On average, I play around 150 gigs per year. When I was in my 20s, that number would often reach above 200. The only difference now is that I say "no" much more often, and I imagine that will continue as my children grow older. I have performed in tiny clubs, ballrooms, theaters, and arenas, on stages from Los Angeles to Tokyo. I have played for the sheer thrill, and I've played in order to put food on the table and a roof over my head. I have played in cover bands, wedding bands, for singer-songwriters, major label artists, and legacy acts. I have played pop, rock, jazz, R&B, blues, and country. Each night might be a different setlist, with a different artist, and a completely different style of music.
To maintain this performance career successfully, it takes a process. The following is my concert prep process...one that I have relied on each and every time.
1. Listen All the Way Through (Do Not Play)
The most important part of learning is always listening. If you are busy trying to figure out what to do without knowing the bigger picture, then you will surely miss the details. First, listen all the way through to any song you are planning to perform. Think to yourself about the sections: Where is the verse? The chorus? The bridge? How will you lay it all out on paper? Answering these questions will train the brain to retain song patterns like chord changes, forms, parts, melodies, and more.
2. Write It Down
After listening all the way through, go back to the beginning and start picking out the parts. The most important part is the foundation. In this case, the foundation consists of form and chord changes. You will need to find the chords and get those down on paper. It's not necessary to know how to read music or write out all of the nuances; just write down those chords and their harmonic rhythm, and work your way through the whole song. Once written down, label each section appropriately. For example: intro, verse, chorus, bridge, outro. You don't need to actually play at this point; you just need to get the chords and the form.
3. Learn the Details
Now it's time to really learn where your instrument sits in the song. What is your instrument actually doing, and how does it relate to the chords you just wrote? To figure this out, go through each section you labeled and really listen for your part. Think about how it will lay on the instrument and how you will perform it. Think about what effects you might be hearing, such as distortion, delay, reverb, etc. If you need to, this is the time to reference Youtube or Google for tricky spots. Oftentimes there are many different layers happening, so this is also the step where you create your own version of the part, assuming it will have to be played live.
It's finally time to perform this song along with the recording. You have your road map, you know your part, and you know how your part fits into the song. Go back to the beginning a third time and play the song as if you were performing it. You'll probably still have to look at your road map, but if you can, try standing up and really playing with expression. This helps bring out the weaknesses. Musicians need to know what parts still need practice, and the only way to identify that is by really going for it.
For some people, memorizing music is very hard. For others, it's effortless. In either case, going through this process will help you internalize the song. Try practicing without looking at the road map. Recognize where your memory lapsed and work on the parts until there is no question in your mind. Memorizing is not always necessary or possible, but being present when you perform is. Being present is very difficult when your eyes are glued to the page.
We live in a beautiful time when information can be easily stored electronically. Take pictures of your road map or maps (depending on how many songs you are preparing) on your mobile device to ensure that they are never lost. Organize them in the order that they will be performed. Upload them to a cloud space like DropBox or a Google Drive so that they're available on every device. I personally have all of my road maps sorted by artist and setlist in an app called ForScore. This app is an amazing tool for organizing mass quantities of music.
7. What Do I Need To Bring?
If you have gone through all of this work, nothing would be worse than showing up to your performance and not having a guitar pick, tuner, music stand, or anything that you truly needed to feel comfortable. Ask yourself what you need. This is not a question for the band or the artist. This is a question for you. I personally need a mic stand with no top, an iPad stand, a guitar tuner, a capo, my pedal board, two sets of cables, two amplifiers, a strap, and a guitar. I also need to make sure I have the correct guitar for the situation.
8. What Do I Need To Wear?
The music business is a visual business. People listen with their eyes. I know that sounds silly, but imagine listening to the Rolling Stones, but they’re all dressed like insurance salesmen. It wouldn’t seem right, and it would actually affect the way you perceive the band. Always make sure you're wearing the correct attire for the situation. Wearing the wrong clothes could cause insecurity to creep into your head and put all of that work in jeopardy.
9. Call Time
Being on time does not mean showing up when the performance starts. On time is the “Call Time.” Running late is another way performers become their own worst enemy. When you rush, your mind is not able to get into the correct headspace.
10. Down Beat
The “Downbeat” is the when the music starts. This is when you are expected to be on stage performing. It does not mean setting up, but rather assumes that you are ready to play.
Once the moment comes, it is imperative to rely on the process, to trust it, and to trust yourself. If you do this, then you can be truly free, and only then can the fun really begin. It may seem like a lot to to go through at first; but if you make this process a habit, you will see your intuition take over and your capacity for memorizing music increase over time. You will also find that your ears hear music in layers and parts as opposed to one collective sound. It is at this level that musicians are able to learn and store literally hundreds of songs. It is this process that has helped me build a career as a performing musician.