhere where you need to do this type of learning and need a pitch reference.
Now that I know the key, it’s easy for me to listen along and, by listening to the chord changes and knowing in my head what a 4 chord and a 5 chord sound like relative to the tonic of the song, I can see my hands on the neck of my bass, playing those changes right along with the song. It’s not until after I’ve done all of this that I get home and put pen to paper and write a chart. And at that point, writing the chart usually takes just as long as it does to listen along with the song one time and the act of writing it reinforces all the preparation I’ve already done and helps me lock in the tune. NOT THE OTHER WAY AROUND.
**Playing and Singing Tip**
I also practice playing and singing simultaneously in the car alllllll the time. I just use my right hand to tap the rhythm of what I’m playing against the melody of what I’m singing. For example, Maren has a song called “Sugar” and the bass line is nearly all upbeats throughout the verse but I have to sing a straight, highly syncopated melody over a completely opposing bass line. I start slowly and work on it a cappella until I can get it up to tempo. And also get myself to Costco.
3. Get home and chart
So now that I’ve done all this prep work in my mind, body and soul, I get home and chart the songs. Then I practice along with the charts as much as I need to reference them for a bit.
4. Weening and boiling down
I give it a day or so and then come back and see how much of the song I can play without the chart. Once I hit a roadblock, I stop the song and highlight the part I missed on the chart. I go through this process several more times. If I find I’m still hitting the same roadblock over and over again (these are usually bridges and very specific riffs or maybe a 2nd verse harmony lyric) I then make my Patented Clem Boiled Down One Sheet of Keys, Riffs & Bridges Which is Illegible to Anyone Other Than Me.
Once I get a setlist for the show, I write my One Sheet in order of the set and hope that it doesn’t change too much. 🙂 I write them in Sharpee and tape them at my feet
Here’s an example of the journey from chart to One Sheet; this one is from a show with my buddy and ridiculously insane guitarist Sadler Vaden. This is a good example as there’s no way I could’ve read the Cheap Trick riff from “California Man” off the floor. I had to listen, chart, refine and boil them shiz’s down. Also, note that most Nashville charts are written in numbers, not letters, so that one can change keys if necessary. It’s also waaaaay easier to communicate amongst a band where people are sometimes in different tunings if you’re simply using numbers, although you’ll see in here that I’ll sometimes us a letter or two. Also, without staff paper, it’s trickier to write out any specific riffs and the Nashville system doesn’t really account for that practice so I have my own weird hybrid. Like I mentioned “legible to no one but me!” 😉
I use these on many a performance and no one seems to mind. Also, freaking drummers and keyboard players always get away with charts because they have a discreet place to put them so I think my One Sheet is a fair compromise. I would use a sheet like this on just about any musical situation where I needed it. If it’s an artist I only play with occasionally, it’s very helpful. When I first joined Amos’ band, I had learned something like 40 + songs so you’d better believe I had a sheet taped to my amp of song keys and a few bridges. But I would never set a music stand in front of myself on that stage unless it was something we were all doing.
It’s all about context.
Here’s when I never use charts:
- At an audition
For most people, the point of an audition is to see how well both your playing and personality work with others. Everyone must know the songs REALLY well to be able to stretch out and let their talent shine through. What if the singer wants to change the key? What if the drummer counts it off way faster than you practiced? You need to have internalized the song to the point that you can roll with the changes. If you need a chart, you’re probably not able to do that. I STILL get sick to my stomach when I hear the intro to the album version of Sugarland’s “Something More.” I had to listen to that damn mandolin intro about 900 times to prepare for that audition and I will get involuntarily nauseous when I hear it as I go RIGHT back to sitting at my mom’s kitchen table, practicing that song over and over, hoping for the best.
I would be scared to death before any bass exams (they’re called “Juries”) at Berklee but one thing I really took away from them was the experience of preparing for an audition. I remember sitting in the hallway with the other students, all of us kids wearing headphones, basses out, scrambling to get in some last minute crunch time before the exam. One of my professors walked by and told us “If you’re practicing it today, you’re not ready to play.” And he was right. It’s just like they tell you the day before you take the SAT. “Don’t study tonight. It’s too late. Just get a good night’s sleep and eat a good breakfast. There’s nothing more you can do.”
- On the big stage
Like I said, I’ll have a cheat sheet as I’m just getting settled into a new band if necessary, but I would never dream of having a music stand up there with Jennifer or Amos or Maren. UNLESS it was a situation (like some of the symphony shows I’ve done) where everyone needed one for special arrangements and everyone was given the green light to have one, or we learned a song last minute and everyone (including the artist) wanted to have a chart on stage for that. Some artists are more relaxed about this than others but the expectation is that everyone knows the music. At least, this is the standard I hold myself to.
