October 28, 2022
As a singer/songwriter or solo act without a dedicated band, you may not get a lot of opportunities to rehearse and work out the “full band” version of your stuff. But that doesn’t necessarily mean you can’t step on stage with a band and let ‘er rip. In fact, it’s not uncommon to find yourself on stage with a house band or intrepid group of pros who want to play your songs right here and now.
It may seem a tall order, but it’s very doable to teach a new band your song right on stage – and you can make an event out of it, which can make the band and you look really cool. Here are some tips for doing just that.
Step one is to simplify the song as best you can. A lot of changes are hard for a group to manage without rehearsal, so you can either pick a song with one solid chord progression or simply change the tune for this one performance. For example, if your verse is I, IV, V but your chorus changes to I, vii, IV, V you might want to consider sticking with the verse progression. If it’s not too different you probably won’t have to adjust your melody much if at all. If you happen to be good at making up melodies on the spot, you’ve got more leeway, so that’s a good skill to practice on your own.
Rhythmic changes may also throw your new friends off, so consider keeping it straight this one time. This and the simple chords may render your song a little less sophisticated, especially if it has a wild bridge, but if it’s a great song the audience hasn’t heard, they won’t notice or care! If they have heard it, well they’re getting a cool alternate experience.
There are musicians – and plenty of them – who can play anything by ear. All you have to do is start in and they’ll know exactly what to do. But don’t count on that. Instead, communicate the structure of the song. Say the key, the chord progression, a rough tempo (which you can set by starting), and maybe a bit about the style. That should be enough to get most groups going – just remember one thing: players are split down the middle when it comes to chord lingo. Many musicians know what it means when you say, “key of C, one, four, five”, but plenty don’t. Even some great players don’t have that kind of theory background, so it’s best to also give them the chords. “Key of C – one, four, five – C major, F major, G major”.
Great songs hold up no matter how they’re approached, and you’ll need to remember this when you play one of yours on the fly with a new group. If you’ve got a set vision of the song or a recording you’re hoping to match, you’ll probably be disappointed, since this live version will most certainly be different. But that doesn’t mean it’s not great – it’s just different.
A couple of things you will notice if you do this a few times: Songs taught on the fly will have less nuance – as mentioned you’ll probably have to simplify chord progressions and minimize changes. You’ll probably notice less dynamic range too – especially when it comes to arranging instruments to come in and out. In other words, everyone is likely to be playing all the time, which isn’t ideal when it comes to an arrangement. But that’s ok! You can pick a song that works as a big, dense tune. Or you can try to go the opposite way and use a stripped-down ballad. Tell the band what it is, and they’re likely to creep in over time, creating a cool slow build.
No matter how it goes, you’ll do better if you go with the flow. Explain the tune and then be solid – remember you’re the only one who actually knows the song, so let the band follow you, and you just do your thing, without worrying too much about what they’re doing.
Most of all, the best way you can find out about teaching a song on stage is to try it! It can be a lot of fun, and it can give you a lot of ideas about what your songs can be – things you might never have thought of. And it’s a really great moment for a live set.
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"Make a joyful noise unto the Lord all of the earth; make a loud noise and rejoice and sing praises. Sing to the Lord with the harp and the voice of the psalm." - Psalm 98:4-5