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LJS 111: Learning Songs on the Bandstand and Other Lessons From My Gig

Welcome to episode 111 of the LJS Podcast where today Brent changes up the format for today’s show to talk about some lessons from a recent gig. He shares the good, the bad, and the ugly. Find out what he learned and how he used certain tools he has built up for himself. Listen in!

Listen to episode 111

This week I wanted to spend some time sharing with you my experiences at a recent gig. I’ll be honest. It wasn’t my best performance, not in the sense that I played bad, but that I felt like the odd guy out.

This is a gig I’ve been playing every month for around 5 years at a club in New York City called Fat Cat. It’s a great band and I’m honored to play with all of the guys.

But this particular gig had me working overtime. A lot of songs were being called that I didn’t know and I had to rely on my ears to get me through it.

I share with you some lessons I learned from this particular gig. What went well, and what I need to work on. I think by listening to my experience you can take away something for yourself too!

One thing I will say: listening and ear training is important. Being exposed to lots of jazz music really helped me, and also having those fundamentals of ear training down gave me a firm foundation.

If you need to work on some of those fundamentals I would suggest checking out my ear training course How to Play What You Hear. I’ll leave a link below. Enjoy the episode!

Important Links

Fat Cat NYC

How to Play What You Hear

Read the Transcript

Brent: All right, so today’s episodes a little bit different. I’m going to change up the format a little bit than what I normally would do because today I just felt like I wanted to talk about my gig last night.

I wanted to share some of my experiences that I had and some of my thoughts about what went down. This is a regular gig that I play every single month in New York City at Fat Cat. If you’ve never heard of Fat Cat it’s a great little jazz lounge, it’s a noisy place, smells like booze and it’s loud. But there’s some amazing jazz that happens there every single night and I’m really honored that I get to spend some time playing there every single month.

So, I’m going to talk a little bit about my experience at my gig, some lessons that I learned and just some general thoughts that I think can help you too just by me expressing them. But first, let’s cue the intro music.

Just in case you’ve never listened to this podcast before my name is Brent, I am the jazz musician behind the website which is a blog, a podcast and videos all geared towards helping you become a better jazz musician and I’m honored every single week to come here and do my best to serve you with the best jazz educational content that I possibly can. Make sure if you aren’t subscribe to this podcast, subscribe on iTunes. If you’re not subscribed on our YouTube channel I also post the podcast as well as other videos on our YouTube channel. That’s Of course make sure that you’re involved in our community. Go to, get on to our newsletter.

I do this every single week. If you’re new to this podcast, that’s who I am, this is what I’m all about. It’s a little bit of a different episode today like I said. So bear with me. But I’d love to talk to you a little bit about my gig at Fat Cat last night. At the time of this recording, we had a big snowstorm here in New York City and so I was trudging out into the snow, I live out in Queens. Fat Cat it is in the West Village, the historic Greenwich Village. So I took the 40, 45 minute train ride down over into the village, got to the gig, I play this once a month with an incredible musician who I really admire.

I’ve been playing this gig for about five years or so. It’s Don Hahn. He’s a trumpeter, he’s played with Maynard Ferguson, he’s played actually with Buddy Rich, he’s played with a lot of other musicians. He’s a good friend of mine. And actually, if you want to go check out him a little bit, you can check him out on Episode 39 of this podcast where I had him on for an interview and just picked his brain and yeah, that was a great interview. After you listen to this, go check out that, episode 39.

I get to Fat Cat. It’s the same old regular now. One thing you have to know about New York and one reason I love playing this gig is that all the band members are really, really top-notch musicians. In New York, there is no shortage of incredible musicians and a lot of people they come from all over the world to New York, it’s a very saturated place to pursue music, to pursue the arts. It’s really an art center of the world and a lot of people come to New York City for that reason.

