This past couple of weeks I have been deluged with new music to learn.  Below is an example, the beautiful tune "No Surprises" from an all Radiohead jazz gig put together by my friend Bobby Muncy.

All this got me thinking about one very important part of being a musician that I don't hear people discussing very much, how to learn new music.

For me, if I am burdened with having to think a lot on the band stand, the music really suffers.  There are any number of things that I could be thinking about that would interfere with my ability to listen and interact with a band in an organic way, and often they rear their ugly heads when I am playing music that is unfamiliar.  That being the case, the most important part of learning new music is to put yourself in a position where you can turn off your brain and just play.  All the strategies that I am going to recommend have that end in mind. 

I know it isn't cool, just do it.
1.  Organize
Although this may seem really obvious to many people, just getting organized can really help ease the process of learning new music.  If you have charts, put them in a binder in alphabetical order.  If you have recordings, put them on your iPod.  Make this easy on yourself and do this work when you have time so you won't be scrambling when you don't.

2.  Study what you have
If you have a recording of the music, the best place to start is to listen.  You want to focus on things like melody, form, important hits, and overall groove/vibe.  Try to get a sense for the song without going into too much detail.  It is crucial to remember that you are not trying to transcribe, or even necessarily emulate how the drummer on the recording is playing.  If you do try to do this, you will be so caught up trying to think about this on the band stand that it will trip you up. 

If no recording exists and you only have a chart, or even if a recording does exist, it is definitely worth your time to try to play the tune on the piano.  The point here is to get the song off the page and into your ear, so don't worry if your piano skills are not great, just try to make a sketch.  Hopefully you can at least plunk out the melody so that you can get it in your ear.  Once you have the melody memorized, try singing it while you practice the tune on the kit.  Practicing this way will really help you internalize the song so that can rely on your ears on the gig.

3.  Focus on the biggest challenges
One of the real keys to negotiating this process successfully is prioritizing.  If you are throwing up in your mouth a little every time you look at the giant stack of charts or recordings you just got, remember that the odds are that most of this stuff will be easy.  It is your job to find the stuff that will actually really stretch you and focus your energy on that.  This also means that you will have to deliberately not spend too much time on things that are already fun for you to play.  Sorry to be a drag, but if it is already fun, you can already do it.  Go practice something that makes you flustered.

By the way, this doesn't mean that the challenge will be the same every time, quite the contrary!  Sometimes the tunes are relatively straightforward, but the challenge is finding a way to keep them distinct mentally.  Sometimes you get sent a chart with sections in 13 (this actually just happened to me).  No matter what the challenge, your job is to anticipate what could trip you up on the gig and tackle it ahead of time.  Which leads to my next point...

4.  Communicate with the bandleader/composer
Don't forget, often times the person with the most insight into what is going to be challenging in the music is the person who wrote it or put it together.  If you want the quickest way to find what to practice, just ask!  Establishing some rapport with the bandleader/composer is a good idea anyway as it will demonstrate your commitment to the music and help them feel more at ease with you. 

5.  Don't forget to listen!
I said this in the beginning but just to emphasize the point, the reason for doing all this stuff is so that you can free your mind up to focus on listening.  Ultimately, your ability to listen is going to determine your success when playing new (or any) music, so always keep this in mind.

I would also recommend recording yourself playing the gig if you can.  Although this may not help you learn the music this time around, it will help you see what worked and what didn't work for the next time you have to learn something new.