How to Tighten Up Your Band

THE OBJECT OF REHEARSING is to tighten up the band’s performance and presentation. When an audience listens, they hear the whole sound. A tune, a set and a show each has something being communicated for an emotional impact. It could be lyric content, musical flow, energy intensity or whatever. This is why the music needs to be fluid and clean to make the music sound good as a group.

Individuals need to prepare their parts at home alone. Band rehearsals are to get the band tight. Obviously, if you need to pause for someone to work out something you do just that, but that’s not the purpose of group rehearsals.

The following principles largely address commercial cover bands, but apply to any size or style of ensemble. These rehearsal principles hold true for original bands as well even though the initial purpose of each rehearsal could be to write and develop material rather than groom a performance.

Key aspects of rehearsals include:
~ Where to rehearse.
~ When to rehearse.
~ Deciding on material.
~ Getting the material (tapes, CD’s, written music, etc.).
~ Writing any needed charts.
~ Someone being in charge of making tapes of the material for everyone.
~ Everyone having a cassette/CD player to learn the tunes with.
~ Each individual having a distraction-free, personal practice space at his or her home.
~ Deciding on what tunes to learn first.
~ Having someone in charge of running the rehearsals.

This is what you do:
First: Decide on the goal of the first and subsequent rehearsals. Decide on what you want to accomplish. (It would be ideal to have as much as the big plan written down as possible. The better you know where you are going and what you want to do, the easier it will be to plan rehearsals and meetings.)

If doing cover material:
1. Have a meeting and decide what tunes or material to do at your first rehearsal. Within the style range of the group, focus on any mutually known tunes or material first. If you all know or are familiar with certain tunes that aren’t going to be on your “main set list” you can start with those for fun. Start with the easiest tunes so you can get some fun things happening. Your morale will be up to the degree you are accomplishing something.

2. Get the tapes or music together and arrange for everyone to receive a copy. Make a master tape to add to as you proceed. (For written music keep the masters in a file or a binder.)

3. Before the next rehearsal, make sure everyone learns the tunes or practices the written music to the designated tunes. If everybody is ready except one person the whole rehearsal time can be shot. You can learn the tunes at rehearsal but it’s more efficient when everyone learns the tunes by themselves first. When the band gets together you should work on band stuff.

4. Get together and start rehearsing.

What to rehearse is determined by—well, whatever it is you need to rehearse! It’s just that simple. Take each section and get it clean. Then, combine it all together and see what you have. You just repeat that process until it’s tight and finished. If the transition from the verse to the chorus is weak, you practice verse, chorus, verse, chorus, verse, chorus, etc. until you have it. If the groove is shaky, just play the groove on one chord until it’s tight. Play it for an hour or longer if needed.
Do whatever it takes.

Things most likely needing rehearsal are:
~ Grooves – the underlying repetitive rhythmic structure.
~ Breaks – strong changes in the groove for variety and interest.
~ Dynamics – the expressive change of loudness and softness to add interest and color instead of things being monotone.
~ Cues – physical gestures or specific musical parts signaling that something is going to change or happen.
~ Vocals. (Lyrics, melody and harmony parts.)
~ Beginnings and endings.
~ Transitions from section to section (sectional transitions).
~ Who’s going to solo when.
~ The entire tune to get a smooth flow to it. Parts are parts, but the tune itself is larger than the sum of its parts.
~ Groups of tunes and an entire set.

As a band can sound like one tight unit or a group of individuals playing at the same time; each tune can either be one smooth flowing entity from beginning to end or a bunch of parts stuck together.

The basic rehearsal flow is:
1. Run down a tune from beginning to end.
2. Notice any rough spots.
3. Take up each rough spot and tighten it up.
4. Run through a series of parts to get those sections and transitions clean.
5. Run the tune again.
6. Repeat steps 1 – 5 until the tune is finished.
Rehearsals can be efficient or not. If you don’t care how long it takes to get the show on the road, then you can chat, go to the store three times, get phone calls and take long breaks. But if you want to get working, work during the time you should.

The more efficient you are at doing things at rehearsals the sooner you’ll have your act together. Right? Well—run the verse. Stop. Run the verse slower. Stop. Run the verse up to tempo. Stop. Do this again and again without any downtime. Then do the same with each part of the tune. Then, when you’re running a set you do the same thing.

In addition to the entire group rehearsing, “sectional rehearsals” are a very efficient way to go (rehearsing just a few instruments at a time). Since one tune is made up of many elements, isolating these elements gives a magnified view which allows you to tighten it up faster. When the elements are isolated it’s easier to: (1) see exactly what’s needed—how good or bad it really is, and (2) specifically work on that, without any hidden barriers like thinking something is one way when it’s really not. It’s extremely helpful to record the main parts of a rehearsal and listen to it. This way you can brush up on your part as well as get a “listener’s” view of your sound.

Various sectional combinations:
* Rhythm section – just grooves (Rhythm section: the instruments in the band whose primary musical function is to accompany the vocalist or soloist by playing in-the-pocket grooves. Keyboards, guitar, bass and drums are normally referred to as the” rhythm section.”).
* Vocal rehearsals – just vocals with an instrument or tape reference.
* Just bass and drums.
* Each instrument alone with the drums.
* Each instrument alone with bass.
* Just the horn section if you have one.
* Any combinations your ensemble could have.

When you’re learning material on your own, the things to practice are:
* Learning the form of the tune and becoming familiar and comfortable with it.
* Learning you own part (including switching effects settings/MIDI patches).
* Learning the lyrics.
* Singing your parts – lead or background.
* Singing and playing simultaneously.
* Singing and playing simultaneously while doing choreography.

