Bobby Selvaggio

Saxophonist - Composer - Educator - Band Leader

Tunes: Memorizing vs Retention

When it comes to "how many tunes should you know?", I'm a big believer in "quality" vs "quantity". Knowing less tunes effortlessly is, I believe, more important than "kind of knowing" lot's and lot's of tunes. Then you have to deal with memorizing tunes. Maybe we should focus more time on the retention of the tunes we memorize. Retention comes through the constant active involvement of applying the thing we learn/memorize. Thus, that leads us to true "Effortlessness". Every tune I've retained through the years I've performed it countless times. Worse at first and hopefully better later, but I've played it live. This is essential!! Also, put the "Fake Books" down. Transcribe tunes off of records, the melodies and the harmonies. But, understand you may be learning an "interpretation" of the tune. Here's where being a researcher is important. Research the original version of the melody. Then, experiment with your own interpretations, hopefully inspired by the Masters you are constantly listening to. I use to, when I lived in NYC in the early/mid 90's, go to a sheet music store in Manhattan and find one sheets of the original versions of old standards. The covers always had neat pictures from some movie or show. These charts were very watered down of course, but the melodies were what the original composer intended. Today, you have the internet. Make use. Knowing a tune doesn't mean "knowing it" if you can only play Trane's version of it. The importance of learning tunes/standards from the original version is that those melodies are part of the fundamental vocabulary of our music, Jazz. Whether you play very traditionally only, very modern only, or if you really have it all together and can play "all of the above", it is essential to learn and retain tunes, especially with their original intent. I know some places want you to learn 8 million tunes a semester. If there isn't quality in this, it's like trying to memorize the state capitals just to pass a test. Most of us probably can't get through 10 anymore (I'd be lucky for that) without asking google for help. Make everything you do have a purpose. Be disciplined and relentless. We are the next torch bearers of Jazz, so it's up to us to either be serious about it or not. There's no in between.