If you are a big, one of the better jazz players in your local scene but you come to New York, you’re not going to be such a big deal anymore. That’s such the privilege that I have of being in this city is being surrounded by a lot of incredible musicians and particular, this band, a lot of amazing players led by Don Hahn, this guy who has played for a long time and who’s played with amazing musicians.

The other great thing too is that every single month, Don has, I’m part of the house band but Don has special guests come on. So this particular week we had, this particular month we had John Mosca who’s a trombone player and he’s played with the Thad Jones/Mel Lewis Orchestra. He’s these the current co-leader of the Village Vanguard Orchestra which plays every single Monday night in Greenwich Village as well at the Village Vanguard which of course if you know anything about jazz, you know the Village Vanguard is one of the most famous jazz clubs of all time and I try to peek in there every once in a while to go check out some shows and it’s really a magical place.

Anyways, John Mosca was the guest. So, now, there’s a lot of regular repertoire that we have that I’m pretty used to with this band after playing for about five or so years. I actually don’t play with the, and other gigs, I don’t really play with the cast of characters very often, some of the other guys in the band, I don’t necessarily play with them outside of this group. With every single different setting or group even in different cities, there’s different repertoire that exists, right? Some groups you play with might have this certain set of repertoire, another set of groups you play with might have another set of repertoire, you know, some songs that maybe you didn’t play. All this to be said, I’m pretty used to playing in this band.

Now, what happened I think is John Mosca, he was the special guest so we were playing songs that he was calling for most of the night. This is what happened. There was at least four and I’m being open and honest with you guys because I think it’s super important, there’s at least four or five tunes that were called that night that I did not know, that I literally did not know. Most of them I was familiar with but I didn’t actually know, I never actually had worked on them, I had never committed them to memory.

Now, there’s two things about that. Number one, you probably if you’ve played jazz out, you’ve felt that before where someone calls a tune and you wish you knew it. A lot of times it’s okay because there’s somebody else in the band that doesn’t know the tune as well and so you don’t feel so bad because you can’t know all the tunes, right? But in this particular case, every single one of these tunes, everybody else in the band knew it and I would be the only person that didn’t know these songs. That was a terrible feeling and if you’ve ever had this happen to you, you can resonate with it. It’s okay if it’s like one song but then if it’s like another song and that’s what was happening to me, I don’t know what was happening. I was getting my butt kicked. Man, it just didn’t feel good because I just constantly was like okay, well, I’ll surely know the next song. No, I didn’t know the next song either that was being called.

Now, that didn’t fell good. There’s a positive side to all of this and what I was really proud of of myself because every single time you hit up a gig, it’s important to have what Carol Dweck in her book Mindset calls a growth mindset versus a fixed mindset. So a fixed mindset says this particular situation sucked and the reason that this happened is because my abilities and talents and all this is limited, where a growth mindset says, this particular situation I’m glad I went through this because now I can learn and get better from this and it’s really a positive outlook. That’s really what a growth mindset is.

And so, the positive side of all of this is that all but one of those songs I was able to play and pick up without having to even look at a piece of music at all. Four of the five songs that I didn’t know I was able to do by ear. Now the reason I could do this is because I was familiar with most of them already because I’ve listened to lots of jazz, I’ve listened to lots of the music.

So, for example, one of the songs that I didn’t really know was Love Walked In which is a great tune by the way. I didn’t really actually know that but I could hear the harmony in my head and I got a piano player with me and so I’m just listening to the piano, I’m listening to the bass and I’m hearing that harmony. And so it only took about a chorus and I knew that song right away, I knew how to play that song. And there are some other harder tunes throughout the night but I was able to ultimately figure out what that harmony was so that by the time it was my turn to take a solo I knew how to navigate those changes.

