How To Rehearse Your Band
There are many ways that bands rehearse, and how you are rehearsing may vary, depending on your goals—both long and short term. Clarity on your rehearsal goals will help clarify your band’s collective sense of direction, and help you all get on the same page. Bad rehearsal practices will likely lead some members to feeling that this time is unproductive and that the band is going in the wrong direction. Good rehearsal practices will bring your band to its highest level, and everyone will have a clear sense of what you’re working towards.
Planning is the key to productive rehearsals. Everyone in your band should arrive ready to contribute. Every tune needs an advocate, and if that’s your role, you should distribute charts or recordings in advance, so that everyone has time beforehand to work out a part that’s appropriate for their instrument. (To learn more about developing instrument-appropriate parts, check out The Berklee Practice Method series [Berklee Press, 2000 to 2004]).
Communicate your rehearsal goals in advance by circulating a list describing what you want to accomplish. To help you create a realistic plan, figure that after about three hours, it’s time to stop rehearsing, and in a three-hour session, you can expect to be able to work up two or possibly three new tunes. If you must get through more material than that, take at least a half hour break between three-hour sessions. Everyone should break at least for a few minutes every hour or so. Singers and wind players require more frequent breaks. Overplaying can lead them to injury, which can takes weeks or longer to heal. Let them sit out or mark (play quietly, leaving out notes), if the rest of the band wants to press on, specify two different times for the rehearsal: the time when the space will become available for setup and the “downbeat” or start time, when the band should be ready to begin playing. Anyone who needs extra time up front should arrive early. Drummers need extra time to set up, as will whoever is recording the session. Ornery acoustic string instruments (guitars, banjos, mandolins, acoustic basses) need time to adjust to the room conditions so that their tuning stabilizes. Brass players need some time to warm up their lips. Everyone should be aware of how much time they need before the rehearsal begins, and should plan accordingly, so that they are not intruding on other band members’ time.
Some bands like to begin rehearsals by jamming on an easy groove over a blues or other simple form, or by playing a tune you all know well. Warm up your ax and your fingers. Musically, say hello to your bandmates. Do this for fifteen minutes or so, and then get down to business. This is fun, so beware of jamming for too long at the expense of accomplishing more critical business.
Plan on about two or three hours for your regular rehearsals. Take a short break halfway through, and be sure to have some drinks and snacks on hand, to keep people from wandering away from the premises and taking too much time in getting back. No alcohol, please, unless having fun making noise is more important to your band than doing focused, productive, and thoughtful work.
Record your sessions. Some bands like to record the whole session, and others prefer to record just the “final performances” of each tune. You don’t have to get too fancy. Just a general room mic or two and a tape recorder or laptop is fine. You just want a record of your arrangement and groove decisions, and give everyone something to practice with afterwards. Ideally, you should distribute these recordings to everyone in the band shortly after the rehearsal. Recording to a computer and converting to MP3 makes distributing files easy. If recording is your responsibility, set up the recording gear before the band shows up. The goal is to make productive use of everyone’s time, so don’t let the recording process get in the way of this.
Let’s look at some types of rehearsals and when they are appropriate. Many rehearsals contain elements from several of these paradigms, but considering each of these types and where they lead can help you make sure you’re working towards your big-picture goals.
1. The Jam Session
Jam sessions involve playing through a lot of music, and generally, not reworking anything very much. They sometimes have the feel of informal performances.
Though on the surface, they might seem like playing “just for fun,” jam sessions actually serve many functions. They can be opportunities to invent new grooves, to work on your band’s overall sound, to practice communicating with each other, to audition a lot of new material, or to just have fun playing music. They can be good opportunities to stretch your musical imagination, to build some calluses on your fingers, and to finally test out that crazy idea that probably won’t work but might actually turn out great. It’s fast-paced, and mistakes don’t really matter. It’s about vibe and birds-eye views. Having a barbeque? Invite your band over to jam.
For jam sessions to be most productive, all participants need to be able to follow the music. This means that the tunes must be known or easily picked up on the spot by everyone. You might want to pass out some music in advance, unless the session’s purpose is to run through tunes that everyone knows really well, just to brush up on them before a performance. Otherwise, you may find yourselves just playing campfire songs, rather than tunes you really should be learning.
If you are planning to host a jam session and you want it to be more than just a social occasion, distribute lead sheets or recordings at least a few days beforehand. Have extra copies at the session. If you are going to play at a jam session, do what you can to make sure you know the tunes. Always have some solo ideas and background licks in your back pocket, playable in any key and in any style. This should be a goal of your private practice. Whatever your instrument, try to be ready to play the melody, comp chords or play backgrounds, and play a bass line. Jam sessions aren’t so much about practice as reinforcement or experimentation, so do your homework before you begin. Some jams include some sight-reading, particularly if a resident songwriter wants to test out some new ideas. Really, anything goes. They are usually friendly and forgiving, but sometimes can take on a competitive edge too.
Some bands only jam. Jamming is all of the fun of music and none of the hard work. This is fine, unless you are trying to evolve your skills to where you can play gigs. Jamming isn’t about addressing the details or making polished performances. When that’s what you need to do, it’s time to woodshed.
Woodshedding or “working out” is the opposite of jamming; it means practicing and working up songs, creating interpretations, polishing parts, and getting ready to perform or record. It is a focused and structured form of rehearsal.
