Let’s say you play drums in a band and the main songwriter comes in with fifteen new songs that he wants to play at the next concert… tomorrow.
Or let’s say a bassist friend calls to say he has a family problem and asks you to fill in for a two-pass performance that starts in six hours.
The possibilities are endless, but the story is the same: as a musician, you find yourself in a situation where you have to learn a lot of material in no time and make it sound like you’ve been playing that music for years.
You don’t need to be a sight-reading master or have a golden ear to take advantage of these opportunities, but you do need guts, focus, and most importantly, a strategy.
Here are tips to start internalizing a lot of music on a super-tight deadline.
1.Know what is expected of you
When faced with a new song (or a dozen), it is important to know what you need to do. Are you being asked to play every note in a guitar solo the same as in the album version, or are you free to improvise your own cadence over the chord structure? Should your drum beats be sleek and understated or thick and intense? Does the bandleader want a slap bass, a pulsing bass, or something else entirely? The more you know in advance, the more effectively you can cut down on skin-shedding time and get the song right.
Listen a lot
When they give me a lot of new music to learn, I put it on the phone, plug in the headphones, and listen to it on repeat as much as I can. One part is active listening, where I focus, without being distracted, on specific elements of the song, analyzing as I go, and trying to memorize some parts. Other times it is passive listening while I walk, cook, work, pack my bag, etc. Everything helps. The more you have in your brain the new material before you hit the stage or the studio, consciously or unconsciously, the more chances of success you have.
Listen to different versions
If you’re learning a new piece that other artists have covered, listen to as many interpretations as you can before it’s your turn to play the song. Likewise, if there are YouTube clips of the band or artist you’re playing with, performing the same song at three different gigs, listen to them all. Each new version will give you a slightly different perspective on the song and help you hear new and different things. Plus, the more versions of a song you know, the better prepared you’ll be if the artist or band wants to take things in an unexpected direction on the go.
Tap on recordings
If you are given a recording of the song that you need to learn quickly, whether it is a simple demo or a finished studio track, play over it as many times as you can before going to the concert, studio, or rehearsal room. The more you play along with the song in a simulated performance and you can experiment with what works best when you play on it, the better prepared you will be once the moment of truth arrives.
Get sheet music, if you can, and take notes
Even when you’re playing original music by an unknown band, it doesn’t hurt to ask if there are scores. A drummer friend of mine did it when asked to play a progressive rock concert on short notice; He ended up getting a handful of napkins with beats scrawled in black ink. Although this was clearly not the ideal method of noting or delivering musical information, my friend ended up finding these notes quite useful while working through the material. For him, even chicken scraps on the napkin would have been better than nothing.
Take a look over the shoulders of many musicians in concert and you will see music sheets and chords filled with pencil notes, rhythms, symbols, and reminders. Whether you take note of when to play loud and when to play soft, when to play stacatto, and when to make a hasty ending, don’t be afraid to jot down your scores in any way that best helps you remember what to play, when, and how.
Don’t always start at the beginning
For many of us, learning music begins on the first note of a song and ends on the last, but changing the order can be helpful. When you get into a new song, try to learn the final chorus first, or face the difficult bridge that comes in towards the last minute. Often working on some things beforehand can help you get a feel for the entire song and a greater musical sense once you put the pieces together in their order.
Write your own score
Nothing like transcribing a bass line or your own chord sequence to help you internalize a new song. Remember that everything you write down does not have to look pretty, what you create is purely functional and just for you, so write your chords, transcription, or cheat sheet in the format that will best help you to follow the song at once.
Improves on every rep
If I am faced with a difficult new song, whether in-band rehearsals, in the studio, or live, my main goal the first time I play is to get from start to finish and do my best. The second time? The same, but now that I have it a little more in my fingers I can devote a little more attention to pinpointing those accents well in the second verse, for example. The third time? All of the above but maybe this time I will have the mental space to focus on connecting well with the drums in the guitar solo and that the voicings of my chords in the final part support the voice as much as possible.
The specifics will vary depending on the context, sure, but the principle is the same: use every repeat of a new song, rehearsal or performance, as an opportunity to improve on a small aspect of it. These surgical successes add up, quickly bringing you closer to a polished execution from start to finish.
You may also like to read: 10 Tips For Song Writing