Performing Live: Memorization vs. Reading vs. Improvisation


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Q: I’m not a professional musician, but lately I’ve been performing a lot more often. I play both upright bass and bass guitar, and I like to play just about any style of music: pop, funk, folk, jazz. These two things have made me somewhat “in demand” in part-timers’ circles and has led me to get involved in two or three projects simultaneously. This, in turn, has made me hit my “wall” and I’m now in the biggest rut I’ve ever been in. Let me explain…

Because I play more often and with more bands, I need to learn a much larger number of songs. This has made me realize that I rely way too much on two crutches to learn songs: memory and charts. For example, if I play bass guitar with a rock/pop band, I tend to memorize my lines note-for-note and play the exact same thing every time – by that I don’t mean that I necessarily play the same line over the entire song, I’ll memorize the variations and the fills too, but I typically always play them at the same point of the song. Since there’s a lot of repetition in a typical rock or pop song, I haven’t felt too guilty about this until now – but now that I have to learn more songs, I find that if I have a sudden memory blank I might lose the whole sequence and it can mess me up for a couple bars.

At the other end of the spectrum, if I’m playing standards on the upright with a jazz trio, I tend to write lines for each chorus (making sure they’re different enough), and then I’ll have to rely on my charts and read the whole set. Of course, if I’m momentarily distracted I run the risk of losing my spot on the page – which can also mess me up for a couple bars. Quite obviously, writing out every note of my lines is ridiculously time consuming, and a musician who looks at his music stand the whole set is not exactly my definition of a “great stage presence”.

I feel stuck. How do I get to the next level, where a song is not just either muscle memory or something I’m reading off a page? How do I get to a point where I can improvise within certain parameters and create music in real time? How can I develop this ability? How do I learn to “just play bass” rather than executing a sequence of notes I’ve either written or memorized beforehand? I know a decent amount of theory – at least enough so that I can come up with lines that are interesting and fit the song (my bandmates often compliment me on the lines I come up with), but I just can’t seem to come up with anything on the spot: I tend to freeze if asked to just jam through a song. I would love to get to a point where I can just follow the chords of a song and come up with lines spontaneously, never playing exactly the same thing twice. I know that these two things with never be completely out of the equation, but how can I train myself not to rely on them too heavily? Any advice is welcome at this point… right now I don’t even feel like I’m a musician at all, and seriously considering giving up entirely.To dare mighty things…

A: Thanks for the great question (and don’t give up!).

I can relate as I had been a life-long reader and had the hardest time memorizing tunes for years. In fact, I was such a reader that, when I was a kid, it didn’t occur to me that people made up bass lines on the spot. I thought there were people who wrote the music and people who played the notated music. I had no idea that the bass lines I was reading had been improvised first and then transcribed!

I can tell you this, at least, that memorizing changes and arrangements is MUCH easier than trying to memorize every single note you are going to play.

When I have a load of new music to memorize, I tend to approach it in different ways, depending on the gig and genre. I still read either chord charts, lead sheets or cheat sheets (of my own making) for a vast majority of the gigs I play, but I tend to memorize most things on touring pop gigs.

I will usually start by making a cheat sheet of the changes or any specific runs I need to play. I then play the songs over and over again, to recordings, until I really have them in my head.

My next step is one of reduction: I simply begin to remove bits and pieces of the cheat sheet. For example, if I have the chorus memorized, I’ll erase that from the cheat sheet and print a new one without that chorus. Eventually, I have the whole thing in my head. This works for me because I am a visual person and, even if I have the tune memorized, I’m usually still “seeing” the changes in my mind’s eye.

Pop and rock gigs are one thing, but you will really need to get away from having to read an entire walking bass line over changes when playing a jazz gig. In my mind, it shouldn’t be too large a leap for you to transition to reading chord charts and improvising lines over those changes. I always read chord charts on jazz gigs. I actually have no standards memorized, which has cost me opportunities, actually, but jazz is not my first language, and I finally decided that I was okay with that – another important point to consider. May you can play jazz well, but you’re not a “jazz bassist”. Be realistic in what you’re pursuing. We can’t great at all things.