Again, everyone should have their parts before the session, and arrive ready to play. If you’re covering a tune by another band, everyone should have a recording of the original in advance of the rehearsal, and should have worked out their part, copying the original as precisely as how you want. Avoid lengthy working out of individual parts when the whole band is together, as it wastes everyone else’s time. A little bit of this is often critical, when fine-tuning a groove or an arrangement, but try to minimize it. Individual preparation beforehand will make your rehearsals more productive.
If you’re working up an original tune or arrangement, the songwriter/arranger might distribute a “scratch” recording beforehand, giving the band an idea about tempos, grooves, and so on. Ironing this out prior to the rehearsal will make better use of everyone’s time.
Here are a few ways to approach learning a new tune.
a. Begin with the chorus. Choruses are often easier to perform than verses, and since they keep coming back, while you’re rehearsing the rest of the tune, you can always “come home,” after you get lost.
b. Find the hardest part. Slow down the tempo, rehearse it over and over until you can play it correctly, and only then, speed it up. Then, find the next hardest part.
It often helps to have just a couple instruments rehearse a section in isolation, such as just guitar/keyboard or bass/drums, without the distractions of the rest of the band. Sometimes, hearing someone else’s part can help you clarify what you should be doing yourself. And sometimes, solo practice is necessary.
Don’t get too bogged down by a particularly difficult part, though. Sometimes, you need to say “Gotta work this out at home,” and move on. If the part is still too difficult, then it might need to be simplified. That’s better than having it break apart during a performance.
If you are sitting out while others are working out a part, follow along silently, hearing your own part in your head and feeling it in your hands. Silently finger the keys or strings, mouth the lyrics, or play air drums. Stay present.
c. Run through a section, and then stop. Were there any train wrecks? Focus on fixing them. Why did the wreck occur? Is there a confusing rhythm? Is someone else lost and confusing you by playing the wrong thing? Is the arrangement too repetitive, so that people are losing their place? It might be appropriate for the drummer to add a fill (even if it’s just a quick hit or two) to help clarify the form. Try to pinpoint the problem’s source and address it.
d. Once the band can make it all the way through the complete song form, discuss the arrangement. How many choruses will you play? Is there an intro? An ending? A bridge? Will someone solo? If you’re running a rehearsal, bring some extra pens and paper, to make sure that everyone can write down the arrangement decisions. If there are lyrics, make sure that everyone has a copy, even if they are not singing. Lyrics help people remember the arrangement and keep their place.
e. Work up the tune so that you can play it through without any major mistakes. Practice it slower, if you need to. Speed it back up when you can all play it perfectly at a slower tempo. Work towards ending the rehearsal by playing a performance-ready version of it, start to finish.
Don’t spend too long woodshedding a single tune. After an hour or so, record it and move on to the next tune. That will keep your rehearsal from becoming stale and frustrating.
3. The Dress Rehearsal
Before the first performance of new material, hold a dress rehearsal to run through all the tunes and do any last-minute housecleaning.
Organize your sets. Then play the tunes as if you’re performing. Don’t stop, whatever happens. Debrief after the tune. How did it go? Were there any train wrecks? If so, why did it happen? Was it just a fluke, or is there a fixable source of confusion?
Is someone going to speak to the audience, introducing a tune, or telling an anecdote? Have them practice, at the dress rehearsal. Who will introduce the band? Who will say, “Thanks everyone, good night, and don’t forget to pick up our CD on your way out!” It’s time to settle these questions.
You want this rehearsal to be just like the actual performance. It’s a time for refreshing your memories and looking for any lingering imperfections, but not for learning anything new. That’s what your earlier rehearsals are for.
The cliché “a bad dress rehearsal means a great performance” often holds true, but try to have a great dress rehearsal anyway.
4. The Backstage Brush-Up
Ideally, the dress rehearsal will be on a different day than the performance. It might be necessary, though, to brush up on the day of the performance—even a short time before you go on stage.
Brush-up rehearsals serve to refresh your memory and ensure clarity/consensus about form and such, not to learn anything new. It’s about song order, remembering arrangements, warming up, and discussing any last-minute changes.
If a backstage brush-up is necessary, avoid playing through the entire tunes. Play the intro, maybe once through the form, and then the ending. Review the arrangement. Take it easy. Conserve your energy.
A Typical Rehearsal Plan
Here’s how a typical rehearsal might actually work out. Say we’re going to rehearse Wednesday night. Start time is at 7:30, but the room is open at 6:00.
By understanding the different forms of rehearsal, you will go into them understanding what your goals should be and how you can best prepare to make the time fruitful.
Productive rehearsals depend on everyone having respect for everyone else’s time. Arrive prepared, organize your session, and focus on the business at hand. Have clearly defined goals that support your band’s overall goals.
Good rehearsals are key to your band’s success, so be protective of this special time, and be deliberate in making it productive.
Jonathan Feist is the series editor of The Berklee Practice Method, co-author of its Teacher’s Guide, and editor of over 100 other books and online courses about music, technology, business, and culture. He teaches music online at Berkleemusic.com and presents seminars about writing. Jonathan holds bachelor's and master's degrees in composition from New England Conservatory of Music. He is Managing Editor of Berklee Press.