by Mark Hodgman
As governments and health authorities ease COVID-19 restrictions, once dormant musicians across our province will enthusiastically return to moldy basements, musty garages, or whatever place with enough available amperage and square footage they can call a jam space to dust off those rusty strings. We can be almost certain they'll need to get in a few good practices before they can put on a performance worthy of an audience's time and money. From rookie garage bands looking to get their gigging toes wet with an unpaid 10 AM slot at a local fest to touring semi-professionals, musicians can agree that they have all been a part of disappointing practices and rehearsals that leave them more frustrated than feeling improved or better prepared. If you are a musician looking forward to live music returning this summer, now is about as good a time as any to correct some bad habits and replace them with better conventions. As my band and I got back together to practice for the first time in what felt like ages, these are a few things that have helped us realize that we still like playing music even though we can barely remember how to play our instruments.
First of all, know yourself. Being self aware as musician, especially as a beginner, is as crucial as it is difficult. When practicing with others you should always be asking yourself “Am I helping or hurting?” When I have a huge, shiny new crash cymbal, my snare tuned just right, a new fill in my head and I'm itching to let my set know about all my frustrations from work, it doesn't help anyone else in the room if do a little drum solo while the guitarist is trying to diagnose a hum that's buzzing through his rig. I need to do that on my own time (or maybe not at all) for the sake of a smooth and productive session. I'm a little embarrassed at how long it's taken me to learn this lesson.
Know your gear. I know electronics can be complicated and finicky, but try to diagnose that hum on your own time if you can. Not so fast drummer, if there is an electrical problem that cannot be ignored, use that time to tune your resos, we all know you haven't done that in months. Take care of your instruments as well as you can, for your sanity and the sanity of everyone else in the room.
Know where you need to improve. Most likely, you are already your own biggest critic, but that's not always that helpful, especially if you can't judge yourself correctly. Record your practices and watch and/or listen back as a band. This does not have to be a good quality recording, just use your phone. These recordings don't lie, and though it might be awkward to observe yourself in what might be an unflattering light, it may be exactly what is necessary to bring your performance to a higher calibre. Also, make sure you can hear yourselves. With the recent purchase of an inexpensive headphone amp, I can finally hear clearly what the vocalist is singing and exactly what the guitarist is playing with safety earmuffs over top of my everyday headphones rather having a speaker blaring in my face. My eardrums have never felt better.
Utilize a metronome. I know this is can be a touchy subject for the rhythm section of any band, but inconsistencies and noticeable timing mistakes are different from feel and soul. Having the ability to play your instrument to click will only serve to make you a better musician and open doors for you. There are many free and great quality metronomes available as apps for your smart device, try a few out. Don't be scared if it feels awkward at first, it doesn't take long for a metronome to feel helpful and even comfortable. This is another thing I wish I had learned a lot sooner.
Know your goals. Are you wanting to jam with your friends without much of an agenda just to get back into the swing of things? Are you writing from scratch? Are you fleshing out some ideas you've already done some work on? Are you figuring out a set list for an upcoming show? Communicate with your band what your expectations are and everyone might feel more accomplished at the end of a practice and maybe even excited for that Tuesday night show in a town an hour and a half away. Stay in touch with your band, use the group chat for something other than just GIFs and memes.
Know your limits. Know what you can commit to your project, whether that be time, energy or even emotional stress, and let your band mates know too. Rarely does a good thing come easy, but you don't want to make yourself or anyone else in your band miserable. If making music is regularly leading you to feel unreasonable stress or unhappiness something is probably wrong and worth looking into. There's nothing wrong with playing music just for yourself. In fact, I think the happiest bands are the ones that can be satisfied playing to any audience, from just each other to a fully engaged crowd.
I hope you can find something helpful here. Maybe I'll see you at a show this summer and hopefully it will feel like nothing skipped a beat.