I am heading out this weekend with the Daybreak Quartet to Texas and Kansas. I have not been out with them much at all for the past year and had to learn a lot of their new music this week.
Of course, it would be nice if they had lead sheets of their music or even chord charts. But they don’t. They usually sing with tracks that were created in a studio some time back and no one has hung onto the charts the musicians used to record them.
By the way, here is a little tip for those of you that record or will record. Always remember to save all written artifacts from the studio. All of those chord charts scribbled on the backs of envelopes might save some time down the road. And, even if you take charts into the studio, invariably, they get changed, so it is important to keep the charts from the session that have handwritten modifications on them.
Anyway, here is my process for learning songs when there is no written music. I just sit at the piano, listen to the song and create a chord chart. Sometimes, a phrase might have more complicated chords and I put that phrase in a play loop until I get it all (you can do looping with some MP3 players including my Edirol).
Some of their music is really simple (I, IV, and V chords). But some of it is not. To say that all Southern Gospel is simple music is really ridiculous. The better musicians who arrange that stuff know modern harmony and they use it. In general, you will not see as many color notes, but you will see a lot of cool harmonic things.
Because of that, my charts are usually not perfect. I miss stuff. I am not the best at charting by ear in the first place because my ear is not the best in the world. I am not a genius who was born with that ability. My ear abilities come from work.
Besides that, Daybreak songs are not written in keys that I usually play. Out of about 8 songs I learned this week, 2 are in B and 2 are F#. Ouch.
So the bottom line is I find myself in a lot of jams in public settings, thinking too slow or lost while reading a chart. And that is when you have to fake it. As a pianist who has spent my life faking it, I have learned a few things to do. Here are three quick tips for when you are accompanying a group and get to a point where you don’t know what you are doing:
1) Don’t play low on the piano. The biggest and most obvious conflicts that are going to occur happen in the bass. The bass line is the one line you really need to get right all the time. So, if you don’t know what the bass is going to sing next, play higher on the keyboard. If you play notes that belong to the key, you will be surprised to see how often everything seems to work.
2) Don’t play on the downbeats. There is a very good reason why this works. If you play wrong notes on the upbeats, it will very possibly just sound like passing notes. So, here is what to do: since the group is probably singing on the downbeats, let them hit their notes and then fill in behind them on the upbeats. Again, play notes that belong to the key and you will likely escape OK. By the way, many of the best SG pianists regularly play more on upbeats than downbeats just for stylistic reasons. It actually sounds great.
3) Play fewer notes at a time. Play open intervals rather than chords. Play broken chords rather than block chords. The fewer notes you play at a time, the less you stick out and the more likely you are to hit notes that will work with what the group is singing.
Above all, stay confident. Confidence covers a lot of mistakes.