It’s kind of freakish how many times I’m asked to join in on songs I’ve never heard before. Some of my most rewarding musical experiences have happened that way, and so have some moments that could serve as the elevator music in hell. I’m always up for the challenge though. What’s the worst thing that could happen, a little public humiliation? BRING IT!!
Sadly I don’t have perfect pitch. So if the band I’m about to play with doesn’t know what key the song is in, things can get interesting. Here’s how I approach such situations.
1. I listen carefully to the chord progression.
Even if you don’t know anything about music theory, you can recognize when a song’s chords have a familiar flow to them and when cadences follow a logical pattern. In a way I work backwards. I try to figure out when a line or phrase is ending, listen to the way it ends, and then I map out a strategy that matches that pattern since in it’s bound to repeat in most songs.
2. I think of myself as frosting (warning: this paragraph includes many food analogies, go grab a snack).
My job is to serve the music, not my ego (though it gets in the way from time to time). So, I remind myself that even though the violin is clearly the greatest instrument in the world, my purpose is to add a flavor, not be the whole meal. The band is the cake. They are the layers and the substance. I am the frosting. And in some cases, I’m not even ALL of the frosting. I’m like one of those flowers or squiggles made out of frosting. By not overplaying, I keep things tasteful and manageable which is critical when playing on stuff I’ve never heard before.
3. I use my instrument to sing.
If all goes well and I find myself quickly understanding what’s going on musically, I like to try to come up with tasteful counter melodies. For example, I try to weave in and out of the vocal part (being careful not to trample it like a gangly filly who’s just learn to run). Here’s an example of a time when everything seemed to go just right.