I would suggest that you simply grab a Real Book and start reading chord changes. You are comfortable with theory and understand bass line construction, so there really is no reason that you shouldn’t be able to get comfortable doing it in real time in very little time. It sounds like you may simply not trust yourself to do it adequately. As soon as you let go of that, you will soar.

You feel like there’s a roadblock in front of your progress, but you are the only one holding it in place. As you slowly begin to walk without your crutches, you will be ecstatic to discover that you are one day walking all on your own. You just need to put in a little shed time and to make sure you are practicing like you want to play (playing more music with less information in front of you). Then, be sure to continue to do it.

Walking lines? Keep them simple at first. Don’t worry about sounding like Christian McBride. Simply look at the chord symbols and chug those roots for a bit. Then maybe add a few chordal passing tones. Next, walk a little bit of a scale through a few chords. Use the 3rd on top for a little lick. Keep that root going. Next thing you know, you’re improvising a fully functional walking bass line that will only get hipper with time and practice.

One more thing that will help you immensely is trusting your ears. This means that you will likely first have to develop those ears. I love making little playlists in iTunes of tunes I’d like to learn (usually gospel, soul or pop tunes. Not bebop stuff) and then play through the playlist in real time using my ears to try and figure out the changes and lines. I might play each tune two or three times until I feel like I have it. I’m not memorizing the tunes so much as associating the shapes of changes and the sound of the chords and translating those to my instrument. That might not work for you, and if that’s the case, adapt it to how you best learn. You’ll likely discover that since you’re already gigging a lot, you will likely find the roots and chord qualities pretty quickly.

Just move in bite sized chunks. You will start to feel what those small steps sound and feel like on your bass, and it will only come faster with each time you do it. You will also notice that your ability to just sit down and jam with people is increased exponentially as well. You will discover yourself honing in on he meat of the tune much faster and developing great lines in no time without ever having to write them out on paper first!

Readers, what’s your go to method? How did you evolve your skills? I’d love to hear from you in the comments.

Have a question for Damian Erskine? Send it to [email protected]. Check out Damian’s instructional books, Right Hand Drive and The Improviser’s Path.

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  1. Playing along to tunes you haven’t already mastered (jamming to the radio, or the iTunes playlist as suggested in the article) is, to me, the #1 way to move forward. If you can read, if you have some technique, if you have some knowledge of theory, if you know some tunes, it’s time to start playing through stuff without pressure. After getting a B.A. in jazz (guitar, not bass, sorry), I now see “just jamming” as one of the quintessential methods to move from medium to advanced in playing.

  2. Thanks a lot for answering my loooong-winded question, Damian!

  3. That is probably the Best question ever submitted by a working bass player I have ever read in this column. I have run into these problems as well throughout my years performing in various bands simultaneously. Very thoughtful advise as well Damien.

  4. I don’t know if I’m allowed to recommend a product but Todd Johnson’s walking bass module videos are a great way to tackle improvised walking bass lines. It’s methodical & breaks everything down into simple easy, sequential steps. Check it out.

  5. Excellent question, excellent answer.

  6. I would add one thing to Damian’s answer. Any song that’s on your “learn list” transpose it and play it in every key. This helps your brain get the logic of the song making it much easier to memorize. Transposing helps develop your chops when you move into keys where there fingerings must be changed, maybe swapping octaves and seeing what really makes the the bass line tick. And transposing helps your ears, making it easier to musically converse with the other players, and easier to learn the next song.

  7. Excellent question and equally excellent response.Any new project I undertake is a mini woodshed session for me. I need to understand the song and the general groove of it. I always create some form of cheatsheet for the stage. Building a groove has become part of what I offer a project….especially on original piece of work. The bass is my mistress…..I live in the deepend!

  8. Damien, no, seriouly man… youre a genious. and the guy that asked this amazing question aswell! I have some of these problems, but backwards. hehehe… I trust too much in my ears. need to read more and be more intimate to the changes.

    • As always you covered it really well. I think all musicians need to realize that music is experiencial. Created in the moment and experienced in the moment. Notation is a great tool but just a tool. it’s not music. Memorization is a great skill but hearing and listening are the things that will make you great.