What does it take to prepare for a show? How do you refine your songs after they are written?
Back in September I wrote about songwriting, and how much of the process is about showing up. But what do you do after the song is written? After you’ve shown up and worked at it? It’s pretty much there, but you know that it’s not yet quite ready for performance. How do you refine a song, bring it from its technical completion to stage ready?
The rehearsal process:
Rehearsing a song you’ve written is much like rehearsing any other piece of music. I could go into detail here about practice techniques, but what I really want to share with you are the differences between rehearsing your own piece of music and someone else’s.
In my experience, they are actually different.
When you rehearse a written piece you already have a pretty clear pathway. You may be making artistic choices, but the choices are already limited. The challenge of rehearsing your own music is that it is easy to just continue rewriting and rewriting and never get it to the place where it is ready for performance. Sometimes you’ve played it so many different ways, that it can be difficult to stick to one long enough to polish it and feel confident in the delivery. You have many, many choices of how to perform it, and it’s hard to draw the line between editing a song and rehearsing a song. Another habit is to critique yourself so much that you become burnt out and utterly confused about how the song went in the first place.
6 Steps to follow:
Here are the steps I follow to bring a song from “completion” to “stage ready.” The trick is to pay attention to the form, transitions, and tempo, as these are usually the places where we struggle and are good grounding points to find what needs to be rehearsed, and what actually needs to be reworked/rewritten.
Play the song all the way through the way you wrote it (resist the urge to change anything).
Take a few notes on what worked and what didn’t. Maybe the transition to the bridge felt really odd, or you found yourself out of breath with all the lyrics trying to transition from the chorus back to the verse.
Play through just the part that felt challenging. Do it slowly. If you’re playing an instrument, try each part separately (vocals and instrument). Listen to yourself as you do it.
Ask yourself “is that part hard/strange because I’m not rehearsed yet, or does it just sound weird/feel weird?”
Trust the answer. If it just felt difficult, you probably just need to practice it more. But if it felt really off, you may want to work with it a bit, edit it ect.
Play through the whole song again, and this time, if you feel drawn to change something, do it, spontaneously, improvising if you feel called.
Ask yourself “how did that feel?” and work with steps 3, 4 and 5 again.
Continue working in this way, playing the song over and over until you are super clear about the form, especially the transitions.
Then, practice it the same way over and over. At this point, you need to trust it is complete and not change anything. If a part is challenging still, stop and rehearse just that.
Sometimes you have to just LET yourself be ready. LET the song be ready. When you are sharing something new, you are like a baby bird testing wings. You don’t know if it works yet. But you have to trust your instinct. Trust your deepest knowing. Just play the music… feal into the music and you will know when it is complete. When you play through the song and it MOVES you it is ready to be shared.
Performing written work is DISTINCT from improvisational performance:
Performing a written song is distinct from improvisation. You want to limit the variables that may come up. Meaning, you want to be so grounded in knowing the song, that if something changes, you can be playful and work with it. But you don’t want to get up there and just “wing it”, unless it really is meant to be an improvisation. I will talk more about this in another blog.
So when is a song actually “COMPLETE?”
When we say a song is “complete”, we don’t really know what that means until we’ve really played through it and feel really confident in our playing of it as well as the written part of it. Most of us are performers as well as songwriters after all, so unless you want your song to be played by someone else, part of completion is being ready to perform it, even if that is just to your family or friends. The more you are ready for anything to happen, the more you know each little piece of the song, the more you can connect to the audience and work with anything that comes up for you when you are onstage. Stage fright is half lack of preparation and half not knowing how to connect (and maybe just a tiny, tiny dose of fear). So it all works together… songwriting, practice and performance… there is no separation. A good guideline to know if you are prepared is to feel that you can really trust yourself and trust the song. If you give yourself over to the song in every rehearsal, you will know what is working and what needs to be cut out, changed, let go of. Then you practice that over and over and YOU WILL BE READY for the stage.
This is what I’m doing right now as I prepare a whole bunch of new material for the San Francisco tour.
Until next time…