Maximizing practice time and learning new music

Discussion in 'General Instruction [BG]' started by GreggBummer, Dec 10, 2021.

  1. Following the lifting of pandemic restrictions, I found that I have a lot more work. I am playing in several cover bands. This is great, I'm enjoying it. However, I'm struggling to learn 60 to 100 songs in a few months time. My day job is demanding of my time, but I set aside time each day to practice. It could be as little as 15 minutes or as much as 2 hours. I'd like to maximize that time.

    What I'm doing now: I usually print out a lyric sheet with chords. If one doesn't exist, I'll make one. I will sit and listen to a song and write notes in the margins regarding the arraignment. Tempo, feel, rests, parts that I will sing, etc. I usually have this sheet on a stand when I practice with the band for the "first run through". I'll add to the notation as required. I take it home and use that for practice. I find myself playing along to whatever youtube/mp3/streaming has the song. Next practice the sheet isn't on the stand, it stays in a binder. If I need it, its there.

    I feel like this is a slow way of learning a lot of songs. Also, I'm finding that my woodshed time- general learning and practicing more- has been impacted. I'm not looking for a magic bullet solution, I don't mind putting in the time. I want to use what time I have more efficiently. I'm curious how you do it.

    I'm a weekend warrior, hobbyist, or amateur musician. I have taken lessons on and off since 1989, but I am primarily a self-taught player. I can read a little, have a working knowledge of chord theory and harmony. I'm not an expert by any stretch of the imagination.
  2. Malcolm35

    Malcolm35 Supporting Member

    As a hobbyist do you take sheet music on stage? I played for 25 years and everybody used fake chord sheet music. Now that you know your chords and have the fundamentals down yes, it's time to practice using sheet music on songs you will be playing.

    Sounds like you are doing what is needed. Yes to what ever time you can steal -- but do something every day.
    BBQisgood, BOOG and GreggBummer like this.
  3. jallenbass

    jallenbass Supporting Member Commercial User

    May 17, 2005
    Bend, Oregon
    The only way I learn anything is through a lot of repetition and for me it's not a fast process but it is reliable. Though I read music and know theory, which is helpful, the sooner I can get away from anything written the better. I always start by learning a song by ear and only refer to a chord chart if something confounds me.
  4. I should clarify: I can read, but I can't "sight read". I define that as being able to read sheet music and play it correctly at the same time. If I bring paper on the stage it is a "fake" or just my own notes. I prefer to play without it, but I will do it if I'm filling in for someone or it was short notice.

    Same here. I have to play a song many, many times to get it under my fingers and in my ears. I can improvise some, but, it has to be the right situation.
    Outtaseezun and BOOG like this.
  5. Lobster11

    Lobster11 Supporting Member Supporting Member

    Apr 22, 2006
    Williamsburg, VA
    For me, 90% of learning most new songs is just getting them etched into my head, which involves listening to them over and over -- sometimes with the chord chart in front of me, other times without. Unless the part is especially complex or difficult to play, the actual playing is usually the easy part. So, for me, much of my most important "practice" can be done while I'm driving or do something else with music in the background.

    Anyway, that's a lot of songs to learn, so of course that's going to take up most of your available practice time while you're learning them. But this should be temporary, right? As you check these off one by one the list will get shorter, and you'll have time again to work on other things.
    Mr Cheese, Artman, IamGroot and 5 others like this.
  6. SteveCS


    Nov 19, 2014
    Hampshire, UK
    How do you feel about the margin notes you make, or charts you write yourself. Do you find them easier to remember? And do you find that your ability to recall lasts longer? Many years ago I found this to be the case, so I started writing out my own charts, even when others were readily available. It started out as simple chord charts or 'lead sheets'. Now I do everything in full, in standard notation. I find that the time invested in working it out, writing it out, correcting and only then learning (from a fixed and true reference point) pays back many times over in speed of absorption and accuracy of recall. Maybe the same might work for you...

    Last edited: Dec 10, 2021
  7. Mark_70


    Dec 31, 2013
    For learning songs I'm not familiar with; I found it helpful to just put them on a Spotify playlist and simply listen to them often.
    When I can't practice bass, but can listen to tunes, I put that list on to get some "memory muscle" on the change-overs, beginnings / endings etc.
    When at the gym, in the car etc. Helps me memorize the tunes..

