Live shows are hotbeds for the effects of Murphy’s Law. With all the ingredients that go into playing out, there’s always something getting ready to go wrong. For example, we’ve probably all had a musician beg off an already-booked gig. But what about being on the other side? Have you ever been called in as a replacement musician and had to learn a lot of new material with little or no time to spare? These six musician mind tricks will help you get your head around your adopted band’s entire set, and position you to get those emergency gigs in the future.
1. Know the lyrics
This one might seem stupid or obvious, but it’s amazing how often musicians don’t know the titles or lyrics of their own material. Supporting players who don’t do much writing in the band might hear a song title and ask, "Which one is that?" They’re conditioned to using musical cues, responding to another player’s intro to remember the song. But lyrics are important in performance, even for those who don’t sing in the band. Don’t you want to know the meaning of the song you’re performing?
When asked to learn a new set, get ahold of the lyric sheets. Know the words and titles. That’s the first step to learning the songs and playing them with feeling.
2. Make the band’s recordings the soundtrack to your life
There are savants who can play a complex piece of music after hearing it only once. Everyone owns at least a little piece of that genius. Since it may be tough to get numerous rehearsals in with the band, you’ll want to get recordings of as much of the set as possible and walk into the practice session with a bunch of the material under your belt.
If no recording of a given song exists, make one. Sketch out the chords and record yourself playing through the format. Sound quality doesn’t matter; it’s a memory tool. Those around you may be driven crazy while you spin the same tracks in the car, on your tablet, and in the bathroom while you’re taking a shower, but every moment that you listen, you’re catching up with that genius who can mirror back anything he or she hears. Your brain is always working. If you think about it, you probably know hundreds of songs by heart, some of which you don’t even like, just because you’ve heard them so many times.
3. Reduce the song’s harmonic structure to numbers
This is an old-pro trick used by session cats who are accustomed to supporting vocalists. Since every singer has a different range, players get used to thinking of chords in terms of their degree in the scale. It’s a lot easier to think about I, IV, and V than the letters of the chord (G#, Bm, etc). This way, all you need to know is the key. This approach makes things a lot simpler when learning a song, or when making a sudden transposition at a singer’s request.
4. Tackle the hard stuff first
Intelligent apes like humans have a weakness for procrastination. If we hate doing the dishes but don’t mind mopping, we start mopping and tell ourselves we’ll do the dishes later. Before long, the floor is immaculate and there are dirty plates stacked to the ceiling. If you put off learning the hardest tracks until the last minute, you’re setting yourself up for a very stressful minute.
A "worst first" philosophy will have you attacking the most difficult material first, giving you more time to get comfortable with the songs that require the most technique. Then you can figure out the simpler songs at your leisure.
5. Remember that most mistakes don't matter
Being realistic, there are minor mistakes in almost every show. Bandmates tend to confer about this after a gig and ask one another, "How’d you play?" Generally, when one confesses to a mistake, one discovers that even the other band members didn’t notice it! That means the performance probably appeared seamless to fans. Even a major gaffe like playing the wrong chord is not going to be what your audience remembers if it’s a fun, groovy show. So cut yourself a little slack if you’re not perfect – that’s life.
6. Make a cheat sheet
Okay, staring at a big music stand during the entire set isn't the best look. But there’s a setlist duct-taped to the stage, right? You’ve been practicing hard for days, so maybe you feel like you could play all these songs blindfolded. It’s still okay to write the keys next to the song titles, as well as any little notes to help you get through.
If you’re a guitarist, two of the hardest things to remember seem to be tuning changes and the use of a capo. It’s not easy to compensate for forgetting to tune down to drop-D, or to try to slap a capo on your third fret several measures in. Make note of these adjustments so you don’t drop the ball.
With your brain properly trained, the songs all in your head, and these simple cheats, you and your temporary band won’t miss a beat.
Jesse Sterling Harrison is an author, recording artist, and part-time farmer. He lives in Massachusetts with his wife, three daughters, and a herd of ducks.