In a band? I think? But how to band?
October 13, 2021 5:59 AM   Subscribe

I’m 35 and I haven’t been in a band since middle school. I’ve been jamming with some guys and played for them a couple things I’ve been working on in quarantine, which they like. But how do bands normally write songs? Or keep the momentum going? More inside.

They’ve been in bands but it’s been a while for them, too. What does a “typical” band practice look like? How often? Our goal is to play a gig and we want to do originals. How do bands balance the creative with “getting stuff done?” I might be overthinking but I’m pretty excited and just would love to hear perspectives from people that have done this before.
posted by glaucon to Media & Arts (10 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
Best answer: When I was in a band, we had a standing practice every week. Having a standing thing on the calendar really helps so that each practice isn't a schedule negotiation. Weekly might be tough if you're in your thirties, maybe not, I dunno. But having something regular, and standing, really helps.

A typical practice might balance fun and work. Warm up by playing some stuff that you know like the back of your hand. Then transition into working on stuff that you don't know so well. Play a song all the way through. Then stop and work on some tricky-fiddly bits.

Balancing the creative with "getting stuff done"? Not sure what you mean by this, since you can't create things if you don't get stuff done. But, make time for hard work (learning new stuff, vamping on the chorus till you all figure out how to time the fills, playing that tricky transition from the bridge to the last chorus over and over till you lock it in, etc), and make time for fun (easy songs, joke songs, covers, jams that help you learn how to play together, etc). Make time to put the guitars down and have a beer or whatever and listen to other music. Talk about what you're doing, what you're listening to, what you think is fun and interesting and cool. Being in a band is being in a relationship that can be hard sometimes, so be honest, and vulnerable, and listen, and talk, and welcome input from everyone in the band.

Work takes place between practices, too - talk about what you want to work on, what covers you want to learn, etc. Record scratch demos of originals and send them to each other for ideas so that you all can come to band practice ready to roll and having done a little bit of homework.
posted by entropone at 6:07 AM on October 13, 2021 [6 favorites]

Best answer: Yeah, every band I've ever known has had a standing practice. It's not only easy for band members to remember, it's easy for other people to remember: the bassist's girlfriend, the drummer's boss, etc. They all know that Wednesday is band night. And if someone doesn't show up, you still practice without them. I was in a band in college where the bass player kept getting called into work during practice, so we never actually practiced with a bassist. It was just me and the drummer. We never played a gig, LOL. The band's name was 2.4, and we used to joke that the number referred to how many members there were.

How you practice is going to depend on what type of band you are. A jam band practice is going to sound a lot different than hardcore punk band practice. But in general, band practice (as opposed to solo practice) is for learning to play together. You should also be practicing solo, to learn (or write/refine) your part, so that when you get to band practice, you're comfortable with the material. Obviously that's tricky with originals, but I'll get to that in a second. If the drummer's timekeeping is a little shaky, or the singer moves around a lot, you want to use practice time to figure out how you can work with those quirks.

There are exceptions, but most bands have a primary songwriter, maybe two. Writing songs from scratch is usually not a full band effort. Ringo and George wrote songs too, but the Beatles were Lennon/McCarthy, you know? Typically, the guitarist writes the music and the singer writes the lyrics, which makes sense. The guitar part is the most prominent, and usually more complicated than the bass or drum parts. Sometimes it works out where the singer is the guitarist and so one person can do it all.

I guess some people write songs collaboratively, but most of the songwriters I've known write on their own time and bring the rough draft of the song to the rest of the band. A lot of the time this is really basic, just some lyrics and a chord progression. Other times, they'll give you more direction like "cymbal crash here" or something. (J Mascis of Dinosaur Jr would actually write out and record a demo of the entire drum part before giving a song to the rest of the band, but that's unusual.) I guess now it's easier to record a demo so you can give it to bandmates. I like that idea because it's easier for the rhythm section to embellish a little bit. When you just say "the chorus is sixteen bars of G-Em-C-D" without a strum pattern or anything, the bassist will often start out just playing root notes, and the drummer will play a simple backbeat, and you'll have to practice a while to get beyond that. Whereas if you're hearing a demo, maybe you hear a spot for a countermelody, or a fill, or something, and you can go to the next band practice with an actual contribution.

With recording being trivially easy and inexpensive these days, I'd suggest recording your practices so that if something interesting does happen, you have it on tape (OK, computer audio file) and you can refer back to that rather than trying to remember what you did while you were in the zone.

