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Riley Music Academy Music Cast: Donna Lee memorised and up to 240bpm in a month

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Donna Lee memorised and up to 240bpm in a month

A few weeks ago I wrote a fairly whiney blog about how things can get you down and you feel like ‘Hulk Smashing’ your musical instruments!  I was working on a project at the time and I had a bad practice which left me feeling deflated.

Well… the update is that I got back on the horse and continued to work at it.

I often talk about documenting results so I thought I would show you my video diary.  In an age where editing software is not only affordable but relatively easy to use I thought I would keep a lot of the cringeworthy moments in to show you how bad things can be.  A lot of artists feel very strongly about showing such crappy work but I have a warts ‘n’ all approach which I feel benefits others.

The Task: to memorise Donna Lee by Charlie Parker and play it at full speed (240bpm) on the piano
The Reason: to improve jazz vocabulary and to gain a deeper insight into the melody
The Other Reason: to compete with a friend!
The Benefits: push my limits of speed and accuracy, iron out bad technique, memorise the melody for deeper knowledge, appreciate the genius of Charlie Parker, to further understand the Bebop style
The Ego Boosting Benefits: lots of jazzers work on this melody so I feel that I’m finally joining in with the big boys!


The first clip is of the end of my first practice session.  I’d just about managed to play it off by heart but I was really struggling and the pulse was none existent!  The second clip was with a pulse and the 3rd and 4th clips show me working it up to 240bpm in a matter of weeks.

Heres how I did it:

  1. I used a visual stimulus.  I don’t always work this way but I like to visualise so I found it useful on this occasion.  I looked in my Charlie Parker Omnibook to check the notes and to analyse some of the phrases.
  2. I quickly moved away from reading.  I knew that if I kept reading the notes on the page then I would never memorise it so I stopped using the book after my first session.
  3. I tried to think of the harmony as I went.  I then related a lot of the intervals to the chords so I could remember whole phrases.  This trick reduces the amount of memory needed.  i.e. instead of learning the notes Bb Db F Ab – I reduced it to a Bb minor 7th arpeggio.  It meant that I needed to feel comfortable with the chord (previous experience) but it reduced the memory from 4 separate notes to 1 arpeggio.  It helped!
  4. If there were any unusual intervals, I tried to figure out why Charlie Parker was using them.  This gave me a real sense of the style and opened my eyes to choices for improvisation in the future.
  5. I listened to the track… a lot!  I had the tune on repeat in the car and would annoy the hell out of my family for weeks!
  6. I played slow and with a metronome.  I didn’t try to play too quick even though I knew I was behind on the challenge.
  7. I gradually increased the tempo 2bpm each time.  This small increase is almost inconceivable and it feels great when you step up the tempo and you haven’t really realised.
  8. I used the metronome at half speed clicking on beats 2 and 4 which helped with the swing/bounce feel.
  9. I documented my highest BPM tempo each practice.  Sometimes I only had 10 mins, other days I had up to 25mins.  Each time I would push it and then call it a day.  I was probably practicing about 3-4 times a week.
  10. Let it rest.  When I reached my plateau I just let it rest and came back to it.  It seems that the brain likes having that time to let the notes bed in.
  11. Shock tactics.  Sometimes I hit a plateau  that was hard to break through.  This didn’t happen until I was at 200+bpm.  I knew I was close to 240 so I tried to force things at 240 and then return to 210.  Funnily enough 210 seemed so much slower and easier!
  12. For the final video clip, I used a few helpful hacks.  The piano I was using had a much lighter action so I felt I could play a bit quicker and I also used the soft pedal (Una Corda / the one on the left).  I find this sometimes increases the responsiveness of the piano.

I realise that it’s not quite perfect at 240bpm and I’m not completely ready to announce it to my challenge partner (although I think he’s signed up to this blog so…oops!) but I’m pleased that in just over a month I managed to go from shockingly bad to playing an OK version off by heart at the original tempo.

I hope the tips have helped you with your musical challenges and believe me, if I can do it then anyone can.  As corny as it sounds: you just have to work at it!

Go get ‘em!

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