    GreggBummer, One Way, DaDo625 and 3 others like this.
  8. TheReceder


    Jul 12, 2010
    I was in a group that had a pretty light gigging schedule. I used the exact same methods as you, get a cheat sheet with lyrics chords, and notes when needed. It became invaluable when we would get back together to rehearse after a long time off. Basically I'd get told that something I was playing was wrong, and I'd simply say that that was the way we learned it and reference my cheat sheets. If they wanted to change, that was fine, but if they changed it back again that was when we typically had issues. I still have all the songs that I ever charted (alphabetized) in a folder with all the notes. It comes in handy once in a while when I'm short on time.
    GreggBummer, BOOG and SteveCS like this.
  9. bfields


    Apr 9, 2015
    Ann Arbor, MI
    Some things I've found useful:

    - seconding suggestions to make a playlist. I listen passively throughout the day and take quick notes if something jumps out at me. ("Note tricky intro on song X", whatever.)
    - When I've got time to actively work on it, I give myself maybe 30 minutes per song, and imagine I've got an emergency call to play that song at the end of that deadline, and think "how can I best use this 30 minutes to minimize the chance of a train wreck?". For a simple song that's enough time to outline the structure and chord progression, and that may be all I need. At the other extreme, my notes might amount to "nope, not ready". Hopefully after I've made a pass through the whole list, I'll get back to those. But, worst case, it's better to be able to notify the band early if you can't do the song.
    - Get down the easiest songs first. This was counterintuitive to me at first. But it's better to show up being able to play 11/12 songs and screw up (or sit out) #12 than to nail the one hard one and screw up the rest.
    - BUT if I spot a clear technical challenge in my listening, sometimes I'll try to get started on that early. (E.g., I'll transcribe that tricky intro to song X early, because I know I'll have a better chance at it if I can give it 5 minutes a day for the next month than if I try to cram it at the end.)
    - 1.5x-2x speed on youtube can be handy for sketching out song structure.
  10. RhinoBass


    Oct 21, 2009
    Sometimes I get a quizzical look from my bandmates when I say "there are really only 5 songs". This, of course, is hyperbole, but the point is that you are going to find a lot of commonality in the songs you are learning. There will be some "signature licks" here and there, but once you start thinking of songs as "I, IV, V in G" or "I, vi, ii, V in C", or even "12 bar blues in Bb" or "8 Bar Blues in G" or "The Rhythm Changes" or whatever, then you don't really have to earn individual songs anymore.

    Just a very small list of I, vi, ii, V songs:
    • Heart and Soul (Carmichael and Loesser)
    • Stand by Me (Ben E. King)
    • Blue Moon (Rodgers and Hart)
    • Earth Angel (Williams, Belvin, and Hodge)
    • Stand By Me (Ben E. King)
    • Duke of Earl (Gene Chandler)
    • Loveable (Sam Cooke)
    • Jesus of Suburbia (Armstrong, Dirnt, and Cool)
    • In the Aeroplane Over the Sea (Neutral Milk Hotel; Mangum)
    • Eternal Flame (Hoffs, Kelly, and Steinberg)
    • True Blue (Madonna)
    • Perfect (Ed Sheeran)
    • Bristol Stomp (The Dovells; Mann, and Appell)
    • Stir It Up (Bob Marley)
    • Beauty School Dropout (Jacobs and Casey)
    • Since I Fell For You (Buddy Johnson)
    • These Foolish Things (Strachey and Maschwitz)
    • Hallelujah (Leonard Cohen)
    • Every Breath You Take (Sting)
    • Sherry (The Four Seasons; Bob Gaudio)
    • Carolina In My Mind (End of choruses; James Taylor)
    • Baby (Justin Bieber, Christopher Stewart, Terius Nash, Christopher Bridges, Christina Milian)
    • D’yer Mak’er (Led Zeppelin; Bonham, Jones, Page, Plant)
    • Marvin Gaye (the song) (Charlie Puth, Julie Frost, Jacob, Luttrell, Nick Seeley)
    • Dear Future Husband (Meghan Trainor, Kevin Kadish)
    • All I Have to Do Is Dream (The Everly Brothers; Boudleaux Bryant)
    • Runaround Sue (Dion DiMucci, Ernie Maresca)
  11. BobDeRosa

