The great studio cliques of the ’60s and ’70s are the model for our Rock Lesson Programs.
Modern-day studio musicians started with the great studio cliques of the late 1960s and early 1970s, like the “Wrecking Crew,” Motown’s “Funk Brothers” and the “Muscle Shoals Swampers.” They created a repertoire that set new precedents in the recording industry. And those precedents are the foundation of today’s music.
Studio musicians have to be technically adept, with a solid understanding of styles, including chord structures and bass lines. For some sessions, you’re expected to be able to read chord charts and/or staff. You’re also expected to have superior ear-playing and improvising skills. You should be able to create a chord chart from a demo recording.
You have to understand how drums, bass, guitar and keyboards combine to create grooves in a variety of popular styles. And you have to be able to create on the spot. You’ve got to see the range of creative possibilities in every situation. There isn’t much time for decision-making or writing out parts. You need to think it up, and play it.
Classically trained musicians are often not well suited to studio work, unless they’re given written parts to play. Traditional music school, by itself, often doesn’t prepare you to create rock, country or blues arrangements.
Classical players are often out of their element on studio dates. Compared to the environment they’re used to, the creative process on studio dates is haphazard and undisciplined. Many classical players are uncomfortable improvising on demand. The idea that 4 or 5 musicians show up for a session with nothing written, and make up an original arrangement in less than 2 hours doesn’t make sense to them.
The Role of Memory Session players have a different way of looking at music. One difference between classical and session players is the basic role of memory. It’s not that studio players rely on memory more than classical players, but studio players use it differently.
For example, in the classical world, memorizing music is a novelty. Classical musicians are usually stopped cold if you take away their sheet music. It’s part of their working style. A program for a 2012 performance of Duke Ellington numbers by a lab band at Ithaca College states, “For tonight’s performance, all the arrangements were learned by ear and completely memorized during this term.” There were no music stands on stage. “For this concert, we simply don’t need any. This is known as playing ‘head charts,’ because these are pieces that are kept completely in the player’s heads.” They also explain, “This process affords us several advantages,” which is true for a lot of non-classical performances. (Yes, Duke also wrote symphonies, but we’re not talking about those.)
The average studio player is grounded in a range of styles, has memorized hundreds of arrangements by ear, and can create by drawing on elements of those arrangements. Memorizing and playing songs is part of your basic education. And any top-notch hired gun will tell you your job depends on memorizing music quickly. With experience, memorizing music gets easier.
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