When sitting down alone with a tape, it may or may not be easy to get the music. If your ears are developed enough to recognize what’s going on you should do fine. But, if it’s really hard to get the notes, chords and rhythms, you might need some help and some good music instruction. With the right instruction even the worst-off can achieve a level of excellence. Some of my students are professionals and learn tunes by ear easily, and study with the express purpose of improving this ability. Learning tunes while driving can be a great time saver. Even if you can’t get the specific notes and chords, you can learn lyrics, vocals and form.

If you’re new to learning tunes from recordings I suggest the following sequence:
1. Listen to the tune many times and get to know it. Learn the form and the melody (or main focus point, i.e., licks, rap, etc.). Learning rates vary from person to person so it could take listening to it three, ten or thirty times.
2. Learn the chords (starting with the bass notes) or your main line, e.g., guitar riff, synth horn part, bass line.
3. Play along with the tune until you have all your chords or lines down.
4. Play along some more and learn all the breaks.
5. Fine-tune your parts.
6. Continue in this fashion until you are done.

Having a variable speed cassette recorder or CD player is invaluable for doing takedowns (learning the music by ear). There are a number of CD players and software programs out that let you slow things down while keeping the pitch the same or slow it down and actually change the key. Quality of audio equipment as well as quality and type of recording can make it difficult to hear so keep that in mind if your ears seem good but you can’t figure something out. (Sometimes it just hard to hear something because of the recording itself.)

When playing cover material, most of the time you need to play the parts exactly the way they are on the tape. Specific bass parts, drum grooves and certain melodic lines may make up most of the tunes substance and if you omit those, there can be very little left—in some tunes it might not matter. And unless there is a very specific “signature lick,” anything close might do. (Signature lick: a riff {specific series of notes and rhythms} that exemplifies a certain artist, player, style or tune.)

Flashy lead guitar solos can be tough at first. You don’t learn Steve Vai’s or Albert Lee’s techniques over the weekend unless you’re pretty accomplished to begin with (technique-wise at least). So what do you do when faced with something too tough? Well, you either work out something similar in intensity or skip the tune altogether. Which way you go might be a “band decision” so check it out and do what’s best. The last thing you want to do is attempt something way over your head and blow it big time on stage. It’s not uncommon to make an occasional mistake in public (clamming) but to go way over your head is another thing altogether. If you do make a mistake, chances are no one will know except you (though you might think everybody heard it). When this happens just keep on going and don’t make a big deal of it. (And if you really blow it, well..., you have to live with it and practice more so it doesn’t happen again.)

Learning Lyrics
Different singers use different techniques to remember words. Here is a drill created by a friend of mine, Mitch Talevi. Mitch has a lifetime of lead singing and being a guitarist/front man. He has taught this technique to his vocal students as well as using it himself.

Drill for learning lyrics:
1. Take a song and write the lyrics down on paper.
2. Slowly talk through them, pronouncing each syllable. Leave space between them. Don’t use notes yet. Just talk through them. Do this two or three times.
3. Sing the song.
4. Repeat steps 2 and 3 until the song is known.
As Mitch explains: “This is a method of actually learning the lyrics and making the song yours to sing and perform. When it’s yours, you ‘own it,’ so can then get it across to the audience. You don’t memorize or use tricks to remember the lyrics—you learn them. Sometimes you have to do the drill ten times through. When learning a new song just sit down and do this—it saves a lot of heartbreak later on.”

Tightening it Up
The best way to tighten up anything is to slow it down and play that part over and over—up to 20 or 30 times or more if needed. Work on the fine points. When you’re working with musical skill and ability, or lack of it, you’re working with such elements as: understanding, control and certainty; or not understanding, reservation and uncertainty.

The control needed to play something fluidly, evenly and professionally is achieved by practicing slowly. How else can you grab onto something? You can’t with any lasting success. A beginning batter does not start off by hitting fastballs. Developing professional level skill is not like an assembly line where everything is slapped together as fast as possible so that when all the nuts and bolts are assembled the thing is done. Once you are at a pro level, you can learn things very rapidly. A pro has already gone through the years of practice, rehearsals and gigs—he’s paid his dues and has put in his personal practice time.

Constructive Criticism
Offering one’s opinion about how someone else could tighten up his part should be done with tact. Some people take constructive criticism well and some don’t. Some people will get defensive no matter what you say and you have to live with it or not. The way you say things can either assist matters or make them worse.

“You play nice parts but your grooves are bad” might invalidate someone and make correction difficult. Saying: “Your parts sound great. Could you tighten up the groove a bit?” would be a better way of saying it. Using the word “but” in this type of communication could imply something “bad” or “negative” and should be avoided.

Since people’s emotional stability and personal confidence can vary tremendously, you have to be able to say things in a manner that will accomplish the goal. A stable pro might turn to a buddy with a grin on his face and say something derogative in jest and have it be no big deal. Say something like that to a guy who is lacking confidence or is weak-hearted and you could ruin his day or month or year. Be tactful.

Musicianship Level
More rehearsal is needed at lower levels of musicianship because people still have attention on what they’re doing. A drummer is still coordinating his limbs, guitarists are still working on tough chord changes, musicians are working on being able to sing and play at the same time, and soloists can still be wondering, “What am I really doing?” At the beginning, musicians are more concerned with what they are playing than having the freedom to create music without reservations.

When you get to higher levels of musicianship, you don’t need to think about these things—you just play. You learn the part and play it in context with a smooth and even flow or you just read it down. The more skilled a musician is the less rehearsal is needed. When I rehearse with a big band it’s mostly to see if the charts are right or to work on the entire show, rather than to figure out my part. (However, if something is hard, you take a minute to practice it of course. Sometimes you don’t have the material to work on at home so you learn it at rehearsal. There’s no other option.)

Apply these concepts and let me know how it goes!
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