Learning Tunes

How many tunes should you know?

I was once told: if you want to be a player, you’ve got to know tunes!

They were referring to jazz standards. Tunes you call at a jam session. Tunes by George & Ira Gershwin, Rogers & Hart, Miles Davis, Wayne Shorter, Monk, Bill Evans and a host of others. Tunes that exist as part of the jazz legacy.

It’s a powerful statement, and has elements of truth, but it’s easy to dance around the language: “Does that mean, if you know lots of tunes, you’re agood player? If you know more tunes than anybody, are you the best player? How many tunes do you have to know to become a player? 100? 500? 5000? What if you learn non-jazz tunes? Does that make you less of a player? What if you’re only interested in performing original music?”

Here’s one way to look at it: If you want to perform music for a living, you have to be able to play something. You have to have repertoire.

If you want to perform music in ensembles for a living, you have to be able to play something everybody can play.

If you want to perform music in ensembles for a living, with no rehearsals, no discussions and no music, you have to have a common body of (memorized) repertoire that can be called upon at any time.

If you want to perform music in ensembles that only plays Charlie Parker tunes for a living, with no rehearsals, no discussions and no music, you’d better know every Charlie Parker tune.

(Side Note: In this case, you’d better know how to sound like Charlie Parker too!)

Let’s look at it from another perspective:

If you want to create an ensemble to perform music with no rehearsals, no discussions and no music, you have to hire the musicians that have the most extensive repertoire. You have to hire the musicians who know tunes. Otherwise, your band has nothing to play, and you don’t get any gigs! The more tunes you know, the more likely you are to be hired for this type of ensemble.

So how many tunes should you know? Maybe first you should ask: How do I want to make a living?

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