How To Learn Music Quickly

There are times when we have plenty of time in which to learn music. Recitals and concerts are two examples that come to mind for which the performer usually has several weeks to prepare. But there are other times when things go awry: a band member gets sick or has to travel out-of-town, and he or she needs a sub.

Fortunately, you get the call to fill in. Unfortunately, your initial reaction is that of a deer staring into headlights. What do you do?

The first thing you do is relax. This is a show, not brain surgery. Then you realize (again) that you’re a talented musician and that the project is easy if you just break it down into these steps:

  1. Get Organized. Make sure you have the music on CDs or MP3s and that you have charts or a score to look at. (Make charts if you don’t have them.) Find out if you need to memorize it or if using charts is acceptable. Get a copy of the set list and make sure the music is in the order of the list. Finally, block off practice times in your appointment book.
  2. Recorders that have a variable speed control, such as the Tascam LR-10, help musicians slow down difficult passages for transcription. For more information, visit http://www.tascam.com.

    Really Get Into the Music. Begin by looking at the music carefully. Notice things like the key signature, tempo, and features such as chords, arpeggios, dynamics, and so on. Next, listen to the music while looking at the score. Mark difficult passages while you do this. (Pianist Gretchen Saathofff cautions that the music “won’t sound like you” if you listen to another artist’s interpretation before practicing it, and I agree for the most part. However, if the music director tells you that you need to sound like the record, or if you only have a few days, then really go to school on the recording.)

  3. Ask Questions About the Music. Verify the key signatures now – you don’t want surprises later! Find out if solos are to be played note for note and in the original style, or if you’re allowed some latitude for improvisation. Will you be stage left or stage right? (Knowing this will help you set up for practice.) It’s also a good time to find out about such things as attire, rehearsal times, per diems, and so forth.
  4. Practice. Set up as you would for the show. Run through the difficult parts first. Start slowly – no prizes are awarded for finishing first. When you feel confident with the hard passages, go on to the easy ones. Increase your tempo until you’re comfortable with the correct speed. You may want to record your practice session in order to quickly find trouble spots.
  5. Listen to the Music Again. If you made your own charts, now is the time to check their accuracy. If charts or a score was provided, double-check dynamics, repeats, accidentals, and metronome markings.
  6. Repeat Steps 2, 4, and 5.

Above all, never ever tell yourself that the task is impossible and that you can’t do it. Such negative self-talk can ruin your performance and possibly your career. Instead, think of the fun you’ll have at the show, and focus on having a good time on stage. As Matt Baldoni puts it:

Remember, it’s the concert itself that is in fact the reward. You’re not getting paid to do the performance, that’s the fun part. You’re getting paid to prepare for two weeks (or probably less), maybe stand around an airport for 12 hours, sleep in a hotel lobby until your room is clean, or deal with a drummer who plays too loud and just simply doesn’t like you all that much. The reward is the gig, and all the people you’re making feel so happy by being there.

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This article draws from four separate blog posts on the subject of practicing and preparing for a show. For more information, readLearning Music Quickly and Efficiently,” by Matt Baldoni, “How To Learn a Ton of Music in Record Time,” by Dr. Geraldine Boyer-Cussac,Sight Reading: 6 Helpful Hints,” by Melanie Spanswick, and “Listen First, Learn Later?by Gretchen Saathoff. Ms. Saathoff has also written an excellent e-book on practicing, Goal-oriented Practice.

How to Get the Music Industry’s Attention

The Isaac Stern Auditorium at Carnegie Hall.

You know the fastest way to get to Carnegie Hall, right? Practice!

That may be an old joke (and a bad one), but there’s a lot of truth to it. Music photographer Russ Robinson’s blog post doesn’t show the way to the famed venue, but it does give excellent suggestions on getting noticed by today’s music industry. The halcyon days of a cheap, badly recorded demo catching the ear of a big-time record producer are over, he says. Instead, bands need to:

  1. Write and record stellar music. Good music just won’t do: it has to stand out, yet not as much as a sore thumb. And since everybody and his brother has access to good recording software, the recording quality must be on point as well. To make sure that it is, seriously consider hiring a good engineer. Fresh ears can mean the difference between good and fantastic.
  2. Manage your money. Robinson points out that you can’t live the lifestyle of a rock star until you have the income to back it up. Until then, show the big boys that you can run a business – your band – effectively and on a budget. Why would a label want to invest in a business that burns more cash than it makes?
  3. Play lots of gigs. Not playing out is like Steve Jobs building the Mac, then keeping it in his garage while waiting for the crowds to come. You have a product – your music – that you have to advertise. The world isn’t waiting for your CD, especially if it doesn’t know you exist. Gig often, and don’t discount free gigs completely out of hand. (For a discussion of free gigs, click here.) There’s no faster way to establish yourself as a brand than frequent gigging. Besides, playing out often makes you a better performer and helps boost your confidence.
  4. Develop a social media plan. Robinson has a good bit to offer here, but his main point is you should create a catchy social media presence, post meaningful and interesting content, and maintain a regular maintenance schedule. This is an excellent way to interact with your fans, who can tell potential fans about you.
  5. Get great press photos made. We shouldn’t judge by appearance, but we do all the time. And often those making judgments about you are looking at a photograph of you, not the real you. Your demo music may be stellar, but if your photo is a self-portrait taken in a bathroom mirror, better count on not making it to the big leagues. Ditto if the band was photographed against a brick wall. Don’t go cheap here – invest in a good photographer who shoots a lot of bands, and listen to the artistic advice.

All this advice does not come with a guarantee, by the way, but if you’re a working musician, I’m sure you’ve noticed the complete lack of guarantees in this business. But ignore it and you’ll be guaranteed not to get noticed by the music industry – or by anyone else.

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Russ Robinson is a commercial band & music photographer based in Tampa, FL specializing in high-end artist promos, cd/album covers, composites, and custom-designed digital artwork.  Visit him online at http://TampaBandPhotos.com or follow him on Twitter: @TampaBandPhotos

Article updated May 26, 2013

The Way of the Cross

"Christ of St. John of the Cross" by Salvador Dali

I’ve been busy all week posting a series of videos to YouTube, and I’ve still miles to go before I sleep, but I wanted to let folks know the story behind the videos. The series is called The Way of the Cross, after the Stations of the Cross devotion practiced by the Catholic Church. The devotion traces the steps of Christ’s passion, from his condemnation by Pilate, to carrying His cross to Golgotha, to His crucifixion, and finally, to His burial. It’s a very moving devotion that is open to people of all faiths.

A few years ago, I wrote my instrumental interpretations of the Stations and recorded an album called The Way of the Cross. I never released it, however, as I had no money at the time. Then along came Windows 7, and Microsoft Live Movie Maker with it. I played around with it, and lo, I found that I was not too shabby at putting one together. I mean, I’m no Spielberg, but he’s not me, either.

I digress.

So I decided to release the album on YouTube in the hopes that the music may help others reflect on Christ’s suffering that almost defies understanding, let alone appreciation. And what better time to release it than during Holy Week? I’m still adding videos, and my goal is to be finished by Easter.

I’m not trying to convert anyone, but I did want to share my interpretations of something that means a great deal to me – something that is bigger than I am. Enjoy.