    BobDeRosa Supporting Member Commercial User

    May 16, 2012
    Finger Lakes area of New York State
    Owner, Tritone Jazz Fantasy Camps
    You didn't mention what kind of music your cover bands are doing, bit I'm going to guess mostly rock/pop/blues -- mostly 3- and 4-chord stuff? If that's the case, I would encourage you to do more learning by ear than by paper. With those genres of music, there are only so many chord progressions and you'll begin to find common patterns (I-IV-V, I-VI7-ii-V, I-VI7-IV-V, etc.). The more you can hear those changes in addition to just seeing them, the easier it will be.
    GreggBummer likes this.
  12. Blues Daddy

    Blues Daddy

    Jul 1, 2016
    Years ago I found myself in a very similar situation (needed to learn a bunch of cover songs very quickly) and did pretty much the same as you're doing . . . I wrote out my own 'cheater charts' as needed or downloaded lyrics with chords. This works well to give you the important skeletal structure of the songs, but the most beneficial thing you can do at this stage is to commit the time to practice at home so you can get the songs, riffs, patterns, etc. into your hands and head. It may take up a lot of your free time now, but this will pay off biggly when you get together with the bands to rehearse. Remember, YouTube is your friend for unfamiliar cover tunes.

    ps. consider getting an inexpensive tablet just for music/band materials, it will become a much more efficient way to organize and catalog your charts, rather than hard copy sheets in a binder.

    Sounds like exciting times for you right now - Good Luck (and always keep practicing)
    GreggBummer likes this.
  13. fishdreams

    fishdreams Supporting Member

    Sep 4, 2010
    Brooklyn, NY
    Endorsing: Arkham Vacuum Tube Amplification and and Martin Keith Guitars
    I have this situation that I have very little time to practice or prepare. I sometimes sit in without any rehearsal with a good church band and I like to do a good job and add something to the performance, not drag it down.

    I've developed a sort of short hand transcription style. The things I write out note for note are riffs, difficult passages, unison parts, breaks, weird time signatures, when modulations happen etc - signature things out of the ordinary, so to speak. Stuff that after a few listens speaks for itself or is generic, musically speaking, I know I can just trust my ears and follow the band, so i don't write that down.

    A 6-11 minute tune is usually 1 page, in this way. This is for me the most efficient approach.
    Last edited: Dec 10, 2021
    GreggBummer likes this.
  14. DanGroove


    Apr 27, 2017
    I find that with a day job and multiple bands, I really have time for one or the other. I try and put in time daily on skill development, but when it comes time to learn a new batch of songs the skills training gets sidelined for a week or two while I focus on the new material. I'm still getting daily practice so I think it's all fine. It's okay in my opinion to put that on the back burner while I get the more practical work of learning new songs done.
    Blues Daddy likes this.
  15. 31HZ

    31HZ Glad to be here Gold Supporting Member Supporting Member

    Feb 26, 2006
    Central VA, USA
    I record every rehearsal, especially at the beginning, so that I can practice along to the part and also hear any feedback or notes about the rehearsal performance. Helps a lot.
  16. LBS-bass


    Nov 22, 2017
    You're in a challenging position with that much to learn and a day job, too. I had a difficult month last month with nine sets of music to learn for shows with four different bands. I am retired so I do have a bit more free time but it's not like I spend all day doing this. Here's how I've learned to prioritize work. I have steps I take to make it as easy as possible.

    1) get the song list and examine it. Mark off the songs I already know, and the songs I've never played but have a pretty good mental memory of, like old classic rock stuff that I've heard a gazillion times. Set those aside for later.

    2) listen to the ones I don't know. Most of them are going to be easy. Identify the ones with uncomplicated, repetitious chord changes and predictable forms like verse, verse, chorus, break, verse, chorus. These are going to be easy to learn. Set those aside for later.

    3) you're going to be left with one to three songs that defy logic. They have more complicated changes and/or non-standard forms. These are the ones you're going to spend most of your time on. Get to work learning these. Break them into sections in whatever way works for you and learn the sections one at a time. But also, LISTEN to the songs you don't know. Get them into your mental music memory so that you know how they go as well as the songs you set aside in step one. A lot of this work can be done while you're doing other things, because it just requires you to hear the songs multiple times. During practice sessions, work through each part of the song until you know that part well, then move to the next part, and so on. Then stitch them together. Don't worry about every nuance of how it's played; pick up the groove and the important bits first, and you can learn the embellishments later.

