Learning Lots of Songs Quickly
Q: I have a dep gig in 5 days and need to learn 23 songs. Any tips? I’m quite a good reader and have all the songs transcribed so I can probably read the music as I play but it’s for a rock gig and wouldn’t look particularly cool.
A: For those who don’t know what a “dep gig” is (I think it’s primarily a British term):
DEP = short for ‘deputy’ – a sub, understudy or stand-in for another musician, or a musician who learns another musician’s parts so they can jump in and play the show(s) if the need arises.
There are a few existing columns relating to this here on No Treble. Check these out as well:
As you can tell from my column mentioned above, repetition is the key.
However, with only 5 days and 23 tunes? I can only assume that this is fairly last minute (and that you haven’t been sitting on a folder of music for months and only now looking at it all). If this is indeed last minute, then I would imagine a certain amount of understanding and leniency from the band. Although it would be best to double-check, I imagine that you could at least get away with a cheat sheet of some kind.
If you do really have to memorize everything, I can only say that you need to listen, listen, play, play and repeat… every day. Play along with the tunes over and over again. Listen to them while you are driving or doing other somewhat mindless tasks.
Having the forms, melody and overall vibe of the tunes in your head is a huge help. Beyond that, there isn’t much beyond playing them over and over again that will really ingrain them in your head. I like to:
- Start with the chart
- Memorize any specific lines, unison licks, grooves that are pertinent to the song
- Make a cheat sheet of the changes and play along with just that for a while
- Slowly remove bits of information from my cheat sheet and continue to play along until I can play without any visual aids
Assuming that you can at least use a cheat sheet of some kind, I would recommend making PDF cheat sheets of the tunes and read from that using an iPad and forScore.
Try and get the set order ASAP if you don’t already have it. It’ll help if you can practice the tunes in order and get used to the transitions and flow of the show. Additionally, the PDF cheat sheet is especially justifiable and functional if considered a back-lit set list (with notes on each tune).
You can also use a bluetooth pedal to change pages as necessary, making the iPad mounted on a mic stand (instead of a music stand) almost entirely innocuous. It’ll hardly be noticed, but you can really fill up a page with chords, notation and notes to yourself, as well as change pages without anyone really noticing that you are, essentially, reading on the gig!
Of course, that does limit your ability to run around the stage a bit, but you’ll have to compromise somewhere as you just might not have enough time to internalize that much music before the gig.
I use a word processor (Pages, usually) to create my cheats and here are a few things which may help you:
- Use large fonts. You want to give the impression that you are not staring a hole through your chart so make sure that you don’t have to stare a hole through your iPad either. Make them big enough that you can read it 3-10 feet back from the stand (depending on your eyes).
- Color code sections. I often change the background color behind the font depending on the section. That way, I also get a representation of the form. If the purple background is always the chorus, than it makes it that much more easy to navigate when viewing from a distance
- Don’t rewrite every section. Put just as much information as you need but keep it fairly uncluttered. If you have a yellow verse written and a purple chorus, than you only need to write the first verse and chorus and then use a “V” and “CH” with the appropriately colored backgrounds after that for those sections and you can refer to the verse and chorus that you wrote down the chords for.
- Use whatever shorthand you are comfortable with, but keep it easy to navigate and decipher on the spot (even if you need to change pages but there are very few tunes that I can’t fit into a one page cheat sheet).
Readers, I’m sure that many of you have been in the position of having to learn and internalize a large amount of music in a short mount of time. How did you do it? Please share in the comments.