Assuming you're not like, Rush or something, you'll probably have a basic arrangement ready in a couple of practices. Then you can move onto learning/arranging another song, while also rehearsing the semi-finished product. There's no real rule for how to balance that - you'll just have to talk to the guys in the band. Someone will say "I think we need more time on Song A", or, alternatively, "we've got Song A down, let's move on to something new". And then, when you've got a dozen or so songs down, you can book a gig.
posted by kevinbelt at 7:06 AM on October 13, 2021 [3 favorites]

Best answer: Middle-aged guy in an original band here (albeit single with no kids.)

a standing practice every week. Having a standing thing on the calendar really helps so that each practice isn't a schedule negotiation.

Yup, this. (Plus there's less potential for frustration/resentment if something comes up and someone can't make it, especially last minute - then it just becomes, "Oh well, we'll get it next week!")

Here's how we tend to roll:

1) chit-chat about life & music stuff while setting gear up, turning it on, fiddling around a little bit. We have a dedicated rented practice space so almost all of our gear stays put & mostly set up, so this doesn't take very long.

2) Run through about half a dozen of our tunes that we already know. We pretty much play each tune straight through unless someone completely falls apart (when you're playing a gig you kinda can't just stop and start over if someone makes a mistake, so we're also kinda practicing how to ignore/recover from clams.) If there's a part of a tune someone's having trouble with we might hit that part a couple of times after running through the whole song, or if there's a general question ("Which tempo is the "Right" one?") we'll play a song again.

3) smoke break. more chit chat.

4) Do another 4 or 5 tunes, same idea as #2.

5) New stuff. We have one songwriter, so he'll email us self-recorded demos - usually fairly simple stuff, him singing & playing acoustic, although sometimes he'll add harmony vocals & more guitar parts - and a general chord & structure breakdown ahead of time. The rest of us may or may not have toyed around with ideas for our parts in our own homes before we get to practice. So we'll just kinda start playing the song all together as well as we can. In the early stages this means a lot of stopping and starting and repeating and discussions about "Wait, what chord is that again in that part" and "Hey, I like what you're doing in the chorus, let's play that a bunch of times & see what I can come up with" and "I think we should repeat the chorus after the bridge and then go to the third verse." At any given time we have 2 or 3 tunes in the pipeline, so it's a process where we play each song a couple of times and as we play them week after week everyone's parts and the structure of the tune starts to solidify. Eventually we're all pretty happy with the thing, so (pre-COVID) we'd add a tune to the set list for our next gig. This process means that the final version of the tune can be very different from the original demo.

totally elapsed time 2 to 2 1/2 hours.

We tend to not jam or play cover tunes we all know, but I suspect we're outliers here - other bands I was in years & years ago did this, and from talking to other musician friends & acquaintances it's really common to do either or both as part of the warm up & fun of playing together. (We're not, like, laser-focused hardasses, there's plenty of screwing around and laughing, we just . . . don't seem to collectively have much interest in that.)
posted by soundguy99 at 7:19 AM on October 13, 2021 [7 favorites]

In my 30s, was in some bands until covid and my newish band right now is keeping me going.

We've been doing weekly practices but it varies by people's work schedules so at the end of each practice we roughly pick a day for the next week and adjust later if needed.

Right now it's pretty collaborative. If we have existing songs established or started we'll warm up on those and re-play if somebody needs to, or if they don't feel done people will suggest ideas to tweak them. Someone will usually come to the table with a song sketch or riff, either recorded or in person, for whatever instrument they're on and then we'll learn it and loop it a bunch of times and everyone will doodle on top of it until we find things that overlap with "what we like" and "what our skill level allows." If we need subsequent parts or a bridge or something, sometimes someone will just quickly fart out something they think might fit and we'll play it a few times in context and adjust it. We do a LOT of phone recordings and listening back to prior ones while songs are in development. I'm less skilled and usually need to use those to flesh out parts for my instrument between practices, which I'll bring back and get feedback on.

With this one we had a thing going for a bit where there was a subtle friendly "competition" when it was unclear who might become the primary songwriter and it led to everyone bringing many song sketches to the table which resulted in a lot of great songs and momentum.

In my past bands it's been "vocals are done by the vocalist when they are ready" but this one is unusual in that our vocalist requested collaborative lyric and melody writing sessions which are really fun.

