Recently I did a short tour with Snarky Puppy, and needed to memorize their touring repertoire…fast.
I’ve recorded with them before but live shows present a different challenge. Because the sets change nightly, I needed to memorize a lot more of their repertoire than I currently knew. And because of everything going on in my world at the time, I had about one week to do it.
#Repost @tourdesol117 ・・・ So, @snarkypuppy played the Wilma last night, and naturally improved upon my definition of stellar musicianship. However, they gave @jakesettera and I am added bonus we hadn't prepared for: in the bottom left is @bob_reynolds, who we have both followed and loved for years now! What a great night! #snarkypuppy #thewilma #missoula #snarky2016
So how do you memorize 20+ songs—many with multiple sections and intricate solis—without written music, in one week?
Here’s how I did it.
Break down the task
1. Get a bird’s eye view. Once I had a list of all the songs I needed to learn, I was ready to chunk it into pieces and get going. Think of this list like a zoomed out map of a country.
2. Create a playlist and listen on repeat. I made a playlist of all the songs and put that sucker on repeat. In the car. Running (once). While falling asleep.
3. Triage the songs. I divided the songs into 3 categories (more on this later in the process):
- ones I had played (like what I recorded on We Like It Here)
- ones I’d never played or heard before
- ones that had extremely difficult sections
Make it visible and tangible
There’s a Japanese manufacturing process called Kanban. It’s extremely effective for moving a project along because it allows everyone involved to see the progression from start to completion. In a nutshell, any task is placed on a “card” and moved from left to right. This has been adapted and used a lot in the world of software development. Sometimes referred to as Scrum.
Here’s a demonstration of Scrum according the show Silicon Valley.
OK, so that scene is hilarious, but this method works because you can see—and touch—your “to-do” list. Something I find myself missing more and more in the digital age.
That said, there is a fantastic piece of free software called Trello that mimics this concept. It’s dope.
1, 2, 3, Boss
My version of Kanban/Scrum/Trello for this project is simple: all the songs begin in the left column—???—with the goal of getting them all in the right column—Boss—by the day I leave for the tour. I move a song card into the next column to the right once I’ve fully gone through it and can play it top to bottom.
I can’t tell you what an positive effect this has—moving the physical sticky note from one column to the next. I feel like I’m actually doing something, and I can see my progress. I also know exactly where I am and what I have left to do.
You could do this any number of ways but here’s what I used:
- a 24″ x 36″ whiteboard
- 1″ painter’s tape (great because it stays in place as long as you want but comes off easily and leaves no marks)
- 1/4″ Post-It Notes (to write names of songs on)
- Sharpie marker
- iTunes/Spotify (for making playlists)
- Looping software. (I used Garageband but now use this instead.)
The song-by-song process
Here’s what I do for each song:
1. Select a song and listen 2-3 times all the way through. I recommend starting with a familiar one to build momentum (see the “triage” section above).
2. Use looping software to isolate and repeat a phrase at a time. How long you make your loop will vary but keep it short enough that you can comfortably execute the section 10-15 times in a row. This would be your “street view” map.
3. Isolate the next phrase. Repeat what you did in #2.
4. Combine phrases 1 & 2 and loop. Get the idea? You just keep zooming in/zooming out.
After you’ve gone through this process for the song—zooming in/zooming out—play the entire song top to bottom. Do it a second time if you have the time.
Then move that song’s sticky note over one column on the board and move on to the next song.
When I started day #2 I began by playing through the songs I covered on day 1. My mind had a break and time to process what it’d learned. The songs went faster the second day. And I moved those cards over another column to the right and began the process again on another group of songs.
Update: I’m happy to report this worked. I had only one or two minor brain farts during the tour. Plus, a month after going through this process, and several weeks without playing these songs, I checked back in and I could still play the set down. Any hiccups were minor and could be quickly re-memorized. This is a powerful way to work. I encourage to you learn music by ear and memorize whenever possible. You’ll be a stronger musician because of it.
This video lesson has some more nitty-gritty instruction on this process.