Sunday, January 29, 2012

What Makes a Good Band Practice?

I love having a good band practice!  It is so wonderful to do something that I enjoy with people that I like.  It's even better when I feel like we have accomplished something.  So, what has to happen to make a "good" band practice?

Several words come to mind:  fun, creativity, flexibility, improvement.

For starters, not all band practices are for the same purpose.  So, what is the purpose of your practice?  Is it to practice for a specific gig?  Is it to make decisions about upcoming gigs, recordings (CDs) or other important issues?  Is it to work on several specific songs?  Is it to decide on new songs that the band will work up?  These are important questions to ask, because otherwise you will not get much accomplished.

I would say the thing I love the most about practicing with The Chris Talley Trio is that we have lots of fun!  The best part of this fun is that it doesn't keep us from accomplishing what we need to get done.  If there are mistakes, they are funny.  If someone needs helps getting a harmony part down, or figuring out chords, or whatever, we do it together as many times as it takes to get it.  No one complains.  In fact, many times we just blame everything on Zane...or Carla...or Emily...or me!  There's plenty to go around.  We tell stories, listen to Zane's stories, and make stuff up as we go.

If we have a specific gig to prepare for, we start by putting together a setlist.  We decide if we need to learn new songs, or if we know enough already for what we need to do.  Some of our gigs require special songs, like playing specific songs for a wedding, or playing fiddle tunes for a dance, or playing for the Victorian Fest and doing Civil War era songs.  We are very fortunate in this area because Zane knows more than 400 songs by memory!  (By the way, we don't allow Zane to get sick.  We need him too much!)  We usually prepare this setlist during practice.

Once we have a setlist put together, we start working on all the songs.  We decide who is singing lead and who is going to sing what specific harmony part.  We also decide on instrumentation.  Since Emily and I both play multiple instruments, we can choose what instruments we think will sound the best or that we can play the best for each particular song.  The first practice for something like this doesn't usually yield the "End Product."  It does get us started, though!  Sometimes during these practices, I will record harmony parts and either e-mail them or put them on a disk for us.  This allows us to remember what we worked up and also allows each member to practice the specific parts we worked out.  I also e-mail or make a copy of the proposed list with the keys that we are doing everything in and all of our practice notes.

Practice notes -- this leads me to another very important part of practice!  With four reasonably normal people, you would think we would be able to remember what we talked about and decided on for a list of songs, wouldn't you?  It's really pathetic how quickly we forget our decisions.  Sometimes even I can't make heads or tails out of my own practice notes!  I have learned to take very good practice notes and not abbreviate too much.  What do I put in my practice notes?  I put just about everything we decided on about a song in the practice notes:

* Who kicks off the song, on what instrument, and how (e.g., turnaound, full break)
* Who is singing lead and who is singing what harmony part(s)
* What word do we start singing harmony on if it is not the first word of the chorus
* How to pronounce certain words, if this is an issue
* Phrasing and breathing
* Key changes, if there are any
* Instrument changes during the song, if there are any
* Anything special that we did with rhythm or chords
* A Capella parts (vocal-only parts)
* Split breaks
* Endings (tags? A Capella? instrumental?)
* Did we decide to do only specific verses of a song and not the whole song?
* Notes that should make it to the final setlist for our actual performance
* Anything else that we decided about the setlist

I usually don't worry about the order of the setlist until it gets closer to the gig.  It is very important to create a setlist ahead of time and to go through the songs in the setlist in the order in which you intend to play them.  Why?  Because sometimes you get two songs back to back that you or someone else in the group is unable to play back to back.  For example, Red Haired Boy and Salt Creek are probably not tunes you want to play back to back.  They have such a similar chord structure that this can cause some musicians a problem.  You might not even know why you can't play certain songs back to back -- you just find that you can't!  Much better to find out before your gig than DURING your gig!

If we are working on songs for a CD that we are going to record, it is VERY important that we have a list from which to work!  We usually go to the studio between two and four times, depending upon how many songs we are recording, how many hours we have the studio for, and how well-prepared we are.  We talk about which songs we should record first.  These are the ones that we feel the most comfortable with.  You want to have a good start in the studio, plus you don't want to waste time practicing in the studio.  Studio time costs too much to do any practicing there!  We make sure everything is in its finest form before we take it to the studio.  Notes allow each one of us to practice what we need to practice.  It keeps us from forgetting to work on something that we need to work on.

Now to the more fun part of actually practicing.  When we are working on arrangements, we all tend to come up with ideas.  Some of the ideas come from making mistakes that we all decide we like.  Some come from listening to other groups.  Sometimes we just simply think that something might sound good, so we try it!  Not all the ideas we come up with are good, but they are all worth trying.  No one complains about having to try the ideas.  Ever.  We just do it!  We have a lot of good-natured humor going around about each one of us.  We do a lot of laughing, making faces, purposely playing stuff terribly, and eating.  It's an event.  Our practices usually last about four hours.  We try to practice at least twice a month or even every week.  It just depends upon how many gigs we have and what we need to accomplish.

Once we get everything down, we try to practice for overall improvement.  This is when we work on things like cutting off words together, pronouncing words the same, equalizing harmony volumes, equalizing tone qualities of voices, and actually singing all the words with the same rhythm and inflection.  We also work on instrumental background fill-ins.  Sometimes we even change some of the things we decided on earlier.  These are all things that I will put on our practice notes, too.  We will also do practices where we stand up and work the mic just like we would do in a show.

I think the better you know someone, the more likely you are to know what they are going to do.  This is so important for a band.  We use so much eye contact and body language to tell each other what to do or not to do.  It is important that we all like each other and can have fun with each other.  If I give someone the "eye," they know something important is coming up.  If I need Emily to take a break, I give her the eye and nod my head.  She knows exactly what I mean.  When Zane is getting ready to end a song that doesn't have a tag (or if he wants to end something early), he lifts the headstock of his guitar slightly and then we all know what to do.  If one of us is too far from the microphone, a simple look and nod takes care of it.  Things like staying directly in front of the mic or moving immediately away from the mic all give clues as to what needs to be done. 

One of the best things you can do yourself to make band practices go better is to come prepared.  Make sure you know what you are supposed to know.  If you are singing lead, get your words memorized quickly so you can practice without the words.  Make sure you know your instrumental break.  It is very frustrating for others in the band if you always come unprepared.  The rest of the band members don't want to hear your excuse.  We all have busy lives.

The second best thing you can do for yourself is to be forgiving and forbearing.  We all have bad days where it seems nothing we play comes out right.  Or we can't remember the words to save our life.  Or it was extra stressful at work, at home, or whatever!  My band members are like family to me.  We love and forgive each other.  None of us are even close to being perfect!  Making fun of yourself can really release tension.  Take the blame for something that obviously wasn't your fault.  It will make everyone else laugh and it will relieve any stress!

Playing together in a band is one of the most fulfilling things I've ever done.  If you haven't tried it yet, do it!  Get some friends together and play for nursing homes or private parties!  You'll become a better musician and you'll have so much fun!

1 comment:

Zane Prosser said...

This a great post Chris.If you are going to play in a band you need to go about practice in a structured and purposeful way. This post is a perfect guideline.
I just want to know one thing though,when did anyone in the Trio ever 'purposely play somthing terribly"?