Recently, I had to memorize 24 Black Sabbath songs for a gig. With two solos per song, and Tony Iommi’s lead style being very different from mine, the pressure was on. I practiced day and night, but I still had days when progress was frustratingly slow.
If only I had the opportunity to talk to Jennifer Batten beforehand. While Batten is used to learning large repertoires and difficult parts in minimal time, even she has changed her learning strategy lately.
“I used to spend hours jamming material into my brain,” says Batten. “Then, I watched a neuroscience seminar on how the brain processes and stores new information, and this knowledge has really freed me up.”
Here are her top five tips for memorizing new and/or challenging material…
LIMIT THE TIME FRAME
“After 15-20 minutes of practicing the same thing, it becomes counter-productive, because the brain can only absorb new information for that amount of time,” says Batten. “So practice one song for 15 minutes, and then move on to another.”
VARY YOUR LEARNING
“Get away from the instrument and just listen. Use sheet music as a visual modality. At GIT, Howard Roberts had us use our picking hand as a virtual guitar, putting our fretting hand over it as if fingering a fretboard. This forces you to visualize. Your brain work is half the battle—not necessarily your motor skills.”
“In many cultures, we get brownie points for getting by on less sleep, but it’s actually the worst thing you can do. Your brain needs to recharge and heal, and it still processes information while you’re sleeping.”
“I had a gig with [keyboardist] Jeff Lorber where some parts were originally written on keyboards, which made them slightly awkward to play on guitar. I put them into Seventh String Software’s Transcribe!, taking on four bars at a time at a lethargic 25-percent speed, and soon I was able to play the parts flawlessly. Also, a mix can play tricks on your hearing. So in Transcribe! I often use the Bass Remove preset and the Karaoke Mode—which drops out the center track, and is great for zeroing in on chord parts. Technimo’s iReal Pro is helpful for seeing how well you know a song, because you can play along with a virtual band without any melodies or cues. If I have a lot of songs to learn for a project, I’ll make playlists with loops of the most difficult parts. I’ll dig into those first—before learning the song forms—and, at night, I’ll listen to the full songs.”
KNOW THE HARMONY
“When learning solos, be aware of the harmony underneath. This way, you ‘glue’ the memory of a line to a chord.”