Practicing chord changes

I’ve been planning on starting a Dixieland jazz combo for years, plans which were underway even before I had to stop playing the trumpet. In fact, the reason I chose the tenor banjo was because I still wanted to participate in this (still theoretical) group.

There’s another reason I wanted to play the banjo: Some years ago, while my trumpet chops were still working, I ran a jazz combo (regular jazz standards, not Dixieland) in my spare time. We were starting to get gigs, mostly weddings, and we could have gotten more. It was a lot of fun! But one thing ruined it for me: It was often almost impossible to find a decent jazz pianist to play with us. They do exist in Seville, but they are all inundated with work. Every gig was a crisis for me, as I had to search high and low for a piano player who was free. Most of our personnel stayed the same from gig to gig, but the pianist was always changing. It was a nightmare.

So if I can play the chordal/rhythm instrument myself, that problem is no more.

In a few weeks I hope to start getting musicians together and finally get the group underway. (Here in Seville there is no point in trying to do anything musical until Easter, as all the wind musicians are busy accompanying the Holy Week processions.) I am using the time to prepare the technique I’ll need for the Dixieland group. The tenor banjo can do lots of types of music — chord melody, song accompaniment, even classical music — but what I really need now is chordal accompaniment for a band. Trouble is, I’m not very good at it because I am slow at changing chords. (It’s amazing how quickly and smoothly a good player can run through the most difficult changes. Not me, though!) So I’m trying to work out how to improve this. Here’s my tentative system for practicing chord changes, adapted from the way I used to practice hard stuff on the trumpet:

1. I take a new piece, for example “St. Louis Blues”. The version I have starts like this:

St Louis Blues (beginning, for blog) - 1

2. I try out various inversions of each chord and decide which ones I am going to use. I then write them above each chord. The inversion is identified by the soprano note. So, for example, a “V” over a Gm chord means to use the inversion that has the fifth (in this case, a D) on the first string.

St Louis Blues (beginning, for blog) - 2

3. I try playing the chords. When there is a chord change I find difficult (pretty much all of them at this point!), I write a big “X” before the change:

St Louis Blues (beginning, for blog) - 3

4. I then practice ONLY the difficult changes, with the metronome on a very slow tempo, typically quarter note = 40. (Well, okay, from time to time I do allow myself to play ALL the chords, but only occasionally. I try to spend 90% of my time on the difficult ones.) So I do Gm (V) to Cm (III) a few dozen times, then Cm (III) to D7 (I), and so on to the end of the piece. I try to let the first of the two chords ring as long as I can before moving my left hand. Not easy! Is there a trick to this?  🙂

5. Little by little, over the course of several days or weeks, I speed up the metronome, one click at a time.

Let’s see if this system works! If anybody reading this has any suggestions, I’d love to hear them. I really need to get better at this….

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