All the musical ideas, playing prowess and flash hardware in the world won't make your band sound good - unless you get the most out of rehearsals. Trevor Gilchrist offers some clues.
Since time immemorial, musicians have had a peculiar habit of meeting up for a spot of pointless infighting, otherwise known as 'rehearsing'. But contrary to popular belief, introducing a little variety and commonsense into those rehearsals can lead to an altogether more rewarding and productive time for all concerned.
OK you're in a band, you're working towards a recording session or you're doing gigs and you've got this practising business well and truly licked.
Everybody in your band turns up on time, every time, having brought what they were asked to bring only-last-night-on-the-phone, and you're all bubbling with anticipation at the thought of missing the last episode of Black Adder in order to spend an evening tirelessly re-working your established numbers and writing new material. Everyone's looking forward with exhilaration to the prospect of mature and constructive discussions about the band's 'image' and future, knowing that the evening will undoubtedly draw to a close with each musician drifting reluctantly home in a state of mild, creative euphoria to reflect on another job well done...
Sound familiar to you? Thought not.
The truth is, in the real world, 'rehearsals' tend not to be the inspiring, motivating or fruitful adventures we all know they ought to be. The majority of them, though arranged with the best intentions, develop into little more than a glorified jam-session, or a good excuse for an argument that results in at least one member of the band flicking the power switch on his Peavey, and storming home in the sort of sulk that would make America's reaction to Pearl Harbour look like The Muppet Show.
Having recently witnessed the heats of a local amateur Rock Competition, my eyes have been opened to the fact that a distressing number of bands seem to regard the whole business of rehearsing as little more than a tiresome chore, a poor relation to gigging and recording (the tasty bits).
Maybe you've never really thought about it before, but you're going to think about it now. So just stop everything, cease the frantic battering of Octapads, put your Portastudio on Pause, and let you and me take some time out to reassess a few basics.
Let's start with a monumental home-truth: fail to rehearse properly and you'll fail to perform properly.
In front of an audience, it means you're going to lose their interest as a result of sloppy count-ins, unrealistically fast or unstable tempos (tempi, strictly speaking — Ed), poorly tuned instruments and noticeable confusion amongst the members of the band as to who is supposed to be doing what and when. (We've all been there, so just bite your lip and read on.)
By way of example, it soon became obvious at the aforementioned competition that despite the venue's tortuous acoustics (the Guildhall, Cambridge is not known for having been designed for rock 'n' roll, just as the Zeppelin was never remembered for being 'nippy about town'), there were still a few bands who managed to do justice to themselves and their music, simply because they'd taken the trouble, at some previous juncture, to discuss and finalise what the other bands seemed to treat as expendable trivia: namely, their behaviour and activity on stage during and between numbers, general agreement on the most practical tempo for each song, and just who was going to count everyone in each time. What saddened me about almost all the bands was the fact that although I was quite prepared to have any of them paint a smile of delight on my tired lips, I had still, after hours of patient watching, to be actually smiled at. 'If these musicians are enjoying themselves', I thought, 'it seems they don't want me or anyone else out here to know it.'
WHY? The answer was simple. Most of the musicians weren't enjoying themselves.
Yet the chapter of disasters that occurred (despite the assurances of Friends and Relations that it wouldn't) needn't have happened to those musicians at all. It certainly needn't happen to you, because by arranging a rehearsal, any band can provide itself with the perfect opportunity to dispel confusion, to practise and perfect all those 'non-musical' aspects of performance, and as a result, step up on stage with greater confidence and enthusiasm.
In front of a recording engineer, the fact that you've neglected your rehearsals means a different thing entirely. Unlike your audience, engineers aren't there to be entertained, but to do a job of work. If you turn up at a studio with the 'oh, it's all right, we'll sort that kind of thing out when we get there' attitude, you'll simply come over, at best, as a bunch of timewasters.
Never make the mistake of confusing recording sessions with rehearsal sessions. Remember that audiences and engineers are interested only in your band's finished product. Go to them with anything less and be prepared to lose face and lose money — two things an amateur band has to be kinda thrifty with at the best of times.
So, how do you go about improving your rehearsals?