That’s the positive side is that I’ve trained my ears to be able to do this from just listening and being familiar with lots of the music and also from just diving into some of those fundamentals of ear training, being able to hear intervals, being able to hear chords, being able to hear chord progressions, and all of that has set me up so that when I do get into a situation like that and I don’t know a song it might feel uncomfortable for a second but I can latch on fairly quickly. And sure, if I actually knew the song, if I had actually worked on some of these songs, I could probably play them with more confidence and play them better. But the point is I’ve musically equipped myself with the skills that I need in order to be able to learn a song literally on the fly.

All that being said, that doesn’t mean that it didn’t feel great when time after time a song was being called and I didn’t know it. There’s several times where I felt so confident that I was familiar with the song that I would be able to pick it up by ear that I didn’t say anything. The song was called, I didn’t say I didn’t know it. But there was a few times where I was like, oh, I don’t know that song and but then I was like but I think I’ll be able to get it. It didn’t feel good having to admit that to people and then there’s that one song I literally didn’t even, I didn’t even recognize it at all. I had to look up a chart. That kind of sucked too because none of the other guys are looking at charts, right? Everybody’s got these songs.

Sure, there was also times throughout the night where one of the other musicians didn’t know a song and so I guess they’re in my spot too but I think the thing that kind of damaged my ego a little bit was that it was so many of them and that everybody else knew the songs. It just made me feel like I need to do more homework here. I clearly need to learn some of these tunes.

So I’ll tell you what I’m doing right now though. I didn’t know all these songs, I immediately jotted them down into the notes on my phone and I’m going to learn every single one of the songs. Even the ones I’m familiar with, I’m going to just like dig into them, right? I’m going to like listen to lots of recordings of these just to make sure I even further have solidified that. I’m going to make sure I learn the melody because I’m a guitar player so it’s cool that I was able to figure out the chords but that doesn’t mean I know the song yet. I need to feel confident that I can play the melody on my instrument.

I need to make sure that I really dig deep into these songs so that the next time that they’re called next month at this gig, maybe they will be called, maybe they won’t be called but the point is if someone calls one of those tunes, I’m not going to have to worry about it because I’m going to know that song. That’s where I want to be.

So, the main takeaway from this part of my talk today of my experience that I want you to take away and also to reinforce for myself is that we need to take action. We need to have that growth mindset. When something doesn’t go quite as is planned on a gig or maybe there’s something that makes you feel bad about your performance, then that’s a moment to go aha, I need to take action.

What is the problem that needs to be fixed and now I need to do something about it. So that’s exactly what I have done is I’ve gone out and I’m learning all these tunes and learning meaning I’m completely learning them. And even that song where I had to use a chart, I’m going to have to learn that one from scratch because I’m not even familiar with that song.

I’m going to go out and do my homework and I am doing my homework on these. That’s important because at the end of the day I want to show up to a gig and feel, I want my morale to be high because hey, I know these tunes and I’m not the odd man out who doesn’t know it. So the point there is take action.

I have to say, we’ve all been through this where things don’t go as planned, maybe you just don’t feel like you were playing as well as you wanted to. Sometimes you get a little down on yourself, right?

Between I think it was the second break, I wasn’t feeling, I was like, man, this sucks. I didn’t know all these songs. Don likes to call wicked fast tempo so the songs I didn’t know it was like he was counting them one, two, one, two, three, four and then we were like, he likes to call lots of fast tunes and so I felt if I knew the song then it would be a little easier. All these different things, we all get beat up ourselves sometimes.

The reality was it went a lot way better than it did in my head. I was sitting down in between a break and Don came over and we were just chatting it up like we usually do. He was telling me what’s going on with his week, I was telling him what’s going on with my week. And then 10, 15 minutes later I was like, “Man, I was a little disappointed I didn’t know some of these songs. Can you remind me some of the songs we just did so I can write them down?” He was like, “Oh yeah, yeah, I didn’t know some of them either.”

