Stagecraft 101 – Why Your Rehearsals Are A Waste of Time

By Jeff Black
From August 2014 Vandala Magazine  READ MORE ARTICLES
More Stagecraft 101 Articles HERE 

guitar microphoneIn my last article, we talked about ways you can duct tape your performing chops into place on an individual level. Now that we’ve broken things down, let’s build them back up. Remember what our goal here is? PRACTICE HOW YOU INTEND TO PERFORM.

So, maybe you spend on average ten hours per week with your band at the jam space. But maybe your band still sucks. Maybe you’re confused and bewildered and looking for help. Let me be your sherpa up the mountain of suckage. It sounds perverse. It is.

Firstly, let’s look at the arrangement of your rehearsal space. Jam rooms are gonna vary from band to band (basements, hourly rentals, garage, meat locker, hyperbolic time chamber, etc).

Let’s look at how most bands prefer to rehearse:

– Band members arranged in a circle/semi circle
– Everyone can see each other
– Amplifiers and speakers tilted for optimum hearing
– Time spend dicking around with levels to get perfect tone for everyone
– Members stand there, focusing on playing their parts correctly
– Avoiding eye contact, no body language
– No time or thought put into anything aside from playing the songs properly

How much of this seems familiar?

Now, I don’t want to stop you from having fun, connecting with your band mates and trying to hear each other’s parts but when you’re talking about gig/tour preparation, this isn’t going to work, especially for the newer, more inexperienced band.

Most bands want a cushy clean practice room with a mile-wide porno wall and sizzling acoustics, where everyone can set up with ample space, hear each other properly and monkey about with their gear. That’s nice. How many stages are going to be like that during your east-coast death metal tour?

Martin Atkins (Pigface, Killing Joke, Public Image Ltd, etc etc) has a great quote on the topic, which he calls “Practice for Catastrophe!”

“Practice at being great in impossible situations. Laugh in the face of adversity, practice in three inches of water with only four strings on your guitar, piss dripping on your head, being electrocuted by faulty wiring and the microphone cutting in and out while the drummer is angrily throwing lit cigarettes in to your backpack which contains charcoal and lighter fluid in the event of an impromptu barbeque. Give yourself electric cattle prod shocks every time you gaze at your shoes and smile, smile, smile.

Because that’s EVERY gig you’ll ever play. The last thing you need is a plush, luxurious rehearsal space with reliable equipment.”  (Martin Atkins is brilliant, Google him)

So, how are we going to prepare for the inevitable storm of sh*t that’s bound to happen sooner than later?

Here’s a few things I like to do with my jam spaces:

– Arrange the band the same way you’d set up onstage

– Face the wall as though it’s an audience

– Put some goddamn mirrors on that wall (or rent a dance studio to rehearse in!)

– Arrange your P.A. Speakers like wedge monitors at the front of your make-believe stage

– Play your set start-to-finish while timing it (or better yet, FILMING IT!)

– Seriously, if your band members ever tell you not to look at them while they’re playing, be sure to shove a drumstick up their nose and tickle their brain with it until they forget they ever had that ridiculous notion

You’d be amazed at what you can learn from even just one run-through of your set like this.

For example, it turns out that it’s really hard to hear the bass break during the bridge. Your singer has a subconscious habit of taking a step backward during high notes, causing more than a few trip-ups when you try to cross the stage. The lead guitarist accidentally stepped on the bassist’s tuner pedal four times during the set! F*ck! Now everyone’s pissed off and ready to go home and they blame you for ruining what should have been a delightful little jammy-jam.

Sh*t son, it’s a damn good thing this is happening in rehearsal, and not ON STAGE! Tell your band members to pull up their knickers and untwist ’em, because you’re going in for round two. And this time, everyone will have some sort of idea about what they have to watch out for in the real world.

Your rehearsals aren’t just about playing the songs properly. That’s for at home. They are about learning, discovering, experimenting, improving, evolving, studying and preparing for everything else. There’s no better place to realize that there’s too much dead silence between songs, or that your singer’s stage banter isn’t funny (that’s a whole other article) or to find spots where your momentum is sagging.

Finally, a band member not being able to show up for rehearsal is no excuse to cancel. Practicing without your bassist can lead to incredible revelations about how you listen to your band and how your drummer locks into the pulse of the song.

This doesn’t just happen overnight. You need to soap, scrub, rinse, repeat, soap, scrub, rinse repeat, soapscrubrinserepeatarghIgotsoapinmyeyegoddamnitsoapscrubrinse etc until it’s ingrained into your DNA coding and becomes a primal instinct of your survival.

This brings me to my next point:

One of your most important resources as a band is time. Time is the king. Time is the keeper. So much of the music industry is based on time. Most industries are, really. Our time here is limited, so we need to use it effectively. I think the best bands are the ones who spend more time in the rehearsal room honing their craft, putting in hours and turning those into precious nuggets of performance gold.

It’s not always about HOW MUCH time you put in. The QUALITY of that time is paramount.

Here’s a breakdown of the average band practice:

7:00pm – Guitarist arrives, doesn’t have keys to jam space
7:12pm – Drummer arrives, opens up the room. Guitarist tunes
7:13pm – Guitarist gets idea for AMAZING RIFF
7:14pm – Guitarist yells at drummer to shut the f*ck up so he can figure out said riff
7:15pm – Bassist shows up with 6-pack, amazing riff promptly forgotten
7:32pm – Singer arrives, drinks last beer
7:40pm – Band is tuned up, starts first song
8:03pm – Drummer forgets that 5/8 rhythm during the bridge
8:20pm – “I’ll work on it at home” drummer lies
8:21pm – SMOKE BREAK!
8:56pm – Starts next song on list
9:04pm – Talk about Game of Thrones/Orange is the New Black/new Judas Priest album/band next door that keeps playing “A Thousand Miles” by Vanessa Carlton
9:40pm – SMOKE BREAK!
9:48pm – Finish last four songs in set list
10:12pm – “Crap, wife’s calling. See you guys next week!”
10:15pm – Band practice adjourned

I shouldn’t have to explain what’s wrong with this picture. Smarten up. Show up on time, be ready to go, leave the distractions at home. Smoke breaks, video game breaks, pizza breaks, breaks from breaks, breaks compound into a black hole of breakiness that sucks so hard, no amount of productivity will ever escape.

Nuke that sh*t. Are you rehearsing, or hanging out?

SET GOALS.

Playing the set list twice through, working out the kinky difficult sections, work-shopping specific songs, nailing down vocal harmonies, stage plotting, whatever. Give your band practices a goal to work towards. One cover band I played for had a drummer who was a project manager for his day job. After each band practice we’d have an email waiting for us at home details the weak points of that rehearsal which we’d go over next time, plus fresh stuff to work on after a scheduled break. Maybe that’s a little much.

Or is it?

If you set down a game plan in advance, then you’ll know what to work on at home, and your rehearsals will actually have a set of goals in mind. If you’re really wild, you could set up specific times for breaks. You’d be amazed at how stupid little things like these can keep the most A.D.H.D. musicians on target and on point.

USE YOUR TIME WISELY.

Ideally, bands should practice two or three times a week in order to be really tight and have their figurative poop in a group. If you only have time to jam once a week, then it’d better be a damn good jam.

That’s all my time for now. Next on the chopping block: The IMAGE Debacle.

Jeff Black is a professional musician and piano teacher based out of Edmonton, Canada. He has toured across the nation with groups such as Scythia, Samandriel, The Ozzy Osbourne Experience and has performed on nine studio releases to date. When he’s not busy in the lesson studio or onstage, he’s probably reading or writing, often enjoying a cold European ale in the process.

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