When you’re planning for a big gig, use these strategies to prepare and practice so you play, perform, stream, and record with success.
When career-enhancing opportunities arise, you need to be ready to perform at a high level. Whether you’re playing a big, live (socially distanced) concert, presenting a continent-jumping live stream, or entering a recording studio to track new music, proper preparation is key.
Throughout my career, I’ve ramped up for many big opportunities, and I’m doing so again right now; a live stream for my new solo piano rock album on the Steinway & Sons label is happening on September 1, 2020, and I want to be prepared to deliver music that my listeners will enjoy and that I’ll be proud of.
Here are just a few of the strategies that have helped me ramp up for big musical engagements, as well as advice on the subject from New York guitar virtuoso Mike Rosengarten.
Create a plan
How long do you have until the big show or session? How much new material do you need to learn (or re-learn)? Are there trouble spots you need to drill into as you practice or new parts you need to workshop and refine? Any time you spend getting organized — painting a clear picture of exactly what you need to do to get ready — will help you immensely.
Rosengarten uses spreadsheets to stay coordinated, focused, and effective. “It’s particularly helpful when you’re working with a band,” he says. “I’ll have a different page for every song that can include song length, who’s singing, what instrument I’m playing, what kind of jokes or dialog will be included, whether I need to memorize lyrics or practice my vocals, and an estimate for how long it’ll take me to get where I need to be.”
Spreadsheet roadmaps are particularly useful in helping Rosengarten decide how best to shed when practice time is limited. “In the show I’m doing right now with my band, The Playbillies, I play mandolin, banjo, and dobro. I hadn’t touched the dobro in months before our current booking came along, so it was really helpful to see, laid out in front of me, how much I needed to focus on getting back into shape on that instrument and how many days I had to do it.”
Whether you prefer Google Docs or an old-fashioned analog notebook, use whatever tools feel right to get and stay organized as your big gig draws nearer. Your music will be better for it.
Plan for expansion
If you confirm a big opportunity to share your music, it’s easy to immediately want to jump in, full soul and body, and shed non-stop until the moment you take the stage. Unfortunately, abruptly taking your practice regimen from 10 to 100 is a good way to injure yourself.
Instead, bottle that precious enthusiasm, take a breath, and sketch out a practice plan that will get you where you need to be by gig time without breaking you en route. Starting modestly and ramping up is a great way to go.
“Prior to this run of shows for The Playbillies, I hadn’t been playing a lot of banjo, and I had to be careful not to assume that I was at the same level as I was with guitar, which I play all the time,” says Rosengarten. “When I was first getting ready for these shows, I had to limit my fast banjo playing, or I’d get wrist pain in minutes. Instead, I started slow, established a stretching and warm-up routine I did every day, started practicing some of the banjo songs at half-speed, and gradually worked my way up from there.”
Regardless of instrument or context, the key is to approach playing music as the athletic endeavor that it is and avoid unhealthy training activities. Build up slowly and methodically, listen to your body, and you’ll end up in a strong position to play when the big date arrives.
Before big performances of any sort, I spend as much time as possible listening to the material I’ll be performing. This could be anything from studio tracks to rough demos, and active listening (taking notes or jamming along) and passive listening (having the music on in the background and absorbing by osmosis) are both helpful. The more you can marinate in the material beforehand, the easier it will be to summon it with skill and ease when the time comes.
Listening doesn’t need to be limited to the specific music you’ll be performing. Are there records that have the power, groove, interplay, nuance, or other qualities that you want to emulate when you play your big event? Listen with those characteristics in mind and try to channel the same when you practice and ultimately perform.
Don’t overdo it
Early in my career, there were a handful of times when I prepped too hard for a gig. As a result, I felt like I had little left to share once I got on stage or in the studio. Needless to say, this isn’t a great way to attack a big opportunity.
“How you prepare depends on the gig,” says Rosengarten. “If I’m doing a jazz or blues gig where there’s a lot of improvisation, I’ll learn the tunes but not overwork them, so there’s still something fresh to share with the band and audience. If I’m doing a Broadway theater gig, that’s a different situation where you can’t really over-practice, since you need to play exactly what’s on the page and the expectation is that it’ll be perfect.”
For opportunities where you do want to be mindful of not over-prepping, there’s no magic way to see the line between healthy and excessive preparation; just try to stay mindful of your physical and mental states to avoid burning out your muscles or your material before it’s time to play the first note.
Getting yourself into optimal shape for a big musical opportunity can mean a daunting amount of work, so always remember why you’re doing it in the first place — the blessing of sharing your music with people who enjoy it.
How do you prep for a big gig or other musical opportunity? Tell us in the comments below.
Michael Gallant is a musician, writer, and entrepreneur living in New York City. His debut album for the Steinway & Sons label, Rock Rewind, features solo piano reinventions of Pearl Jam, U2, Halestorm, Janis Joplin, Bob Dylan, Radiohead, and more. Read his recent article for the National Endowment for the Arts and follow Michael on Twitter at @Michael_Gallant and Facebook.com/GallantMusic.
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