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:
- 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.
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.)
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
This article draws from four separate blog posts on the subject of practicing and preparing for a show. For more information, read “Learning 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.