You’re at a gig or a jam session, playing with a group of great jazz musicians. You’re waiting to take your solo, or perhaps you’re in the middle of your solo when that terrible feeling hits you. You have no clue where you are in the form.

You’re lost. Absolutely, hopelessly lost. You know it, and you’re starting to get the feeling that your band mates know it as well. That sense of embarrassment starts to creep over you, and you start to go into paralysis. How are you going to get yourself out of this mess?

In desperation, you continue playing with increased intensity. The thought at the moment is that if you play more notes and string them together, it will sound like you are just playing “out” and hopefully at some point, you’ll find your way back into the form. You keep your head locked away from your bandmates. How could you possibly make eye contact with them now? They know you’re lost.

You struggle on for a while, hoping for a hint from one of the other musicians but you’re getting nothing. You end your solo (somewhere randomly in the form) and then the full embarrassing reality hits you. That was a train wreck.

If you’re a musician, and especially if you play jazz, I know you can relate. We’ve all been there before. In fact, I’ve witnessed even some of the most accomplished jazz musicians get lost. We’re human beings, and we aren’t perfect. The key is figuring out how to make getting lost a rare occasion, and when it does happen, recovering almost immediately.

Here’s how we can avoid and recover from getting lost in jazz standards:

1. Make sure you’ve done your homework.

Whenever I have gotten lost while playing a jazz standard, it’s often because I am not as familiar with it as I should be. The truth is, the better you know a song and the more you practice it, the less likely you are to get lost.

It’s kind of like driving or walking around your neighborhood. Unless you just moved into the area, you probably know the streets like the back of your hand. You could walk or drive a distance out and have no problem returning safely back home. But if you visit a neighboring district or city, you may not be quite as familiar. Even if you have a basic idea of how to get around, there is still a fog of where exactly everything is.

The same goes with jazz language in general. If you’re new to jazz, you may get lost more often because you still have to familiarize yourself with jazz language better. The more standards you learn, the more you start to realize that they share common characteristics. Having done your homework and being familiar with the tunes you are playing will significantly lower your chances of getting lost.

2. Practice keeping your place.

Believe it or not, avoiding getting lost comes with practice. Ultimately, it’s an exercise in focus. It’s easy to get distracted by a rhythmic figure the drummer plays or some harmonic substitutions the piano player works in, but if you can keep focused on the form, you’ll come out on top.

The most obvious way to practice this without the risk of losing your spot on the bandstand is simply to listen to recordings. If you got lost in a song recently, sit down and look up as many versions of that song as you can. Then go and listen to all of them in entirety. Practice keeping your spot with the band. If you get lost, that’s okay! You’re practicing.

Listening to different versions helps you keep your focus regardless of how the band plays over the form. This also helps you further familiarize yourself with the song by sheer repetition.

3. Slow down the time by counting fewer beats.

Fast tempo tunes are often a recipe for the vulnerable to get lost. The time is going by fast enough that it can be easy to lag behind, get confused, and then lose your spot entirely.

One common mistake when counting fast tempos is trying to feel every single quarter note. 1-2-3-4-1-2-3-4-1-2-3-4. Whether it’s internally counting in your head or tapping your foot, this is a method that will set you up for failure. Even feeling just beats 2 and 4 at fast tempos can easy get you flipped around and straying off the path. What you need to do is make the time feel slower.

Instead, count just beat 1 of every measure. 1—1—1—1—1—1—1. By doing this, you dramatically decrease the chance of flying off the rails. This isn’t just for fast tempos though. Applying this concept to medium and medium-up tempos can help you keep the form as well.

4. Familiarize yourself with jazz harmony.

This may seem fairly broad, but if you can recognize the sounds of chord progressions as they relate to the key center, it could be your ticket out of an embarrassing moment.

I find that accompanists (drums, bass, guitar, piano…etc) get lost less often when they are comping because they are always actively engaged in the harmony and form at all times. This doesn’t let them off the hook, but it does present an elevated challenge for horn players and non-chordal instrumentalists. If you feel like you’re getting lost, stop for a second and listen to the bass and piano/guitar. If you can recognize the ii-V into the IV chord, that’s your clue.

I’m a guitar player, and I often play trio (guitar, bass, drums). Essentially, I play the role of a horn player and a piano player, except piano players can comp for themselves a bit easier. If I ever feel disoriented in my solo, I end the line I’m playing and pause for a second to listen to the bass player. I have a fairly keen ear just from experience and practice, and I can usually catch on and jump right back in. Being familiar with jazz harmony is a useful tool.

5. Map out the song you are playing.

Whether you are learning it at home or playing it for the first time on the bandstand, a little bit of organization goes a long way. Many jazz standards have predictable forms, and even the ones that don’t can be broken up into parts and organized.

A simple example is a rhythm changes tune like Oleo. It’s a classic 32 bar AABA form. The A’s and B’s represent classified sections of the song. The two A’s up front are almost the same, with the second A ending with a resolution. The B section goes somewhere else entirely before coming back and playing the A again.

More important than labeling parts of a song, ask yourself what makes the parts different. What makes the B section different from the A? What’s the first chord and where does it go to? A song like In a Sentimental Mood modulates to an entirely different key during the B section than the A. Are there any key changes to mark off a song with? Look for the unique components of the song to help you keep track of where you are.

You will get lost from time to time, and that’s okay. The hope is that when you do get lost, you don’t panic. You stop, listen, and get right back on track. If you follow these tips, you’ll be setting yourself up for success, not another embarassing moment.

30 Days to Better Jazz Playing