I stopped for a second. I was like, “Don, I heard you play the melodies on your trumpet. I heard you play all those songs.” He was like, “Oh yeah, but you know.” I was like, “Well, what about like Love Walked In? I didn’t really know that song but I was able to pick it …” He was like, “Yeah, you were able to play all the songs.” I was like, “Yeah, I was able to play them but I didn’t really know them. I was just able to pick them up by ear and get by.” He was like, “Well, me too.” I was like, “Don, you’re 71 years old, you played all the, what are you talking about right now, this is crazy.” And he was like, “Yeah, Love Walked In, I didn’t actually really know that song. I just have heard it so many times I could play the melody and I could just hear what the chord changes were.”

Boom! Mind blown. This guy who’s been playing for a long time, who’s been in the scene, who’s, he’s done his homework. He’s walked the walk. He doesn’t know all the songs. The thing though is like I was talking before he has those tools in place where he can pick up that stuff and he has an even keener ear because no matter what he can play the melody to the songs because he’s heard them before. And he went on to list several more of the songs that I didn’t know that he claims that he didn’t know. Well the truth is he actually did know them, he just had never actually sat down and practiced them, which is I think what we’re talking about here.

I have to say, it made me feel a little bit better. It didn’t change my mind about well, I need to go and I need to do the homework but that was an eye-opening moment for me that even a guy like Don he doesn’t know everything either. He’s equipped himself with those same tools. And so, we all need to be equipping ourself with those tools, right? And how do we do that? Well, exactly what Don said.

He’d heard those songs so many times. So, if you’ve listened to some of this repertoire enough, it’s going to be in your ear, it’s going to be sunk in. The more that you learn solos by ear, the more that you learn jazz standards by ear, it’s not just that you’re learning that repertoire, it’s that you’re building your ear to a degree where you can start recognizing chord progressions, right? You can start doing that stuff.

If you work on some of the fundamentals of ear training like hearing intervals, like intervals, a lot of people tell me like well, I don’t understand what intervals are going to do. If I can hear what a major fifth or what a perfect fifth rather sounds ascending or descending, what difference is that going to really make? What they miss is the point that it sets this foundation, this root cornerstone of building your ears up so that you can learn how to hear chords. And if you can hear different qualities of chords then you can move on and you can hear chord progressions.

And then the more repertoire you learn the more you start recognizing patterns in that repertoire so that all of a sudden I can hear immediately for Love Walked In it’s a one, six, dominant two, five, back to the one, that’s how it starts, right? I could I can just hear those chords. I can hear the quality of the chords, I can hear the movement just because I’ve dealt with them so many times.

So, why do we learn jazz standards? Not just because we want to learn more repertoire, right? Because even as we experience with me and Don, he didn’t necessarily know some of those songs. Like he never actually worked on them or it’d been a long time since he actually played them but he could hear them. So, he’s learned so many songs that even the ones he doesn’t know he can know because he can hear it. That is where we want to be my friends, that musical freedom and I can only wish that I can get to this level of confidence that Don has. he’s obviously way more experience than me and so that’s where I aim for and I hope that you aim to be there too.

So, let me summarize all of this and thanks for listening to me guys, I appreciate you letting me tell my story and just to express what I’m feeling about this performance. So thanks for listening, I really do appreciate it. I appreciate you listening every single time if you’re a regular listener, so thanks so much for taking the time.

To sum up some of the lessons that I got here are number one, you’ve got to do your homework. If you find that there is something that went wrong during a gig or that you wish went better, then it’s up to us, it’s up to you to take action to fix that. That’s obvious but I think sometimes we need to be told that, we need someone to say that to us. So, that’s number one. Take action on the things that are giving you trouble.

Number two, if you have given yourself the tools of ear training of great ears then it’s going to save you a lot of problems and you’re going to be able to get by in some tough situations. That’s what I learned and that was the big positive thing that came out for me of that gig that I was like, hey, you know what, I didn’t know some of those songs but I’m proud that I was able to hear a lot of those chord changes, and even some of them that had a little bit trickier changes I was able to latch onto those. That’s the other lesson. Equip yourself with all of that stuff.

