Some recent emails have given me the idea to review the importance of rehearsing as a band, and how to get the most from your practice time. Remember that these are general suggestions, you will have to adapt them to your own band’s abilities and temperament.
As I’ve told the kids on my soccer teams for many years, the way you practice is the way you play. So let’s review some ways to improve your rehearsals.
Before you even start, you should have a pretty clear idea of what you need to work on at this rehearsal. It is a waste of everyone’s time if no one knows what songs you are going to learn. You don’t need a long list; if you can learn two songs, and put time into three more that you already know, that’s a pretty good practice session. As discussed below, it can take some time to work through a new song, so don’t try to do too much in one session.
Occasionally, just before a gig, you may want to do a “dress rehearsal”, where you have the set-list, and you play through it without stopping. There should be a minimum of discussion between songs (“that works”, “let’s do it a bit slower next time”), but don’t play anything twice.
Depending on the personality of your band, someone may have to be “the boss”. Other groups can get by with a consensus decision at the start of practice. Sometimes it works well to discuss the plan for the next rehearsal at the end of this one. Figure out what works best for you and try to stick with it. This is the “work” part of playing in a band.
The next important item is to remember that you are “rehearsing” the song. This means that you don’t have it down perfect yet, and you need to make adjustments. You should decide how you want to play each song. Do you want to sound “just like the album”, or perhaps change the style a little (or a lot)? Does the album have parts that are hard to replicate live? After you have made these stylistic choices, you need to focus on three things: structure, harmonies, and dynamics.
A note about volume: you should never rehearse at volume levels that make your ears ring. You should always be able to hear the vocalists clearly, and they shouldn’t have to strain to be heard. If the lead guitar or drummer (or whomever) want to play loud, wait until after rehearsal is over. Loud wastes time and patience.
Setting Up to Practice
First, everyone should be able to hear each other pretty well. Most of us have limited space to practice in, so you have to use all the tricks you can to keep it sane. Everyone should be in a circle facing in toward each other. Remember to get the guitar amps off the floor (except the bass). They should be at least waist high, and shoulder height is best. Put them on a chair, or on top of the bass amp.
If possible, group all of the singers together on one half of your circle, and put your monitor speakers on the opposite side, with non-singers standing near the monitors. Again, the monitors should be shoulder high.
In this picture, the drummer is in the upper right, and I have assumed that she sings. In the upper left is the bass amp (green) with one of the guitar amps (orange) on top. The other guitar amp is along the left wall, and the keyboard amp is along the bottom wall. The blue diamonds are the monitor speakers. The crosses are the musicians, and I have assumed that the 3 on the right side sing (mikes in yellow). One of these will also play guitar, but it’s better to have his amp on the left wall with the others. Obviously, you need to rearrange this to suit your own personnel, but the idea is that the singers all go on one side, and the amps and monitors go on the other side.
There are 3 important places to focus on for structure: the intro, the outro, and the breaks. The verses and chorus will usually take care of themselves because the words and melodies tend to hold everything together.
For the intro, it is often easiest for one musician to start each song, with the others joining in at the appropriate time. It is harder, but more impressive, if you can begin a song from a cold start.
For the outro, is the ending sharp or sustained? Remember that you can’t (well, it’s difficult) do a “fade out”. If the ending is sustained, who keys the punch-out? It’s important that you all end together.
For the breaks and solos, you should work carefully on the transitions. How do you get from the last chorus into the solos? Is the solo of fixed length, or can it be extended? In one of my bands, we had a very “self-aware” lead guitarist. We had several songs that could have extended solos, and so we agreed that Mikey could play as long as he wanted, but he had to tell us when he wanted to get out. It took some practice, but eventually we were able to wait for Mikey to nod his head, and then the band would work the transition from the solo-verse into the chorus, and Mikey had prepared a flourish to complete his solo as we exited – it sounded like we knew what we were doing, but in reality we were ad-libbing.
You should always do your structure work at low volume, because you are not looking for tone, you are building the song’s foundation.
One of the things that helps turn a good band into a memorable band is the ability to harmonize. And harmonies require practice. Unfortunately, practicing harmonies can be boring for the non-singers, so many bands never do it. It may be a good idea to give some of the non-singers the afternoon off. As always, this type of work should be done at low volume so you can think and hear. Usually, the song can be driven by just a rhythm guitar, while everyone sings their parts. There are some songs where harmonies are not on the original, but your vocalists can find a place for them. (Laura throws in a one-line harmony in James Brown’s I Got You – “and I Fee-eee-eeelll”, right behind the male vocalist, it sounds great!).
After you’ve worked out the harmonies for a few songs, bring the rest of the band back together and practice with everyone. This is your opportunity to take the harmonies to the next level, by having the instruments work with the harmonies. If you have a keyboardist, he can choose voicings that are complimentary to the vocals. The bass player can often adjust the transitions to match the vocals as well (see Playing Along, and the guitars can add their bit as well. It is possible that this can get too busy, but it can be really exciting too.
One important part of working with harmonies is that once you’ve found your part, you have to stick to it, as everyone else is depending on you to do what you did last time. Be careful about ad-libbing during group harmonies.
One classic sign of a newly formed band is that they haven’t worked out any dynamics. Dynamics are the variation in volume and enthusiasm in different parts of a song. The simplest method is to play softly during the verse and loud during the chorus – many songs are done that way. But there are more subtle ways to do this as well. For example, the drummer can add a rapid hi-hat riff during the final verse, which can change the energy of the song without changing the volume at all. Or the lead guitar can run a series of scales behind the vocals which could add some interest to a boring passage.
The goal of adding dynamics is to keep the audience interested in what you are playing, without changing the song enough to annoy them. It is a subtle way to show off your talents without being obnoxious.
Dynamics should be practiced at or near full stage volume – which doesn’t mean loud enough to fill a stadium, but loud enough that the drummer can play normally.
And, of course, adding dynamics to any song requires practice.
Gigs as Practice
In the old days, our band had to know 60 songs of what is now called “classic rock”. We played 4 sets of 15 3-minute songs from 10pm to 2am. Other than mixing up the ballads and up-tempo songs, we also worked on some songs that were not quite ready to go. Usually we would open each set with 2 or 3 strong songs, and then we’d sneak in one that still needed work. By forcing ourselves to play before we were ready, it made us focus harder on the song; this was no time to be lazy. Many times, we would play the song better than ever. Occasionally we would bomb, and someone would make a self-deprecating comment to the audience. But most often, the added energy you get when playing live brings out the best in everyone’s abilities.
So don’t over practice a song. Work out the structure, harmony, and dynamics, and then put it on your set list and go play it.
After your gig, it’s a good idea to get together and review the good and not-so-good points. As a bass player, I’ve been known to say “I really liked your lead guitar in that song, can you keep it that way so I can write a counter-point to it?” You should try to remember other key points from your gig, and then make them the first item of business for the next rehearsal.
I hope this helps you use your rehearsal time more efficiently, so you can get out there and play in the bars and clubs – we want to hear you!