Put down your instrument. Stop singing. Just listen. We so often go right to playing (if we even listen to a recording at all) and in doing so we often miss the whole point of the song. Simply listening to a reference recording is so helpful because it allows you to fully concentrate on the song rather than “switch tasking” back and forth from playing or singing. You can learn the sections, the groove, the flow of energy (dynamics produced by the arrangement), and how your part fits into the whole.
Pay attention to what is happening, to how you’re feeling in certain parts, to how the musicians are interacting and communicating. Listen for nuance – was the high-hat open or closed? Were the strings muted or ringing? Was there harmony or just melody? You don’t need to copycat everything, but you do want to know the effect of your choices have on the whole.
And if you launch right in to playing the notes on your chord chart, you could miss all of this!
As you listen for the second time, make notes to what is happening as a whole and for your particular instrument/part. You can use standard musical notation (with actual notes and measures), words that describe what to do (pa-dum, ta-dum, dum, dum), or the Marnellian language with symbols and cryptic, only-you-know-what-this-means codes. The point is, you’ll want to quickly remember your observations when you’re putting things together at rehearsal.
Play air guitar
You may even take a step before getting on your instrument to go through the motions of the song (along with the recording) so that you’re not distracted by what you’re playing, but rather focusing entirely on the feel, the groove, the timing, the changes, etc. Bonus points if you do this one!
Use Prime (from LoopCommunity.com)
Prime is the iPad or iPhone app where you can buy multitracks for $13-20 per song and listen to each track separately. You can also mute just your instrument and play along with an actual band. And these are often the actual recordings that the original artists made so you can learn exactly what they’re doing. Of course, Prime tracks are meant to use as supplemental or backing tracks for a live band, but you can certainly benefit from using them for personal rehearsal. As a bonus, you get to play with a click track which helps your overall musicianship.
Watch a tutorial on YouTube
There are so many great tutorials that you can watch for free that give you “how to play the electric guitar part for X worship song.” Again, the goal isn’t to copy someone else’s every move. It’s to learn from them and integrate some of their techniques into your own playing. WorshipTutorials.com and WorshipArtistry.com are also two great resources for tutorials.
Play along with the recording
One of the only downfalls of playing on your own is the relentless propensity to overplay. We feel the need to “carry” the song because it’s just us. I mean, it sounds pretty thin if it’s just one instrument playing a small part, doesn’t it? The problem is that if we practice overplaying, we’ll keep overplaying once we join a band. You’ve probably heard of the fraction principle, which says that we each get to contribute a part of the whole. So if there are two of you, you each get 1/2 of the whole. But if there are 7 of you, you just get 1/7 of the whole, so you get to play a lot less. To counteract this, play along with the recording and (as Coach Jeremy says) “produce yourself into the recording.” It will prepare you well for playing in a group.
Anticipate how you'll produce yourself into this week's specific team
99% of us aren’t playing with full bands made up of professional musicians. And that matters because what worked when they arranged the song for” the arena of 20,000 people in Atlanta” will likely not work for “your church of 125 and four weekend warrior musicians.” So think about who you’ll be playing with and how you will (as a band) serve the song well in how you play it.
So here’s my confession to you. Last night I was leading a rehearsal for a special event. And I was leading on the bass. It’s part of why I chose to write this Fertilizer – I often use real life to inspire and direct these. Unfortunately, I didn’t follow these steps in preparation for the rehearsal. So I had to stop at one point and listen to part of a song to remind myself how I wanted to play it. I also lacked direction for the arrangements because I hadn’t done this work beforehand. I don’t know how much the team was bothered by it, but let me just tell you how I felt: ugh. Not that we didn’t pull together marvelously and I’m really happy about where we ended up, but my pain in the process reminded me how important practicing before rehearsal is.
Imagine what it would feel like if every person on your team would spend 1 to 3 hours before they arrived at rehearsal!