A new approach to learning tunes

Hi all,

You may have picked up on the fact that I’m adopting a new approach to learning tunes within the group.

The new approach may seem a little scary at first, as it will definitely expose our individual foibles / slips more than previously (at least at first).  However, I firmly believe it’s the only way forward if we’re to regain our ability to put together a repertoire of tunes in time to put on at least one concert each term – which seems to be where many in the group want to head.

The new approach is pretty simple, in that for a given tune, each of us must learn our part (or parts) to the point where we can play confidently against a backing track (midi file), completing this phase before we move to rehearsing the tune as a group.

Why this approach ?

The easiest way I can explain the new tactic is via an illustration, and by doing this via the blog, it’ll hopefully save us time as a group.  Sorry if it’s patronising – but I couldn’t find a clearer way to illustrate why we’re taking this route.

The Jigsaw

A grand jigsaw competition was organised, with teams competing for a prize for the fastest successful completion.  The rules of the competition were ….

  • The jigsaws comprised 6 rows, each of many pieces.
  • Each team had 6 members, each of whom was allocated a row – 1 to 6 (top to bottom).
  • Each team featured a team-leader, to help with co-ordination.
  • The team could take their pieces home to practice with, before the competition date.
  • Every member of the team was provided with a picture of the completed whole jigsaw (on the lid of the box), and another of their allocated row.
  • Every member of the team was given a video showing step-by-step, how to build their row – as a learning aid.

Many different tactics were employed by the various teams – To save this being a 20-pager, here’s what happened to those who came last, and those who won 🙂

The Losers

The team all promised to learn how to assemble their parts at home before the competition, so that they could build their row quickly and methodically on the day.

In the event though, the promised practice never really materialised.  Hardly anyone had even glanced at their row-guides, and virtually no-one looked at the overall picture.

Certainly, there was little evidence that anyone could build their row quickly and confidently.

On the day everyone in the team was left to work out how the pieces fit within their row, and in real time.

The problem was that just when the guy in row 3 thought he had a section sorted, the guy in row 4 moved some of his pieces and put him off.  The guy in row 5 kept tentatively trying pieces to see whether they fit, but never really committed to a pattern. …. and the guy in row 2 began to panic, so started thumping his pieces in to make them fit, regardless of whether there position was right or not.

Soon, everyone became frustrated and joined in with “row 2” in forcing their pieces together.

The team leader had at least looked at the overall picture, so tried to advise the others on how to build the jigsaw properly, but time was running out, and most of the team were so intent on sorting out their own rows, that they took little notice.

In the end, after a very long time, a picture emerged.  It looked something like the illustration on the box cover, but it wasn’t right.

The Winners

Proving that there’s no short cut to winning the competition, and that practice makes perfect, the winning team turned up on the day, each member being confident in his ability to assemble his row quickly and accurately.

Each team member had built their allocated row several times over so that they could do so on the day without having to think too much about which piece went where – and they had also checked their work against both the row-picture and the overall picture to make sure they’d got everything just right.

With the help of the team leader who made sure that everyone moved at the same speed, the team worked together seamlessly, building their individual rows whilst keeping an eye on the whole picture as it emerged.

Where the team leader felt the need to guide the team, the individual row-builders had sufficient free concentration to pay attention and put his suggestions into action.

Predictably, the winning team’s jigsaw came together very quickly indeed, and with very little need for the team-leader to guide and correct the team.


Putting this back into a musical context, the implications for us as a small and are pretty obvious.  The evidence of the past couple of years is that when we don’t rehearse up-front or at home, and instead leave it to trust that it will all come right when we combine learning and rehearsing as a group activity, it takes an absolute age to build even an acceptable approximation of a given tune – in most cases it takes a full two terms of intermittent practice for any tune to reach acceptable concert standard.

Taking this amount of time to learn our tunes introduces frustration amongst those who learn their parts more quickly, and we even get to a stage where members of the band begin to forget what they’ve learned, before we can put together a full concert play-list.

In the past, I’ve tried to rectify the problem above, by getting everyone to promise that they will put in the off-line practice.  However, despite numerous attempts at enthusing the band, the required discipline at home hasn’t materialised.

Therefore, the only way is to ensure that we can each play our parts confidently as a first step, then assemble the parts into the whole.

Hopefully, we can establish this as a norm, so that we can eventually dispense with the need to check our individual work up-front – trusting in the band’s commitment to a good quality end result.









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