Whilst writing the book, I realised that it was all very well me saying to others, “You can and will be confident” when all I do is take very small risks by accompanying students in weekly student performances and playing the odd jazz gig where I am playing background music which I have played dozens or even hundreds of times before. I started to think, “I need to put my money where my mouth is.”
Don’t get me wrong, using the Confident Performer techniques from the book do help the every day performing and I am more accurate as a result of refreshing these techniques but I needed to take on something that would stretch me.
I wanted to take on a challenge where I knew I would be pushing myself in terms of style, timescale to learn the material and memorising certain aspects of the songs as I was not going to be playing from score for much if any of it.
One such opportunity presented itself. I was asked by Stephen Marquiss, a fellow pianist featured in my Confident Performer Blog, would I stand in for the keyboard player for a radio recording performance in Frome with a Singer/Performer/dancer called Isabel Aimee of the act/band called “Inspirition.” There was no fee involved and I immediately listened to the music on her website and found the music really quirky but great fun. I knew that the material was quite ambitious for me given the 2 weeks I had to learn it. With working full time at college and knowing that I would only have 2 rehearsals and then a sound check, I was aware that this would be a challenge. Taking the advice I had gained from Duncan Kingston about living with the material on iPod before I went anywhere near a piano and also taking the advice from Rob Brian in my interview with him, I knew I needed to listen to the music intently and find out as much as I could about it so I could become totally immersed in every aspect of the songs. Isabel kindly emailed each and every track I was to be playing and I loaded it onto my ipod. I listened on the train, in the car, quietly when I was walking and when I was cooking. I started to absorb each and every note and chord into my subconscious. Some bits were not really going in well but I knew that nothing blocks the subconscious more than negative energy so I just kept listening and soaking it up. I started to hum the tunes and imagine the shapes of the keys in my mind. I then found what keys I was playing in and that helped the mental picture even further.
The first rehearsal went quite well and we worked out how I was going to approach these songs in the real performance. I was still struggling with some parts of the pieces and I was not really sure why. I had made some cheat sheets as we call them; sheets that you put on basic information and things you need to remember to get the pieces started off in a gig but I was still struggling with one or two of them and I wasn’t really sure why. At the second rehearsal, Isabel told me about her life and how she had become involved in singing. She listed a range of challenging experiences in her career that led her to find an affinity with singing and what her voice meant to her in terms of communication. When I saw the way she engaged with the songs and the passion with which she sang them, I was beginning to see the bigger picture.
I took home the notes I had made and started to practice the songs that had troubled me and I was thinking what Isabel had said about the development of her voice and how it had become central to her identity in difficult times. The difference was amazing. I knew what I was listening for and the connection I then felt with the music was amazing. Suddenly the songs I felt really uneasy about had a real passion to them in my own mind. I was looking to practice these the moment I sat down at the piano. I also realised that the song I was trying to transfer from guitar to piano didn’t work that well so I thought, why shouldn’t I just play it on guitar! I put the capo on the guitar and because the song was so engrained in my subconscious with the meaning and passion behind it, I was loving playing these songs and I was so focused on it even though I hadn’t picked up he guitar for over a year.
The night before the gig I learned the bad news that there was to be no drummer for the gig but just Isabel, a saxophone player called Gavin and me. I was quite concerned as I was expecting the drummer to help us through the structures of the song. As soon as we started to play and rehearse, I realised the incredible energy coming from Isabel which was just amazing to feed off and we hardly noticed there wasn’t a drummer. I had absorbed the songs completely and not even the fact that the drummer was missing shook me from the excitement of the gig.
The performance went well and the opening song Isabel sang unaccompanied was just about the best nerve settler and relaxation aid I have ever experienced. The music had started, the performers were in the zone and I was ready and excited to be playing. All nerves turned to excitement and I was focused on what I wanted to do, make Isabel shine and make some great music.
So why am I telling you all of this? Well – there are a lot of misunderstandings about how much rehearsing is required for a gig. What you need most is to know the music in your heart. This will enable you to perform accurately and enable you to make the most of what little rehearsal you may have. You also need to understand the music emotionally and connect with the singer, finding out the nuances of the material and what it means to he or she. Emotional handles and triggers on the songs, really help you to know where you are.
So, how did I play? I have been asked to play again. A re-booking is the sincerest form of praise!
So, in short, here are a few top tips for learning music in a short space of time:
- Put the music on your iPod or Mp3 player and listen to it EVERYWHERE
- Immerse yourself in the music completely the moment you receive it.
- Make a cheat sheet to help you remember structures or basic information.
- Be prepared to throw the cheat sheets away!
- Talk to the singer, writer or bandleader and find out what the songs mean to them. Engaging with the music and other artists is away to become fully immersed in the experience and nerves are often a lack of understanding.
- Really listen to the other performers and see where there is space and where there are other lines happening – you probably don’t have to play as much as you think.
- Any difficulties with the material just talk to the band. There is always more than one way of playing something.
- Remind yourself what you like about the songs and what they are starting to mean to you. I find I never make mistakes on the things I really want people to hear.
- The music in your heart is accurate.