August 07, 2020 by Don Russo
I still remember the night it happened. I was at Sakitumi, a local sushi restaurant in Columbia, SC. I’d come out to watch a jazz trio play and decided I would sit in and attempt the song “Donna Lee” by Charlie Parker. I had been practicing the song on my own for months, learning the melody, mastering the chords, and working the arpeggios to be able to solo over the changes. The group consisted of a bassist, a drummer, and a keyboard player. In between a couple of numbers, I approached the bass player and asked if I could sit in and play “Donna Lee,” to which he said, “sure,” as is the tradition in the jazz community. So, I watched a couple of tunes and then he called my name. I grabbed my guitar, plugged into my amp, and what happened next changed my life forever…
The bassist turned to me with a fierce look in his eyes and counted, “one, two, ah one-two-three-four, and we were off to the races…at BLAZING SPEED! Yikes! I had never played this song anywhere near this speed. My hands were sweaty, my muscles in my arms tight, as I barely hung on to a semblance of the melody. All the while, the bassist was glaring at me with a look, as though he was testing me with his eyes. Once through the head of the song, he says, “go ahead,” cueing me to take a solo. So, I begin the solo. The changes are flying past like cars on the interstate, and then it happened. I was completely lost. I had NO idea where I was in the song. The bass player then steps up to me and begins barking changes in my ear. I still can’t keep up. The last half of my solo began to dismantle until I finally stopped in the middle of it. The bassist, seemingly unhappy, began to take his solo effortlessly over the changes as I stood there. Then, he walked up to me and said, “Back to the top.” I couldn’t find where I was, so HE began to play the melody (an extremely difficult melody) on the bass. Then, I jumped back in and started playing with him. We wrapped the song, I packed up, and I walked away with my pride hurt a bit.
Now, I know, a lot of you right probably think that sounds horrible, like your worst nightmare. I get it. It does sound painful; however, it was probably one of the best learning experiences that I have ever had. I learned several things that day.
- Practice Songs in Different Ways – Two people will play a song different from one another. I had been practicing the song on my own, my way, at the same tempo. I learned that if I practice songs in different tempos, keys, and styles that I actually learn the song more completely and it prepares me for almost any situation.
- Listening is Key – When I was lost, I tried to think my way out and figure out where I was. I discovered, after a few of these failures, that I just need to take a deep breath, close my eyes, listen, and react. Music is about what you hear, not what you know. Once I discovered that. I could start playing notes that sounded good to me, regardless of the key changes. I could also find my place in the song WAY quicker.
- I Will Fail, and I Must Try Again – As I mentioned before, I had several instances where I failed. I could have easily have thrown in the towel, called the bassist a jerk, or conceded to doing something easier. I instead churned those emotions into positive energy which made me practice and try again, getting better each attempt, to the point where I could feel relaxed in those situations.
- Jump Into the Fire – To say I was nervous that night would be an understatement. I tended to, and I watched my students, procrastinate and not get out there and just play. In my experience, no one is ever 100% “ready” to do something challenging. Set a goal. It can be an open mic, open jam, showcase, recital, recording date, video, social media post, whatever. Just set a goal and do it. You WILL have failures, you WILL have successes, you WILL grow if you just jump into the fire.