The tips listed below are based on advice received from many top level players who were gracious enough to share with me. My hope is you can begin using them to make your life less stressful and your gigs more impactful.
Learning music is not necessarily a bad thing for musicians. In fact, learning and performing music is probably why most people pick up an instrument. However, the stress levels go up considerably when you’re called for a last minute gig or you’re already scheduled for a gig and the setlist starts changing. If you’re lucky enough to have a rehearsal before the gig you still have to come ready to perform the tunes (Rehearsals are for rehearsing, not learning the songs:-). If you’re like most musicians in my area, there’s rarely a rehearsal before the gig… That means you have to KNOW your parts inside and out and then actually perform them for the first time on the gig! Yikes!!
Tip 1 – Internalize the Music
This first tip is the easiest but will save you tons of time if you implement it consistently. Once a setlist is received or song changes are specified start gathering up the songs and listening to them as much as you can BEFORE you pick up your instrument to learn them. Listen in the car, while working out, as you cook, bath, etc. By investing as much time internalizing the music you will be programming your subconscious with the feel and structure of the music, and you’ll be developing an instinct for recreating the music with more freedom and consistency..
Tip 2 – Learning by Ear
This tip is for more advanced musicians but is definitely something players on all instruments should strive to eventually do. Again, BEFORE touching your instrument listen to the music while focusing to hear and visualize the following elements: specific parts your instrument is playing, tones used by your instrument (Overdriven electric guitar, compressed bass tone, muffled snare, etc.), try to identify chord progressions used in the song (most popular songs consist of 3 – 4 chords and 2 – 3 chord progressions at the most), visualize where you might play this song on your instrument (droning toms, high capoed acoustic part, low leslie organ patch, etc.), and finally, work to identify the different sections of the song and the order in which they occur (Verse, Chorus, Verse, Chorus, Bridge, Chorus, Chorus as an example).
Tip 3 – Chart the Song
Again, this tip will depend on how experienced the player is. However, creating quick lead sheets with chords and the song roadmap will really solidify your understanding of the song very quickly which is the name of the game (see example lead sheet to the right). These charts can be created by hand using blank staff images found online or using software based solutions like Sibelius, Finale and MuseScore. One massive advantage to doing this is you can now make copies of, or print out, your charts and have them on hand at rehearsals or the gig for other players to reference. Nothing says, “I want this gig more than anybody else!” like having charts you created on hand that others can benefit from.
Learning the Parts
Now that the music required for the gig is firmly lodged in your brain and you have a pretty good handle on what’s happening in the song, it’s time to pick up your instrument and learn how to play the tune. A couple of things to keep in mind: This is usually where most people start the journey of learning a song. They might have little exposure to the song and it may be a new style or feel for them. This is where people start to get stressed and nervous because time is running out. However, that’s not the case with you! You’ve already become very familiar with the music by internalizing it on a very deep level. Plus, you invested the time to learn the song by ear and possibly even chart it out. The act of the creating the music now becomes deciding where to play on your instrument and the tone you need to cop the style. Music really is easy if proper preparation is implemented!
The name of the game as a gigging musician is being prepared and over delivering whenever possible – even when things are changing at the last minute. The tips in this article are tried and true tactics that set people apart in their local music scene. Again, if you’re working to become a professional musician I hope this article gives you a good idea of what to expect and a list of tools to begin developing as soon as possible.
Until next time, stay focused, stay consistent, and expect the best from yourself. 🙂
About the author: Ty Morgan is a professional guitarist living in Mesa, Arizona who has a passion for passing on the gift of music to future generations. If you are interested in taking rock/blues guitar lessons in Mesa, AZ be sure to contact Ty!