Learning Songs For The Gig

A lot of my work as a bass player involves reading charts or written parts. Sometimes I’m provided with music.  In other cases, if I have a very short time to prepare for a gig, I will listen to the music and make notes so that I can have my own charts or cheat cheats.  I’ll either scan these and store as PDFs in my iPad or put them in a binder.  At least the iPad looks cooler and more high-tech than a music stand and binder.

Jay Allen's Shop
Jay Allen’s SHOP

This is a chart I made for a Jay Allen tune.  Click to open image.  Some of the terms I use are probably easy to figure out.  INT=Intro, V1=Verse 1, CH=Chorus, BR=Bridge.  Beside the title SHOP is a circled D indicating the key the recording is in.  The rest of the numbers represent the bass root movement. 1 = D, 4 = G, 5 = A and so on.  One number represents 4 beats or a bar of that chord.  (1 7) represents D for two beats and C# for two beats.  It’s a short hand that gets me through the tune and the numbers let me play the song in any key the singer wants.

While I’d rather not have notes on the stage, sometimes it’s the quickest, most efficient way to learn a show.  I’ll try to put my iPad or binder out of sight if possible if the artist would prefer I be discreet. In the last few years I’ve had the opportunity to play for artists where putting a music stand on stage just wouldn’t look right.  Playing bass for Emm Gryner for a couple of years was one of those situations.

Recently I had the chance to talk to Brian Kobaykawa about his process for learning tunes.  Brian’s current gig is with Serena Ryder.  You don’t want to be using a music stand on that gig!

SC:  How do you prepare for a show like Serena? Play the tunes over and over? Make notes? Or perfect pitch/giant ears and you hear anything?

BK: No perfect pitch or great memory here.  I used to make notes, then a friend said “no charts on stage” and at first I was kinda pissed, since it was a one off gig with 20 tunes. Then after learning the tunes I realized I played way better than I would have had I had charts. Since then, if I’ve got the time, I just repeat, repeat, repeat and memorize everything.

I find headphones help, to really get into the nuance of the parts while learning them. I learn it as best I can, which is usually 20 – 30 minutes per tune, then from there it’s usually 15 or so repetitions to have it really memorized, and then a refresher before every gig. But some tunes it only take 5, and some it takes 35.

It’s a super time consuming way to do it, and I admit not every gig gets that sort of care, as often time just isn’t there for it. I find I sometimes turn down gigs that I’m free for now, just because I know I won’t have time to do as good a job as I’d like.  That’s not to say there aren’t times where I need the work, don’t have the time, and make a one-page per set cheat sheet.

I do find though, even if I’m relying on just a cheat sheet, I’ll never memorize it from reading it, no matter how many times I do it. For me it’s just a different part of the brain, and I have to take the approach of memorizing as a workout, rather than expecting it to happen from reading it.

SC: Thanks for being so generous in your reply. So much of what I’ve done is reading someone’s charts. But I know I need to work on learning tunes without having charts. It’s great to know its not just me that has to treat it like a workout. I find if I do make notes then I’m stuck on those or scared to get rid of them. Thanks again for such and in depth reply. Will work on my NYE gig with that in mind.

BK: Yeah, I’ve thought about it a lot, can you tell!  The realization that using notes will never lead to memorization, that they are two completely different parts of the brain for me, was huge.  I’d rather be playing with good charts than not really knowing the tunes though.

I think it’s very bass specific too, how we approach this. Any other instrument can hesitate on the downbeat if they aren’t sure. I’m sure we’ve both seen guys do it, where they can hear the chord, and still come in on beat one, just on the backside. We don’t have that luxury.

There is an in between too, for me, where I can leave the stand at home, have it mostly memorized, but still have a single set series of notes to refer to when I’m not sure. Lately I’ve found it works best though to make those notes after the practicing, right before the gig, rather than using them from the get go. This could all be very different for a different person’s brain. It’s just what works for me.

A friend just told me that in his later years Glenn Gould would memorize a score before even touching the instrument, and I read something about Charlie Parker being able to memorize big band charts after one read through. I really think there’s a correlation between musical genius and photographic memories. I forget a tune two days after the gig if I don’t have ample opportunity to repeat it.

SC: Exactly. Bass needs to be in there on beat one. I have a sub gig on Saturday with bluesR/B thing. Tunes they’ve been playing for a few years and never used charts. Given the short prep time I have to make notes. You make a good point about turning down with that you won’t have time to prep for. Great insight about different parts of the brain.  I’ll be rereading this a number times over the next week or so and working on putting it into practice.

So there it is.  Playing a song over and over is the way to learn it and get away from notes and a stand.  To learn songs back in my high school days I would be picking up the needle on a record and dropping it to repeat a song or part of song.  I’d also use a tape deck to rewind a few bars and repeat that section of the song.  Yes, I am old enough to have used vinyl and tape to learn songs.  These digital days offer lots of options for learning and looping songs to get the parts down.   There is no quick way to do this other than play the songs over and over until they are in your head and ears.

Here’s Brian with Serena Ryder on Jay Leno.  You can also hear Brian with The Creaking Tree String Quartet

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