“I mean, listen, we're talking about practice…”
A thump and a hum: That’s the sound of something awesome about to happen. There’s nothing like the change in the air one inhabits when a guitar amplifier switches from off to on. The auditory shift is followed by a universal strum across the strings to ensure everything is now electrified, an act so widespread it should have its own term after all this time. Something that recognizes the live current and the funky monster brought to sudden life like Dr. Frankenstein's creation. The rake over the strings is pure and allowed to sizzle into the ether before it’s replaced by some dexterous noodling of fingers dancing up and down the guitar’s neck. This nimble run over frets and strings is non-choreographed, jittery and boneless, before the big, sweeping numbers that all have to be rehearsed. This is band practice.
It’s late afternoon on a Sunday. Outside, the sun has nearly put in a full day’s work. Inside, the members of one Houston band who have assembled for rehearsal are just starting theirs. They’re tuning up. At least one has bedhead. One still bears the scents of Lone Star beers and Camel cigarettes from the previous night’s show. They greet each other as they gather with nods and half-smiles. Nothing needs to be said. They know why they’re here.
Rehearsal is critical to every musical act. We never write about it, which is strange since we’re so fixated on the results of all that practice, better known as the live show or concert. Rehearsal is critical to every music act in Houston. This is now a competitive live-music market with a lot at stake, but still directed by a relative few. You don’t know when you’ll be seen by the handful of people who serve as tastemakers here, but when they do see you, you’d better be performing your best set. You can’t do that without hours of rehearsals. Writing your name in lights here can’t happen without the repeated fits and starts that lead to a flowery cursive.
Every band in the region is practicing for something all of the time, but even more so today, right now, as you’re reading this. Dozens of acts are performing at Super Bowl-related shows this week, for instance. Whether these events are sanctioned by the Big Game or not, the notion is visitors will be in town and some may be seeking live shows to wind down the hours until the Falcons, the Patriots and Lady Gaga hit the field. Every band playing live music today is playing to earn one fan at a time. This is a chance to earn some from outside the city without the expense and rigors of touring. So, they’re practicing. Today. Right now. As you’re reading this.
Next month, loads of Houston acts will be playing in Austin during SXSW activities. Some, mostly rap and hip-hop performers, will be official SXSW showcase acts, while others will play peripheral shows booked during one of the city’s most critical music weeks. Presumably, the field of influencers there will be larger and more representative of music communities across the globe; that’s an audience any act would love to reach to be taken more seriously. And you can’t be taken seriously if you haven’t rehearsed seriously. You can’t risk a failed opportunity because your bassist couldn’t get off work, or your vocalist couldn’t find a babysitter.
This time, the band we’re watching is pretty new. It’s only a year old, made up of professional musicians. No side jobs; this is it. They get paid from shows and any traction those shows generate. There is no alternate source of income, so no room for failure. They’re rehearsing for a February tour, from Houston to California to Washington state and back. Ten states, 21 shows and zero mistakes; that’s the objective. The better the show, the better the future opportunities. That’s no different from how it is here in Houston. You have to excel, whether you’re at home or on the road. If you’re making your livelihood from music or someday hope to, practice isn’t an option; it’s imperative. The band practiced twice yesterday before its show – once in its appointed practice space and once in the tour van, unplugged, an hour before the set.
And now it’s plugging up again, readying for a couple of hours of performing for one another by crr-whaacking open canned beer and noshing on snacks someone thought to bring. This band just launches in; it has no real ritual attached to practice, but lots do. Responses from other bands we inquired after included “marijuana"; “splitting a cigarette and critiquing ourselves”; “beer”; “a hug circle afterwards”; “several cups of tea”; “prayer”; and “talking in graphic detail about our sexual exploits with each other’s moms.” Different bands, different mores. It’s all about what works. The one answer that applied to all the bands we reached out to came from a musician whose veteran group is a local legend. “We work,” he wrote. “And then we work some more.”
And it is work, the kind that is absent of instant gratification or glory. Do it correctly now and that will come later. The bandmates navigate the cables and cords that snake along the floor to pat each other on the back when they get it right. They sigh with exasperation when someone messes up. They reset and support and encourage one another. It works because, in most cases, you’re more than co-workers. As another band friend wrote, “If we weren't such good [actual] friends, this wouldn't work. Band family is extremely important to us.”
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You have to like your bandmates, if not love them. If you’re going to practice your way to the top, you’re going to spend a lot of time with them. It's important to find a comforting place for this exercise. This band holes up in a suburban home with keep-the-cops-away soundproofing. Others we talked with advocate rehearsal spaces like Rock Center or Rhythm Room or Francisco's or the docks by Walters.
Find a space and start putting your time in. Malcolm Gladwell, author of Outliers, recommends 10,000 hours of practice to master anything; he calls it the 10,000 Hour Rule. One of the examples he cites to support it is a band that played eight-hour gigs night after night in German nightclubs. That band became the Beatles.
Individually, these musicians already have their 10,000 hours. As a unit, they’re somewhere closer to 1,500. They’re putting in work a few hours at a time and the last few just ended. Amps are turned off and, when the ringing subsides, we’ll be back to listening to the world in its normal, boring mode. But that’s okay. There’ll be more band practice tomorrow.