In a town like Los Angeles, where music must often be digested, processed, and performed in record time, I’ve had to depend on various skills and tricks to keep me in shape assimilating new music over the years. Music school knowledge has helped tremendously, but it’s been the constant barrage of high-pressure, “on-the-gig” training that has truly shown me the way. Here are some tips to help you learn and perform when you’re under the gun.
1. Immerse Yourself
We all know songs we’ve heard so many times that we can “air drum” every drum fill, mouth all of the lyrics, and point to every little musical nuance. This is because we’ve heard these songs so often that they’ve become part of our being. When I’m expected to get music memorized in a short time, I make sure to ingest the music at hand by every means possible. I listen in the car, on the iPod at the gym, on my laptop while paying bills—wherever and whenever. Just hearing the same thing continuously in the air can train our ears even when we’re not actively trying to do so.
2. Use Different Senses
Some people are visual and want to have a cheat sheet or a chart of the music available on the gig. Some people learn by ear. I find that different means of memorization stimulate different parts of my brain. The act of writing the chart myself actually seems to “write” the information into one section of my brain. Then the act of visualizing different parts of the written music stimulates another, more visual part of my brain. Then, having heard the music countless times activates the aural part of my brain.
3. Learn It Before You Need It
I once showed up at the first rehearsal for a new band, knowing that as the new guy, I was expected to play the music flawlessly. Having familiarized myself with the tunes prior to our first band meeting counteracted any possible prejudice about me being too young or unfamiliar to the other guys in the band. My credibility went way up when I was having fun with the music and owning it, while some of the more experienced guys were struggling a bit. Lesson: Learn your music well in advance of having to perform it.
4. Be Present
Don’t let “red light fever” in a recording studio or other high-pressure situation throw you. To avoid this, it helps to be present at every moment. Sing the next song that’s in front of you, or reference it on your iPod. Don’t go with “I’ll remember it when we get there,” because with all the pressure and information swimming around your head, you’ll most certainly forget it in the heat of the moment. Relax, focus, and play. Then the red light is just a light.
5. Performance Makes Perfect
Regardless of what kind of musical situation you work in, musicians are performers by nature. Burying your head in the score may seem like a sure way to execute difficult passages, but it often leaves a musical part flat and uninspired. Even if you’re using a chart or lead sheet, get into it as much as you can. Try to enjoy the moment and, if applicable, the other musicians you’re playing with. This makes getting through the tune seem less like a task or exam you’re taking and brings the music to life.
Jeff Babko is best known for his longtime spot in the house band on Jimmy Kimmel Live. He has recorded with Frank Ocean, Jason Mraz, and Alanis Morrisette, and his work can also be heard in television shows like Arrested Development and the movies Superbad, The 40 Year Old Virgin,and Stand Up Guys. Babko’s new album Crux is out now. Find out more at jeffbabko.com.Photo by Songa Lee.