Now, number three that I wanted you to take away is you don’t have to know everything. Of course you don’t have to be the best, you never will be the best. You don’t have to know all the tunes. You don’t have to have everything put together in order to get out there and perform as we just learned from Don. Don didn’t know some of the songs, that’s crazy, blew my mind, boom, crazy. You don’t have to know everything and that’s okay as long as you go back to step number one or tip number one rather and you take action on some of those things.

If we can just frame our minds around this growth mindset of progressing gig after gig, which I know is hard, it’s hard guys. Sometimes, when I was in that moment at that gig, I was having a hard time staying positive. I wasn’t feeling like I was up to par with everybody else, everybody else knew the tunes. Everybody else was doing just fine. There I was I was having to figure things out and I felt like I had a disadvantage. If you look at that as a growth thing and that’s what music is, it’s a journey, it’s a big long journey and we’re always growing and if we can look at it that way and really find joy in that, then music is a lot of fun. But if we do the other thing, if we have that fixed mindset, if we kind of look at the glass half full, music becomes not so much fun.

So that’s what I want us all to do. I want us to have fun with music. I want us to embrace it. I want us to keep growing together and that’s why I’m here, that’s why I’m doing this podcast, that’s why I do is because, it’s not because I have all the answers but it’s because I want to grow with you and I want to help you grow as a musician. Because it means so much more than just playing some notes, right? It can bring joy to your life, it can bring joy to other people’s life. There’s so much history in jazz music specifically and culture. Music is just a powerful thing. I’m humbled, I’m honored, thank you for listening. Thanks for joining me and I just thank you. I can’t thank you enough for being a part of the Learn Jazz Standards community.

By the way, if you’ve never joined our Facebook community, I want to invite you to do that because there are tens of thousands of listeners and even hundreds of thousands of people who visit Learn Jazz Standards and use the resources and all the stuff. You probably don’t all know each other but in our Facebook community group we have over a thousand members who are all talking together and sharing tips, asking each other questions and meeting each other. That’s such a great thing because that’s what music is about. It’s about community and that’s what Learn Jazz Standards is about too. it’s about helping you become a better jazz musician and one way that I can do that and I can serve you even better is just by letting you guys help each other as well.

So, if you want to get involved in that Facebook group go to, that’ll redirect you to the Facebook group and it’s a closed group so all you have to do is request the invitation to join. Answer some questions I have for you and that just helps me serve you better and then I’ll let you into the group and I’d love to have you. So,

All right, so I know this was a little bit of a different episode today. It’s not the norm so if this is your first time listening, usually the episodes don’t go down exactly like this. I hope you enjoyed this. And if you did enjoy it let me know. Tweet me or tag me on Facebook, join the group, mention that you enjoyed it or leave a comment at the shows today and that would be super cool.

All right, and one last thing, I always ask this, hey, if you’ve got some value on today’s show, if any of this resonates with you, why don’t you leave a kind rating and review on iTunes. Just helps the podcast out, helps other people find this podcast and I just super appreciate it. I appreciate you, I hope you have a great week and I wish you all the best in your musical endeavors. I’ll see you next week on the LJS Podcast, cheers.

Brent Vaartstra
Brent Vaartstra is a professional jazz guitarist and educator living in New York City. He is the head blogger and podcast host for which he owns and operates. He actively performs around the New York metropolitan area and is the author of the Hal Leonard publication "Visual Improvisation for Jazz Guitar." He's also the host of the music entrepreneurship podcast "Passive Income Musician."


  1. I just wanted to say this episode is exactly what I needed, and it has some really great insight into how the greats handle jam sessions. I started listening to this podcast a couple of months ago, and overall its great, but this episode takes the cake (for now). I appreciate your vulnerability and honesty, and it has helped me get out of a funk myself.

    Thanks and keep up the great work!


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