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How To Efficiently Learn Music (And Do It Quickly)!

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So you get the call to play with an artist. You are available to do the hit and now you need to learn the music. This post will help set you up for success so you can learn the music quickly and have more time for other tasks at hand. If you prepare correctly, you won’t be spending most of your time writing charts and you will only need a little daily maintenance to keep things in check until the gig.

You phone rings and it is the artist or musical director talking through the details. Some of the questions you should be asking (specifically pertaining to the music) are:

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-What gear will I need? Since I am a percussionist, I have several set-ups and even if I learn the music to a “T”, I can still be derailed by the logistics of my set-up. The various instruments can be ranging from drumset, to cajon for acoustic gigs, congas and timbales, to vibraphone and marimba. Perhaps it’s a classical gig and you need a really good snare drum and tambourine or triangle and hand cymbals. Making sure your gear is in check can be half of the battle. You should also ask if backline gear is available. Not needing to bring things to rehearsal or the gig can make your life easier.

-Are these cover tunes or originals? If they are covers, you should start with listening to the original version. Ask which version is being used as a reference (if it isn’t the original). Then try to listen to other popular versions for possible ideas and/or substitutions. If you are playing an instrument other than drums, DEFINITELY ask what key you will be playing in. If the tunes are originals, see if there is a recorded version you can check out. If one is not available and you have to rehearse, try and get some details from the songwriter/artist before the rehearsal so you can be more prepared.

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-Are there charts? Will you have to read charts/lead sheets/music? If yes, you might want to practice sight-reading before the gig/rehearsal. For tips on how to get your sight-reading chops in shape, check out one of my earlier blog posts “Mastering Sight-Reading Made Easy!” If there aren’t any charts available, this means you will probably have to write one out. You can look online and see if one already exists, or you can print out a lyric sheet and make notes to that. Or you can start charting one from the recording. I am a dinosaur and much quicker writing one out by hand, but I also have one of the music writing software programs on my computer (I use Sibelius, but Finale is another good one), and have knowledge in writing a chart with that. One of my professors used to say, “The goal of rehearsal, is to not rehearse!” What he meant by that was if everyone did their homework ahead of time then rehearsing would not be an arduous task. You could “run through” some things to get the gist of it, move through things quickly, and be on your way to the next thing. The more detail you put into your charts will translate into less time needing to rehearse it and a smoother session overall.

Now onto learning the music. You have the recordings and/or charts. You should start with making a playlist (iTunes, Spotify, etc.) and listening to it ASAP, ad nauseam (on repeat). Sometimes I don’t even get to sit down at my drums, but I can still prepare by listening to the music as I drive around running errands. Aurally learning is a great way to ingest the music. Any time you learn a language, you learn it aurally before you learn how to read and write it.

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Next is understanding basic song form. Knowing the verse, pre-chorus/build, chorus, bridge sections of a pop song or the head, solos, interludes, trading sections of a jazz tune can help you make sense of the recordings you’re listening to or charts you’re reading. Most western music is in 4 or 8 measure sections, so that should also clue you in to what may be going on.

As you start practicing the music, get the main idea first. Lay down the basic groove of the song and make it feel good (serve the song, not your ego). Once you have that down, you can worry about embellishing that groove to fill it out more.

PRO-TIP– Ask who else is playing on the gig. This just isn’t so you know who you’re playing with, but also so you can assess what other instruments you’re dealing with. Is there more than one drummer/percussionist? Multiple guitars? A horn section? This will help you to figure out how much (or how little) you need to play (which can effect your practice time). Obviously playing in a trio you have more room to develop your parts than you do a 10-piece band.

Once you have the groove down, you can check out the hits. Do you need to set them up? Can you get into and out of the groove while catching the hits? Are you playing the dynamics? Did you check out the length of the notes you’re playing (long vs. short)? You can think of this like painting a room. You start with the spray can or paint roller first to get the big areas (read: main ideas) and then you go in with the small brush to clean up the corners (read: details, dynamics, phrasing, etc.)

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Now once you have learned the tunes, I would make sure that you still have your other styles/genres down pat. I can’t tell you how many times I have played with an artist who has thrown and extra song or two (or seven) on the list that you have never heard (or practiced). Someone in the band usually says something like, ” Oh it’s just a shuffle in D. I’ll try and cue the hits, so watch me. But, don’t worry, you’ll hear it.” Which usually means, it is a triplet feel tune, that has a key modulation, several hits and breaks (of which none are cued), and there’s a couple of odd bar sections (9 bars instead of 8), with maybe a couple 3/4 measures in the bridge. So depending on the gig I am playing I make sure that any possible styles that could be called, I can play. For example, if I get called for a Pop/Rock gig, I also work on funk, shuffle, and 2-beat. If it is a GB (general business-wedding/convention/private event, etc.) I also work on swing, bossanova, cha-cha. I don’t ever want to be caught off guard so I usually do too much preparation, rather than not enough.

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Lastly, you need to know your strengths and weaknesses. Don’t ever take a gig if you don’t think you can perform it to the standard it needs to be played at. I don’t play a ton of double-bass drum metal gigs to accept one. I can play a tune here and there in that style, but I wouldn’t be able to play a full gig for over an hour and do it well without some serious time to prepare. Most of the time when I get called to fill in, it is with days or weeks notice. Not a ton of time to shed so I need to maximize the time I do have. So if there is someone more qualified for a specific gig, I will recommend them. And this is done on the first phone call. I ask all the questions I need to know about the gig at hand to make my decision if I am able to do it or not. This includes questions about the music AND the gear required. You would be doing yourself (and the rest of the ensemble) a disservice if you accepted the gig and then weren’t able to perform at the level required, or worse, had to bail after rehearsing (and realizing you were in over your head).

Stay tuned next month as I get into a detailed post about writing out great charts, including the ominous ‘Nashville Number System’.