    4) once you feel like you're getting familiar with the songs from step 3, start adding in some of the stuff from step 2, and if you have time start working on the step one stuff. Step 2 stuff you'll also need to be listening to, but you can start mapping out each section with chord charts and the overall form. Learn the verse, chorus and break changes then string them together and make sure you have the form written down or memorized so you don't forget the order. Pay attention and note any stops or accents.

    5) start working with the ones you know and brushing them up. If needed, make the same sort of charts for those just to jog your memory.

    6) now you know them all, so just keep practicing and adding the embellishments you want to add, and keep working with them until your show.
    Last edited: Dec 10, 2021
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  17. I've had the same experience of working in multiple cover acts at the same time and actually finding the time to learn material.

    For me it's listening to the song, charting out (in my own language) the arrangement and then learning it in bite size chunks, learn the intro, a verse, get that down and move onto the next part. After it's put together play it thru a half dozen times and go back to it a day or so later.
    When I can step back and play the song thru after a break from it I know it's in my memory and ready to go,

    I rarely practice longer than 20 minutes at a time though I'll often do a few in the course of a day when it's go time.

    Breaking the song up into manageable parts makes daunting songs less of a challenge as I'm focusing on one segment at a time. Working in an act that covered a lot of Steely Dan taught me that. I sing as well but don't typically add that until the song is in my fingers.
    LBS-bass likes this.
  18. stigbeve


    Sep 24, 2014
    I like to set goals for myself.
    I have been with an original metal band for a couple weeks now.
    I set a goal of learning 2 songs per week. Would like to learn all of them ASAP
    but just don't have the time with work and family.
    Met my goal the first week and exceeded the goal by one song the next week.
    portpc likes this.
  19. In general, I learn songs in segments broken down by alike lines as opposed to learning each note from top to bottom. So I learn the intro and ending, the verses, then if there is a pre-chorus or B section. Then it’s just a matter of assembling parts.

    Personally I much prefer to work off of (SN) charts. For me it is much faster to learn each segment than listening to a recording over and over again. The problem I have with Lyric sheets with chords, not being primarily a vocalist, I have no clue what the rhythm cadence is.

    There is one thing about playing with multiple bands that would drive me nuts would be if Band A plays song X in the key of B and Band B plays it in Ab. Whoo boy!!!
  20. Wasnex


    Dec 25, 2011

    My process is pretty similar to yours. I play through each song with the recording and take notes. The notes may go on stage with me. My process is learning by ear (by rote). The idea is I learn what the song sounds and how to play along. Then when I am performing, I continuously anticipate what is coming next.

    My notes include the tone the song starts, key, form, and possibly written out rhythms or even a few key bars of the song. If the chord progression throws me, I might also write a few bars of changes.

    I could sight read most pop tunes, but it's generally not acceptable to read in a cover band.

    Other musicians use different processes that are way more efficient than mine. Some can listen to a song and simultaneously analyze the chord progress and also memorize it. The process uses a numbering system for the chord progression such as Nashville Numbers.

    The key here is there are a finite number of chord progressions and once you learn most of the combinations, it gets much easier. You hear a new song and immediately recognize the verse is from one song and the chorus is from in effect you already know the various elements that make up the chord progression. I.E. you don't really analyze, so much as recognize the chord progression. There may be exceptions to the chord progress that are noted and memorized. For example, one chord in the progression may have a different quality than your reference song (your reference song may have ii7-5 where the new songs uses ii7.

    It takes certain natural mental processes to use this process, and unfortunately I believe I am lacking in some of the necessary attributes. So while I can sort of grasp the process, it's something I don't expect to ever really master.

    If it's not obvious, the process relies on a memory trick. The trick is you always use the same songs as references for each progression you know. For example, maybe your reference for a 145 song is La Bamba. If you were hearing the Beatles Twist and Shout for the first time, you would immediately recognize it uses the same progression (145). It's more like you are remembering something you already know than learning something new.
    GreggBummer, SC Guy and LBS-bass like this.
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