Every year there are a bunch of concerts here in Nashville during a few days called CMA Fest. It’s a great time for players in Nashville because for about a week everyone has enough work. Some have way too much! You might have 3 or 4 shows to play and set-lists to learn as fast as possible outside of your regular gig. For most of us, there is just no way to learn and memorize 60 tunes or more all at once so we make charts. Unfortunately, that means we’ll have to read them down later while in front of audience. But that’s part of the job.
Studio musicians also need to scratch out charts and read them down on a daily basis. Although I have heard that Pig Robbins (he is blind) had a system to memorize a tune that worked for him. He just listened to the demo and played the bass notes along with it as it went by. But most of us at some time or another have had to read a chart and sound like we were very familiar with the tune at the same time.
I rarely use charts any more. For me the simple fact of the matter is, what I end up playing without the chart is almost always going to sound better than what I would have played with the chart. If they are necessary because I just can’t get familiar with the tune enough in time for the gig, I’ll read the dang chart. But if at all possible, I’ll get familiar with the tunes at home so I can just play later.
I remember one year we were playing the CMA fest backing up several artists and we all had our notebook of charts. We all had music stands quivering in a gusty, hot breeze. We were getting through the tunes fine and then all of the sudden a gust of wind blew our guitar player’s (Darin Favorite) charts up in the air and they came raining down upon him. But instead of it all falling apart, it seemed like we were suddenly playing music for the first time that day. He never picked his charts up. He just asked what key the next song was in, thought about it for a moment and played. It sounded great.
My process now is to go ahead and make my own charts, bring them along, and don’t use them unless I just have to. I have tried to skip the step where I make the charts, but it tends to gnaw at me that I didn’t do my homework and that affects my performance later. Plus, I have had to glance down at a chart to refresh my memory right before we play a tune.
I do believe it is possible to read a chart and play brilliantly. For us piano players it’s important to lean back a little and use peripheral vision to play. We have to make sure the height of the piano is just right too. If this is something you’d like to be good at, I’d say just do a lot of that in your practice. Read a chart down and practice the entire process of being accurate and creative while reading.
On another note, if you are a traditionally trained piano player, the number system will be super easy for you to learn. I found the number system an interesting concept when I first heard about it. It was particularly useful if you knew what songs you were going to be playing, but you did not know what key you might have to play them in for the singer. For me, it was easier to think in number terms, rather than transposing letters as I went. The world would have gone on had no one created the number system, but as are all things in music, there are many ways to get where you need to go.
The number charts work best with simple harmonies. They do not lend themselves to jazz standards very well. But it’s not a bad idea to try! I actually found it very helpful to think through a jazz standard with numbers. You’ll see the function of each chord, where it changes keys and how it all works. It’s just a bitch to read.
The biggest “chart-fail” I had was a situation where I was hired to make number charts for a band that I would never see. I did a great job except for one song called “Masquerade”. It started and ended in a minor key, so I considered that 1 minor. Big mistake. The bass player (Johnny Stanton) texted me after the gig and let me know in no uncertain terms, that I had put him in a bad situation. It was too difficult to read and he barely made it through. Johnny and I are great friends to this day but I have to admit… that was embarrassing. The lesson there is, even if the song is in a minor key, if you are using numbers, it will probably be easier to read if you chart it as if it were in a major key and call the home key 6 minor. Or Johnny Stanton will kick your ass.
There is some great software now you can use to make charts. Also, you might want to start saving copies of your charts digitally so you don’t have to make the same chart more than once. A lot of my friends scan their charts and store them in dropbox or something similar.
Obviously, we don't know everything. But we do tend to think differently. Here are some of my thoughts on piano and maybe some on life. I play piano for Tracy Lawrence, produce new artists, write and practice piano.