Practising and memorising hours of complex music is a very daunting task. You’ve heard “Practice makes perfect”… or even better: “Perfect practice, make perfect”… that is fine, but what does “perfect practise” actually mean, and how do you do it?
Well, it turns out that jumping in the deep end has required me to think a bit more about having to practice effectively. I’m about to go on tour with Dave Bainbridge. I have to memorise 2 hours of incredibly complex progressive celtic music. The challenges presented by the music are huge: 15 minute long songs with changes between electric guitar, acoustic and mandolin. Complex melodic passages over odd time signatures and chord sequences that can go for bars and bars without repeating.
This all adds up to form beautiful intricate music that takes you on a journey, evolving from form to form, never settling, but exploring different and contrasting musical landscapes.
When setting out to learn music like this it can be daunting, so I thought I would share my approach to give you an insight into my way of doing it…and also because it might help you if you have a crazy amount of music to learn for a gig.
1: Listening Stage: (8 Weeks to go)
It is tempting to launch into transcribing songs without properly listening to them. Just listening to the songs might seem like “putting off the real work” or “procrastinating”, but I have learnt that listening has huge benefits. When I say listening, I don’t mean casual background listening. I mean soaking in the music, actively listening till the music is imprinted in your subconcious. You know like when one song is ending, you can sing the starting note of the next song even before it starts.
With 8 weeks to go, I spent a week doing nothing but listening to the album. On repeat…all day, every day. When I was running, driving, and even as I went to sleep. After a while, I started noticing patterns and the songs start to become imprinted. Right up to gig day, I will listen to the set list on my iphone at every opportunity.
2: Rough Transcription: The foundation stage (6 Weeks to go)
At this stage what I do is create an very concise, basic outline of what is happening. I’ll outline time signatures, bars numbers and things I need to watch out for e.g,
Intro 8 bars. Verse one: 7/8 NB unison keyboard line…Chorus 4/4 8 bars
It helps me transform the work I did at the “listening stage” into a visual memory map. It is this visual memory map that I will refer to as short hand in the final stages of preparation and possibly on stage as well.
I lay out the pages as clearly and symmetrically as possible to aid memorisation.
3: The visual memory stage: Accurate Transcriptions (5 weeks to go)
I am a visual learner. If you are a kinetic learner (you learn by practically doing it with your hands) you might be able to skip this stage.
I lay out the transcriptions in neat symetrical blocks. This way, when I listen, I can visualise the song structure as I listen to the music.
At this stage I will also transcribe all the really tricky parts and work out specific fingerings.
4: The muscle memory stage. (3 Weeks to go)
This is more like traditional practising. Now that all the parts are transcribed, I focus in on the difficult parts and repeat them until I can’t get them wrong.
Traditional advice is to start practising the part just a notch below the speed you can comfortably play it and build up the speed gradually. Generally this is great advice. I take a slightly different approach.
A, Medium Speed.
I start slow, maybe a notch below target speed! I check that the musical lines flow easily and the fingerings and picking are as economical as possible.
B, Too fast speed.
I quickly build up the speed to try to play it faster than the target speed. This would seem like bad advice, but I will explain why: Some fingerings, and techniques that work really well at slow speeds, don’t work well at high speeds. Doing this stage is like a “stress test” to find out how it is going to work. What ever doesn’t work at high speed. I change and move on to
C, Super Slow speed.
I adjust all the fingerings, picking directions etc and play them super slow. By super slow, I mean absolute snails pace. I might even visualise or name each note and fret number individually as I play. I focus on absolute economy of movement and accuracy.
This takes insane patience!
D, Still the super slow Speed!
This is the revolutionary stage, I play super slow for a long time. A long, long time. I resist the temptation to speed it up for a few days. I have found that if I do this patiently, getting it up to speed is almost instant. This video was shot just after doing the super slow practise and hitting full speed within about 2 minutes.
5: Dress rehearsal: Technical Memory stage. (2 Weeks to Go)
This is where I start committing the entire set to memory. I practise along with the songs. I make sure all the guitar sounds and fx changes are smooth. I practise changing from acousitc to electric guitar and singing the backing vocals.
I will rely on the “rough transcription” from stage to to jog my memory but try not to look at it at all if possible.
I work on ONE song at a time rather than trying to gradually raise the level of the entire set.
Also, rather than try to vaguely go through the songs and try to feel my way through it and come back to try to fix mistakes or memory lapses later, I strictly practise the songs in small chunks and don’t move on till I can play that chunk right.
Fortunately, due to the investment at each of the previous stages this process is pretty quick. Stage 1, the listening stage, really pays of here!
6: Full Volume run through (One week to go)
Its pretty much impossible to practise for the adrenaline rush, raised heartbeat, bunny in the headlights feeling of being on stage but a full volume rehearsal is still very important.
When playing at lower volumes, the guitar and sounds respond totally different to when its at stage volume. Things that sounded good at low volume, like guitar tone and balance of FX can sound totally different when turned up. For example. When at low volumes, we tend to make our guitar sounds more trebley and more bassy too. When turned up to stage volume, the trebly sounds become ear shattering and the bass sound woofy and boomy. I tend to turn the treble and bass down as the volume goes up, I also tend to run the FX slightly leaner on stage, as this leaves more room for the other instruments.
Step 7: The band rehearsal.
One of the differences I’ve found from going from being a keen amateur to being a professional musician is that band rehearsals are a luxury! Gone are the days of weekly rehearsals, endless jams and experimentation! For this tour the musicians are from around the UK and Holland. Rehearsals cost money so need to be as short as possible. That is why all my preparation needs to be done so early. It is also why playing such complex music requires a crazy level of dedication that just isn’t practical for a lot of professional musicians.
In band rehearsals we fine tune the arrangements and make and last minute changes.
Step 8 Sound check.
By this stage if I don’t know it…its too late….Time to just GO FOR IT!
I hope you find this useful. If you have any more tips, please comment below and if you found it useful, please let me know too.