I've definitely come to prefer a larger amount of shorter practices, with the ability to let them run long if you're hashing something out. A short practice is still a practice.
posted by ghostbikes at 8:04 AM on October 13, 2021 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Ours looks like this: standing weekly band practice once a week (for all the reasons listed above), approx 7-9:30 pm on a weeknight. Chit chat about our lives is mostly during setup/before practice, during practice we end up talking about songs or band logistics (like details about upcoming shows) more. If prepping for a show we just run through the songs we’ll be playing and go back and revisit any that are problems or we don’t feel confident in.

If we’re working on new songs: someone sends a demo ahead of time and we listen and play it; or we just listen at practice and do our best, with written cheat sheets with chords and structure to look at. We have three people writing songs, so we try to alternate a bit as far as whose songs we work on. the more fleshed out the demos are, the more successful the practices tend to be for this group. I’ve been in bands before where an acoustic demo was fine but it’s hard to flesh out from something super bare bones with this band. Typically the songwriter has lyrics/chords/melody down and sometimes specific instrumental parts, often each individual instrumentalist takes that skeleton and writes their own more detailed part over the following weeks/months. In the group we often work on dynamics, arrangement (so it’s not just everyone playing all the time!), getting tight with each other and nailing timing and transitions, structure… last practice, we only worked on a couple of songs; we changed the key of an outro for one song to make it flow more naturally from the bridge, and for another song tried a million different ideas for outro structure (instrumental chorus with solo? Breakdown with parts dropping out? Vamp on one chord?)

We used to record all our practices and share them in the cloud, now it’s more targeted/intentional because most of us weren’t actually listening back to the practices all the time. So I recorded a couple runthroughs of the newest song last week and that was it.
posted by music for skeletons at 8:47 AM on October 13, 2021 [2 favorites]

Agreed with the advice above, especially about having regular practices.

I've been in a few different bands and jammed with a bunch more musicians, and my experience is that you have to have at least one person "own" finishing the song. Often (but not always!) this is the person with the original idea for a song. You say you've played a few things that you've been working on and they liked them. Well, at the next practice take an hour or two to focus on one of your songs. Teach them the parts. Jam around a bit. If you have a strong sense of where you want the song to go, be directive - tell the drummer to use the high hat more, or the guitarist to back off on their tone. If you don't have a well-articulated vision, jam on it and listen to their suggestions and see if something emerges more organically. Record what you come up with, take it home, and tweak if necessary. But at some point you will be the one to speak up and say "I like this, I think this song is done, let's put it on the set list." That doesn't necessarily mean the song is absolutely finished and won't continue to be tweaked as you practice it, but it does mean that it's one of "your songs" and you can move on to the next one.
posted by googly at 9:32 AM on October 13, 2021 [2 favorites]

Set up a regular practice, preferably somewhere that gives you a sheen of serious musician respectability (i.e. a real rehearsal studio); spending money encourages commitment. I think the thing that helps us most of all is knowing when to move on from an idea that's not working. We're three 50-somethings who carve out a few hours a week for music in amongst families and careers, and so there's no point in making it unenjoyable. We all write, and can all be constructively critical of each other's ideas. Part of the fun is being able to play around with chord changes, vocal harmonies, writing stuff on the spot, and trying different arrangements. When we're in a dead end, we go back to the songs we've 'finished' and just enjoy running through them.
posted by srednivashtar at 10:53 AM on October 13, 2021 [2 favorites]

Oh, and as well as enjoying the process, you also have to have a bit of self-belief. Often this has to be achieved in the face of overwhelming indifference from family and friends (let alone the general public - original guitar-based rock by 50-something white men is never going to have its moment). But we play for ourselves and think our songs are quite good, and that's certainly all I need to get from it.
posted by srednivashtar at 11:00 AM on October 13, 2021 [2 favorites]

Best answer: 40 yrs in everything from garage bands to pro recording studios in SF & L.A. One of my tips is to have an old school marker board to help keep everyone on point. Layouts ‘Bridge (F#m) here, solo, 3rd verse, ending double-time’. Transposing chords. Set list. etc. And if you guys blank out when songwriting, it’s fun to just write some misc chords and see if something evolves.
And as others have noted, everyone doing the home work and being prepared makes for a great practice/rehearsal.
posted by artdrectr at 11:31 AM on October 13, 2021 [3 favorites]

Response by poster: Everyone, these are such great answers. Solid advice and very thoughtful, too. I’d love to hear your stuff! Thank you for taking the time to answer
posted by glaucon at 7:43 PM on October 13, 2021

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