How To Have Great Band Practice: It Starts With Your Brain
Get out of the way of the song and live within the note. This is where you’ll find the muse and creativity is at its finest!
Better Practice & Better Gigs: It Starts With Your Brain
Here’s a scenario many have experienced: you’re at band practice and one of your mates starts fiddling with a new song idea on guitar. It’s not a straightforward three-chord song and you’re watching to see the fret positions, you’re trying to pick up on the rhythm and get a feel for the changes. The drummer starts in and tries to play along but they, too, are concentrating to understand the song. Everyone is plunking along and even the person introducing the song is getting thrown off a bit by the relative dissonance being produced in the room. You can’t help but feel a little self-conscious, inept even. You get frustrated but you try not to show it. Logically, you understand song development takes time and patience. Everyone is frustrated because, let’s be honest, it feels great to groove and it sucks to not.
Here’s another scenario: you’re at band practice and your band is running through a song you’ve been working on for three months. Everyone nails their parts and as a unit there is complete cohesion. Everyone seemed loose and there is a flow and you notice how into the groove you were and you didn’t feel like you were in your head at all. At the end everyone is smiling and elated because playing that song was less an act of anxious concentration and more a complete cathartic release. This is when the hard work pays off. This is when you can get out of the way and let the music be your guide.
OK, we’ve all been through the process of learning and mastering a skill. If you’re reading this now, you went through the years-long process of learning to read at some point in your life. That process is not unlike mastering a song and there is a way to analyze what is happening when we learn. And as you will see below, understanding this process can help you better organize your role as a band member and ultimately help your band efficiently use its precious rehearsal time.
Fitts & Posner
In 1967, a famous psychological study was published that identified three stages of learning known as the “Fitts and Posner Model”. This model describes the process we go through when learning a new skill or, in this case, a new song.
The cognitive stage is the beginning when you are familiarizing yourself with a song, learning the key, the chords, the rhythm, the changes, etc. This is the stage that requires the most thinking, thus making it harder to do much else. Your brain is processing and trying to organize a lot of information in this stage.
In the associative stage you may know the song but you now start the process of understanding the song. By no means have you mastered the song at this point, but you are able to recall more of the song information where in the cognitive stage you were exclusively being fed the information. This frees up the brain to start working on breathing life into the song. You know the rhythm, you know the chords and the key, so you start focusing on the nuances. Things like chord positions and overall techniques are examined closer in order to give your part of the song a character.
The autonomous stage is what we all strive for when playing. This is where the magic lies. At this point you’ve mastered the song and your brain takes a back seat. As long as your band mates have also made it to this point, this is when the groove flows and you can begin to explore the song as an ensemble. Your ability to focus on listening will peak because less brainpower is being used to think. Less concentration is given to the basic motor skills required of the song. For some, this is when improvisation begins to happen.
This is the lesson: do the cognitive stage at home, not at band practice. Take notes and in your spare time learn the song fundamentals. Do your wallet and your band mates a favor; don’t spend time in your rehearsal space learning the song when you could do that on your own time. Ultimately, it helps no one to have a room of musicians collectively embarking onto the cognitive stage of learning a song. Then at the next band practice you can apply what you’ve learned and see what works and what needs to be worked on. This would be the initial phase of the associative stage. I would say this is where most of the time will be spent, working the song out both at home and with the band through the associate stage of learning. Your personalities come through as you work out your parts and the song will begin to take its final shape. And if everyone is doing their homework and you continue regular rehearsals, you’ll eventually achieve the autonomous stage. Your band now will sound like a unit rather than a bunch of parts. You will be able to get out of the way of the song and live within the note. This is where you’ll find the muse and creativity is at its finest! Your rehearsals will become incredibly efficient and productive as your band continues to build upon its mastery of the songs.
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