We’ve all done it. We all went to a rehearsal, worked hard and focused, nailed our parts during the rehearsal and then a week later during the show we had no clue what to play. Sounds familiar right? In this post I’m sharing a few tricks with you that have helped me taking accurate and fast notes during rehearsals.
It is important to have some kind of strategy when taking notes. The most important thing to remember is to be consistent. Consistency and efficiency take a lot of practice to learn, so the earlier you start, the earlier it will become a habit. Making taking notes and reading them is the ultimate goal.
Start With The Structure
When I get sheet music, the first thing I do is to check out the structure of the song. I highlight the repetitions, endings, codas etc. When I highlight those signs I always (and I mean always) use the same color. I use red, but it doesn’t matter which one you use as long as you assigned one color only for structure. Highlighting the signs will help you sight read the music during rehearsal. When arrangement changes happen, simply erase the color and put it somewhere else. The second thing I do is to mark bar numbers on every part of the song. When a part starts I start recounting from zero. I usually write 4, 8, 12, 16 etc on top of the bar. That gives me a clear overview of how long each section of the song is. Also, when a part is, let’s say 9 bars long, it stands out and I know that I’ll have to count an “extra” bar. At this point I might not even have heard the song yet, but the sheet music is a lot clearer to read and I know the structure of the song only by having a quick glance at the chart. To me the bpm, signature and key (if you need one) are also part of the structure, so I highlight them.
There are many charts with accents and hits on them, feel free to highlight them as well. I know at first you’ll think “but I can read them, it’s easy” but trust me, highlight them. I recommend you highlighting them with a different color from the one you've already used for the structure, to avoid confusion. In this case as well; always use the same color. When the hits are complicated, or just look weird, draw a vertical line on the downbeats so that you can clearly see where the hits are supposed to be.
Ready For Rehearsal
The tips I just gave you, usually take something around 1-2 minutes, so it’s super fast but also very effective. You can easily do those things when the musical director is handing out the charts, mark everything we just discussed and you’re ready to rehearse.
While rehearsing the song, changes to the arrangement will be made, dynamics will be discussed and parts will be rewritten. The challenge now is to keep up with taking notes and making them readable, so that when you look at the sheet music a week later you still know what you meant.
Everybody uses different signs and different vocabulary, but music has some basic vocabulary to offer. Please, make use of that vocabulary. Many MDs, conductors and other musicians refer to that language when they're trying to express themselves. Also, a big advantage of that vocabulary is that is internationally known and used since most of it is Italian. I'm talking about vocabulary like: forte, piano, da capo, crescendo, ralentando, ritardando, dolce etc.
Let’s say you change the structure of the song; do not just write down at the top of the page that the structure changed. You’ll look at it when the MD counts off but then when you’re at the part where it changes from the sheet music, you’ll already have forgotten about it. You have to mark where you changed the structure and where it goes to. Make it as easy for yourself to read as possible. When you’re performing you’ll have more important issues in mind than thinking about what you meant with a certain annotation. To each part you should include a dynamic info, so that you're never guessing how loud a part should be. Dynamics is one the most important topics when it comes to live performances, make sure to play the dynamics consciously and securely.
Always Be Prepared To Take Notes
As an MD I always check that my musicians have something to take notes with. If they don’t bring anything, to me they’re already unprofessional and I tell them that I need them to take notes. I see many musicians taking notes, but they do it completely wrong. They’d do stuff like highlighting a part, just so they have it highlighted. But when they look at that part a week later they have no clue why they highlighted it. I always tell my musicians to never assume they’ll know what an annotation means, because they won’t. I don’t think anybody’s stupid, it's just that during the performance you have more important things to focus on like; expression, following the MD, interaction with audience and band, sound that isn’t working etc. Our brain is already working hard; let’s make it as easy as possible for it to read the music.
1.Always take pencils, eraser, pens & highlighters to rehearsals.
2. Highlight the structure, tempo, signature & key. You should be able to know the structure after just a quick glance at the sheet music.
3. Mark the bar numbers with 4, 8, 12 etc. You should know how long each section of the song is.
4. Mark the downbeats, or quarter notes, of bars with complicated or unreadable rhythms.
5.Write the dynamics for each section of the song, mf, pp, cresc. etc.
6.Annotate changes where the change happens. Keep the annotation short but clear enough so you'll know what it means when you come back to the song.
7. Make taking notes and reading them a habit. Your rehearsals are going to be more effective, more efficient and you'll be a more reliable and professional musician & performer.
I hope this post helped clearing things up a little. Let me know if you have any questions, I'm happy to help.