Tonight, I attend my first band rehearsal in over four months. It has already been strategized for Covid compliance and peer reviewed. It checks out. There will be masks and ventilation and maybe pizza. Everyone’s comfort level has been interrogated by the bandleader, and accommodations have been made. We’re all on the same page — page one — and I am looking forward to what is sure to be an awkward and sloppy return to the ensemble arts. It has to start somewhere.
I haven’t stopped working on music these four months. In fact, it has been a daily focus — writing, recording, reading a book about mixing, contributing tracks to other people’s records, acquiring and learning new technology, and doing a fair amount of blue-sky development of skills, like singing.
But none of that protects one from chops loss. If you were in the decades-running habit of a dozen rehearsals and shows a month and it drops suddenly to zero, and stays there, you lose your conditioning. Your fancy skills may be razor-sharp, but your basic skills — time, tone, stamina, listening to others — will be dull and patchy. Not much that can be done about it except exactly this.
Rehearsals come in about as many varieties as there are bands. A very common kind is the brutal, focused, long one typical among ad-hoc ensembles preparing for one-off gigs. No matter how much of the preparation can be accomplished with mp3s and homework, a band needs to feel out its feel at least once, and there are always arrangement details to nail down, tops and tails mostly.
These are rehearsals for busy players. The musicians are expected to come prepared, and they expect to not have to do this very often: pragmatic rehearsals aimed at securing a baseline competence and the mitigation of suck. Ninety-nine percent of the rehearsing you do for these bands comes in the form of all the playing and practicing you’ve done in your life.
On the opposite end of the spectrum is a Sweet Clementines rehearsal — rehearsal as party, songs as likely to be made up on the spot as drawn from the repertoire. Much idle chatter. Inefficient? Sure, but essential. It’s all about the playing and being together. We burn time as if there were a bottomless supply.
And suck is always on the table. Without risk of suck, there is little chance of great. You can put a dream band together, but there are levels of empathy and freedom that have little to do with the attributes of players and everything to do with doing this every week for ten years.
Tonight’s rehearsal is a special situation, the very first gathering of a group that has a couple of booked shows. With one of the members of the band, I have played hundreds and hundreds of times, if not a thousand. With the other two, never. One member is a rock star. Hint: it isn’t me.
I take comfort in we’re all going to suck at this.
Read more installments of Village Voices by John Burdick.