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Learning Tunes

Unless you perform in a tribute band of artists no longer recording, chances are you’ll need to add new material from time to time. I remember meeting a piano player/vocalist when I first moved to Dallas in 1996. He had been the house pianist at a major hotel downtown for many years and I asked him the secret to staying so busy. “You just have to be disciplined enough to continue to add new material.” Truer words were never spoken. Even established recording artists are continually trying to record and perform new material, when their audiences appear happy to have them crank out the old hits. Put another way, “No success can compensate for failure to add new material.”

So how do you add new songs?

Which new songs do you add? How much effort do you expend on adding a song? These are questions that will help you determine if a song is worth your time to develop and present it. The nature of your act may also determine which songs you add and why. Pianists can often purchase the sheet music of a recent mega hit, sight read it down once or twice at home and gig with it that evening. Singer songwriters doing a beach gig on acoustic guitar and vocals might be able to download the lyrics, figure a compatible key and start honing with minimal prep. Duos can divide and conquer, especially if one person is the main vocalist. Solo performers must apply their own approach to the tune and understand why you are working it up. I prefer not to do brand new material, personally. Unless the tune appears to be a certified smash, you run the risk of learning the song and then disposing of it six months later. Unless you are working a true Top-40 show, you’re better off learning what they used to call in the radio biz “recurrents.” These are hit songs within the past few years that radio stations still play frequently. Music with sea legs are better bets for small groups to learn since they “take a lickin’ and keep on tickin.”

In my case, I begin by listening to the song on YouTube. I can instantly tell if it’s a song I connect with. If not, I don’t go a step further. In my 20’s and 30’s, I tried to do all styles of music. I still do to some extent, but tend to focus on songs I can relate to. Since most of my performances are vocal events, I will note the key and how much, if any, I will change the key. I stopped insisting on doing a song in the key of the record in 1991. My voice is a bass/baritone register, so I don’t attempt upper register tenor material. Once exception I make is with “Don’t Stop Believin’”(Journey) and “Peace Of Mind” (Boston). As a guitar player and teacher, there are times I simply want to wail on guitar, and these songs let me do so. I do both songs later in the night, once the audience has heard that I can sing well and they often want to sing along with these tunes!

Transcribe!

Once I have a copy of the tune, I will listen back with a great piece of software called “Transcribe!”  It allows me to change the key or tempo independently, helping me find the sweet spot of my vocal register. After making fun of artists who tuned down for years, I finally succumbed myself about six years ago. I tune down a half step on all material, which automatically helps on all vocals. After discovering the correct key, I will download the lyrics and simply background listen to the new tune while doing something else. I am doing that right now with a new Blake Shelton tune (“My Eyes”) I need to learn for a gig in five days. I will sometimes pull out my guitar and start learning the song after a few passes.

Since I do about 95% sequenced material, I will make note of how many instruments are on the original recording. I usually start with the drum part and after locking the correct tempo, will get it mostly correct. I will then usually do a rhythm guitar or keyboard part next and start recording other parts to fill out the song. About three years ago, I added backing vocals on my tracks at the suggestion of Larry Barnett, another friend and solo performer here in Texas. This works incredibly well since audiences, especially women, love to sing along with their favorite songs. I suspect this is the reason I do well in the tips department.

Once the tune is completed, I will rehearse it as much as possible before the actual gig. I often create a New Tunes gig CD I can listen to en route to the gig and sing along with. This helps when adding a new song for an important gig.

Try these suggestions when adding new material for your own act. They might help you, too.

About the author

Riley Wilson

Riley Wilson's One Man Band was awarded “Best of 2012, 2013 and Rising Star” by Gigmasters. He is the author and publisher of “Guitar Made Simpler-An Intelligent Approach” which can be ordered from his website www.guitarmadesimpler.com as well as Amazon.com. He is based in North Texas.

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