During my time on cruise ships I had to learn countless music in a short amount of time. I remember the very first night of my first contract as a drummer. I got to Miami with a delay so all the band members were already sleeping in the hotel only the Musical Director was waiting for me. When we met he handed me a huge pile of charts telling me: “This is for tomorrow.” The pile was super heavy and I started to get even more nervous. When we were about to say good night to each other he handed me another even larger pile of music explaining: “The other pile’s for tomorrow, don’t worry about this one yet.” I think I started sweating. Both piles contained something like 300 songs.
Obviously we didn’t rehearse all of them during the next day, but I knew that I had to put myself a system together so that I could even have the slightest chance to learn all these songs. I was overwhelmed with the amount of material to learn actually. But with time I got to develop a system that gave me reliable results. In this post I’d like to share with you how I prepare a song for a rehearsal that I have no chart for, no transcriptions.
Let's take a look at an easy tune that everybody knows. "I'm Gonna Be" by The Proclaimers.
You might think that you already know this song and that it’s super easy anyways. Well, that’s the exact mistake so many musicians make. They think that they know a song, they come to the rehearsal, arrangement changes are being made and when performing a week later those musicians have no clue of what was rehearsed. It is crucial to always take clear and simple annotations during rehearsals and for that you need to be prepared.
Knowing The Structure
The first thing I do is I listen through the song and write down the arrangement. Intro-Verse1-Chorus etc. If I know the song well enough or if it’s just an easy tune then I can even include the bar counts for each part of the song. By doing this you can focus on the whole song instead of just one part. It will help you when it comes to writing the arrangement in terms of repetitions, Dal Segnos and Codas. This will make the arrangement easier to read.
Writing It Down
Once I’ve done this I open up a notation program such as Sibelius. I start from the beginning, what are the drums doing in the intro? Write it down. But don’t make it specific. Just write down the basic groove and if there is any important his or breaks. Move on to the verse, write down the groove, any important hits or breaks? Write them down. Make sure that when you write rhythms you write them easily readable and not super complicated, as you’ll regret it during the rehearsal.
When you get to the first repeated part, listen to it and compare it with what you have already written down, is it the same or are there any new hits and breaks? If not you can start thinking about repeat signs. Let’s say the verse is 16 bars long, in most song you get away with using a repeat sign after 8 bars with a 1st and 2nd ending.
It is important not to focus on the small things, keep the grooves simple. No ghost notes, no fills etc. The audience and your Musical Director won’t care about all those things, only drummers do, but you’re not performing for drummers and you need to save time. There are instances though where you’d have to transcribe specific grooves or fills. Like the bassdrum & HH fill in “All summer Long” by Kid Rock or the ghostings in “Rosanna” by Toto. You can easily identify these important parts by asking yourself if the song would be as strong without these parts and that if you'd hum that song if you'd include those parts.
Work through the whole song like this, it shouldn’t take much longer than 20min for a Top 40 song.
What if there’s a long drum-less breakdown? I recommend you to instead of writing “break for 16bars”, write down empty bars with breaks. You’ll appreciate the extra space during the rehearsal. You’ll be able to write down cues into those bars so that you won’t have to fully rely on your counting. You could for example annotate when the vocals come in or what lyrics are being sung.
Instruments & Sounds
Songs use different sounds such as open HH, Ride, claps, Rimshots, Rimclicks etc. Instead of trying to create a different note for every different sound played I usually just write over the bar which sound is to be played as otherwise you’ll get confused very quickly.
Transcribing endings can be a pain, as often artists are lazy and use a simple fade out. You already know that you won’t be fading out when performing live. So what I usually do is to just leave a few bars of the same groove at the end. This way I have enough space to annotate the rehearsed ending during the rehearsal. If the song has an ending, write it out. It is very likely for the MD to choose that ending.
The layout of your part is very important as you'll be sight reading it during the rehearsal. Always keep enough space on the chart for you annotations, don't try to save space. Always include double bars when a musical part starts. This will help you get guidance on when to play a fill or when dynamics and tension changes. Try to have the system & page breaks on those double bars. This will simplify the understanding of the chart. At the top of the first page make sure to have a bpm count. This is very important, because you might be doing a song that you can't even hum the melody.
Having the bpm written will help you count off the song reliably or at least have an idea of how fast the song is. Including the bar counts of every part after 4, 8, 12, 16 bars can help immensely on keeping an overview over the song. It also takes a lot of counting away from you. Name all the parts with a specific name such as "Chorus" or "Bridge". I see many musicians naming the parts "A" "B" etc. Musically that doesn't make any sense. Also, nobody talks like that during rehearsal, you'll be hearing stuff like "Let's take it from the second verse." Nobody says "Let's take it from C."
I think with these few tips you'll be much more prepared during a rehearsal, making yourself easier to work with. This method might not be the fastest one but in my experience the most effective one. It takes some practice until you're fast at transcribing a song like this. I've transcribed hundreds of songs this way and now it takes me around 20 to 30min until I'm done. And when I'm done writing it down, I'm ready for the rehearsal and don't usually have to look or listen to the song again.
In the next blog post we'll take a look at how we can take notes during a rehearsal that are actually worth something. See you next week.