A matter of professionalism:
Frederick, you’re probably asking, from a philosophical standpoint, if using charts makes you look unprofessional. I think it’s probably more unprofessional to get up on stage and mess up all the songs. So if you’re doing fill-in work or playing a 4 hour gig worth of cover tunes and you need a chart, use a chart. But if it’s your own band and you’re really trying to cultivate a religious experience for yourselves and for the audience, then learn the music to the point where you could play it even if you couldn’t hear the notes you’re playing or singing. Sugarland’s musical director Scott Patton gave me that advice a long time ago and it really resonated with me. Also, one day your monitor WILL blow up and you won’t have a choice anyway.
Is it a Gig or a Show?
To dig a little deeper here, your question also points to the “sideman” vs. “band member” conundrum. Here’s a great tweet from one of my favorite Twitter accounts @DoucheyHiredGun:
“Stadium world tour = quick email and phone call. Tiny club act with 3 shows = auditions, 2 rounds of callbacks and brunch with artist.”
The point being, that the people operating at the highest levels of the industry know that side people of the highest caliber can all show up and play the music, it’s just a matter of an email and a phone call making sure they’re available and can agree on pay. Also, they probably won’t be using charts. 😉 And smaller bands that want to be bigger than they are currently sometimes expect way more from a side person than is generally reasonable in terms of rehearsals and time commitment verses what they’re actually compensating you for, especially when you’re not going to be a card carrying “member” of the band and have no further investment beyond a handful of shows.
I was walking around the streets of Key West the other night with my bandmate Eric Montgomery who brought up the notion of the term “gig” as opposed to the term “show.” He was remarking that in Great Britain, the word “gig” is ubiquitous for ANY musical performance – from a tiny club to an opera house. But here in the states, the two have very different underlying meanings.
My dad (Cranston Clements – guitarist for Bozz Scaggs, Dr. John, Cyril Neville and many, many others) would tour the world for parts of the year but much of the time he would kiss me goodbye on his way to his GIG on Bourbon Street. The connotation being that it was cover tunes, a relaxed environment, and no one was necessarily aspiring to create a new genre of music and get a record deal. He might not even have met some of the musicians playing that night until he walked on stage and saw who else was on the gig. It wasn’t until I was a teenager hanging out with skater punks that I ever first heard the term “show” and I remember knowing innately even before seeing one that it was something altogether different from a gig. Skater punks went to SHOWS in VFW halls and weird art galleries. The bands didn’t usually make any money, they slept on floors, everyone seemed perpetually covered in a film of grime, everyone was sweating, everyone in the room, band and audience, were desperately yearning to have an out-of-body experience. It was a scene. It was THE place to be. And the bands on the bill put on a fucking show. They spilled their guts on the stage. This is harder to do if you have to read a chart. You can’t necessarily get lost in the music because you’ll lose your place on the chart.
(Again, context. A show implies Hey you, LOOK AT ME!!! So if people are looking intently at me, I shouldn’t be looking at a chart. A gig implies Ok audience, LOOK AT EACH OTHER and talk to each other and socialize and enjoy the music as a backdrop to your own show. In which case, no one will be too concerned one way or another if anyone on stage has a chart.)
So naturally, aspiring artists who are trying to break out want people backing them up who are giving it their all and spilling their guts all over the stage and fighting as hard as THEY are. But the problem is that if it’s not a “band” and it’s just (as you put it, Frederick ) “fill in work” then it’s not really fair to expect a side person to be able to completely memorize an entire show’s worth of material to play (as @DoucheyHiredGun put it) “3 tiny club shows” and then possibly never work with that band again.
BUT, if you are able to go the extra mile and internalize the music to a great extent and really give it hell, you’ll be more likely to be called back for future shows or to be sought out by other artists for other shows. Which is why, even without being asked, I always learn background vocals and bring more to the table than is expected. It is always appreciated. I met Maren Morris on a Girls of Nashville gig. I was reading a chart. But I had learned all of the harmonies to her two songs in her writer’s round (which was easy for me to do because they are damn catchy, great songs) and that small moment in time laid the groundwork for a future position on the road with her.
To wrap up, it’s best for me to be comfortable up on stage, so I try to prepare for upcoming gigs or shows as best I can so that I can feel proud of the music being created and shared within whatever context it’s being shared. If that means a cheat sheet on the ground next to my setlist, or my iPad on my mic stand for a more involved set, I just want to do my best up there. I hope this is helpful information for you to do YOUR best out there, Frederick. Thanks for the question!
Berklee Online Ear Training Course – https://online.berklee.edu/courses/basic-ear-training-1
“Judge Not Lest Ye Be Judged” – Misinterpreted Bible quotes by Jason Staples – GREAT blog on the deeper meaning behind this message: http://www.jasonstaples.com/bible/misinterpreted/misinterpreted-bible-passages-3-judge-not-lest-you-be-judged/
Girls of Nashville – The top female songwriters in Nashville’s quarterly showcase. https://www.facebook.com/Girls-of-Nashville-1582776161976644/
Pitch fork app: (There are dozens, just find a free one) https://itunes.apple.com/us/app/a-440-tuning-fork/id335593282?mt=8
Sadler Vaden – Guitarist for Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit and great songwriter in his own right. Check out his new record (featuring yours truly on BGV’s) and see how my One Sheet compares to what you hear: https://sadlervaden.bandcamp.com