Jam School Activities
Play A Duet With Yourself
Starting Point #5 in the Series
- Gain experience with harmony and/or counterpoint
- Learn how to function as a player when you're not alone
- Read music and count rhythms
- Tape Recorder
- Duet Book
- Metronome (optional, but very handy)
Here We Go!
A great first step towards jamming with others is to play duets. Ultimately,
this is an activity that you want to do with another person, but sometimes there's no on
else available. At other times you may want to conduct some experiments that require you
to have more control over the situation. For each of these instances, the solution is to
record yourself playing one part, and then play along with that recording on the other
It's also fun. When I was a kid, I found recording duets to be a great way to
play around with music and give me some relief from working on scales and exercises. It
also gave me something to jam with when my Mom was at work and couldn't play piano with
Does this sound lame? Hardly! Most pop music is produced in the studios using
this same method. If you have multiple sax parts, for example, one person may be hired to
come in and lay down each part on a separate track. Give yourself a headstart on one of
modern music's most unique skills.
Step 1 - Pick the piece. For younger players, I recommend a duet where
both players are playing the same rhythm, but using different pitches to create harmony.
Good books for this are Yamaha Duets, and Belwin Master Duets.
Step 2 - Practice the parts. Any studio musician will tell you that
it's important to get the piece right in as few tries as possible. Learn your piece to
prevent making mistakes when the tape is rolling.
Step 3 - Record the Melody First. While duets are an equal enterprise
between the parts, the top part is generally the melody and its characteristics must set
the flavor of the whole piece. This is why in pop bands melodies are often called leads,
and the person with the melody is normally designated the lead player of the
Step 4 - Play the Harmony Part Along With the Recorded Melody.
Once the actual melody (or lead) is laid down, you are ready to add the
supporting part. Wind back your tape, and start it rolling. Play along with the lead, and
hear the harmony and/or counterpoint that's created. Make sure that the tape is loud
enough--and you are soft enough--to acheive a good balance between the two parts. How does
Step 5 - Address Any Problems that Came Up. The most common problems
(and their solutions) are as follows:
- "I had trouble getting in sync with the recording at first" -
Did you count off the time before you started recording the first part? When playing with
a recording, it's going to be hard to get started if you don't know exactly when the other
part is coming in. In the studios, it's customary to count off the tune and then leave one
silent measure before starting.
- "Things went all right at first, but then we got off and couldn't get back
- First possibility: You played the harmony part wrong. Try step 4 again, and see if you
get it right this time.
- Second possibility: You recorded the melody part wrong. Replay the recording, and read
along on the music while counting carefully. Did you play everything right? If
not, you will need to rerecord the melody part.
- "The recording seems to speed up and slow down. I know the parts are right,
but I just can't seem to tighten it up"
- Most likely possibility: You are not keeping steady time, either when recording the
melody or playing along on the harmony part. This is only natural. Most musicians are
tempted to speed up when the notes are easy and slow down when the notes are hard. The
biggest way to improve yourself as a musician is to fight this temptation and keep steady
time no matter what.
- The solution: Rerecord the melody using your metronome. Place it near
the tape recorder so that the clicks will be recorded along with your playing. Start the
metronome up, select a tempo, start your tape recorder, count off the song, and stick to
the beats that the metronome gives you. These beats are being recorded on the tape, and
will help to guide you when you are playing along on the harmony part.
- A hint from real life: You may be annoyed or embarassed to have to use
a metronome when recording, but did you realize that most studio musicians do this on the
job? Most songs recorded begin life as a click track before the drummer even lays
down the first basic rhythm tracks. This ensures that the song starts and stays at the
desired tempo, and that there are no scary little rhythmic surprises waiting further down
- A warning from real life: My band once made a studio recording of Glen
Miller's In The Mood for a commercial demo tape. As with all such tracks the
rhythm section would record their parts ahead of time, and the horn players would come in
on another day to add their parts. Having a 16-channel studio, we dispensed with the click
track because we needed every available channel. What happened when we arrived showed what
a mistake this was. If you've ever heard In the Mood, you'll realize that the
horn players have an 8-measure introduction before the rhythm section comes in.
Having no click track, we found that we had to time this 8 measures to meet up with a
pre-recorded rhythm section that could not adjust to us. It took HOURS and cost us more
money than we had planned on spending. Musicians might like click tracks or not, but most
professionals understand their value and necessity.
Step 6 - Listen to what you're doing and feel free to experiment.
Since you're intimately familiar with the parts you've been playing, feel free to try some
things. Here are a few to consider:
- See if there are notes in the harmony part that you'd like to change.
Harmonizing is an art, and there is more than one way to do it. If hear other harmony
notes in your head that you'd like to try, pencil them in and try playing them along with
the recorded melody. You can even try singing harmony along with the recording.
- Try recording the harmony part and using it as an accompaniment when you play
the melody part 'live.' Many stage entertainers use recorded accompaniments for
their singing. The people who write and record those accompaniments for them can make a
lot of money.
- If you have a second tape recorder available, try recording the duet between
yourself and the first recording. This could be your first complete recording.
(Consult your parents before submitting it to MTV :-)
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