You can start by re-assessing your reasons for choosing a place in which to practise. Try, whenever possible, to get into a proper rehearsal 'studio'. You'll find that paying for the privilege of practising automatically injects a greater feeling of importance and (dare I say it) discipline into what you're doing. You shouldn't be charged more than about £3 per hour, and you'll often find that for your money you get the use of a resident PA system, or something that you should be able to utilise — even if it's only an extra mic stand. If you don't know any such places, try asking at local music shops and recording studios; not only will they know what's available in the area, they may even have facilities of their own. If those avenues prove unproductive, try asking the members of other local bands where they practise. Quite a number of private individuals, usually working musicians themselves, soundproof their garages (most working musicians can't afford cars, remember) and look to supplement their income by hiring it out to bands as a rehearsal room. If you're successful in this direction, try to get some sort of commitment (both from your fellow musicians and from the person who lets the room) so that you'll be able to make a regular booking, say, every Wednesday evening, 8-11pm.
As far as the frequency of rehearsals is concerned, you'll obviously be dictated to by the habits and circumstances of all the individuals involved, but the golden rule to follow is: 'quality first, quantity if possible'. Better to have just one productive meeting a week than several four-hour arguments.
So, you've found a place to rehearse, you know it's going to cost £2.50 an hour, and you've managed to force a nod of approval from your fellow musicians at the suggestion of booking a session every Wednesday evening. What do you do now?
IT'S certainly no use just turning up and expecting things to happen — that's what you used to do, remember? So your first move is to sit down with the rest of the band, as far away as possible from anything even resembling a musical instrument, and do yourselves the favour of discussing exactly what it is you want to achieve. You might find it helpful to write this list of topics down and work through them with the whole band:
1 Which other bands do we all like and why?
2 Which other bands don't we all like?
3 Do we like our own band? (It sounds funny but you'd be surprised at how many musicians don't). If not, why not?
4 Of all the bands we've seen, which one enjoys the sort of success/respect/following that we would most like to enjoy? Why?
5 What do we think about our own appearance/dress/behaviour on stage?
6 What do other people seem to think of it?
7 What are our strengths as a group?
8 What seems to be the band's weakest link?
Work through a list like this, get some sensible answers, and you'll be halfway toward discovering a comforting sense of purpose and direction, around which you'll be able to organise future rehearsals. If you're going to be successful as a band, even on a local scale, you're going to set about achieving it in those three-hour rehearsal sessions.
It's important, though, that you avoid planning to do too much in any one rehearsal. A good starting workrate is between two and three numbers per three hours if you want to do reasonable justice to each (obviously this will depend on the type of music you play). But, I hear you cry, spending three hours on just three, five-minute numbers is going to get a little tedious, if not completely boring.
Well, or course it is, but only if you've forgotten why you're rehearsing. Look at it this way...
Why do you go to see a band? Do you take a pair of binoculars and the Observer's Book of Digital Delays, to study chord progressions and the application of new technology? Probably not. Whilst such aspects of any performance are often of justifiable interest to most keen-to-learn musicians, what we all really turn out in the cold for is entertainment. That's what it all comes down to, regardless of the type of music you're playing. If you still don't believe it, try naming a band in the public eye that's got where it is today by failing to entertain audiences.
So, set about rehearsing those three numbers with such an attitude in mind, knowing that you've also got to incorporate the standardising of count-ins, your movements and behaviour on stage, the way you smile, the way you look, the new ways you could be 'communicating' with the audience and/or impressing your sound engineer and, believe me, you'll find three hours will go like three minutes. Which is just how it should be. Obviously, every band has its off days when things don't come together, but you should find them few and far between.
Perhaps most important of all, you've got to work to get the message across to your audience that you want to play for them, not at them. If you manage that, you'll discover the vast difference between a bunch of songs and a performance. You'll enjoy yourselves more, too.
If we are honest with ourselves, we know that our reasons for becoming involved with a band in the first place stem from the uncanny desire to experience the 'pleasure of making music', and the tempting possibility of a little respect/fame/money to boot.
If you want to enhance that pleasure for yourself and your audience, and you really want to gain that respect, don't be content just playing ten numbers one after the other. Use your rehearsals to make sure you really put on a show.
Feature by Trevor Gilchrist
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