Typically, for solo background music gigs, I would put together a set list to cover the time that I was hired to play. I'd carefully select which songs to group with each other. However, in recent gigs, I've found that sometimes, I have to throw that list out the window and fake it because I what I prepared doesn't match the rhythm and flow of the crowd.
This time, we have picked a bunch of songs, hours more than required. We both have a tendency to gravitate to the ballads (easy to fake). This time, our set list is jam packed with faster tunes. This has presented me with Challenge #1: finding the time to get these faster songs into my fingers - in between teaching, writing and trying to keep up with my studio operations.
We've agreed to earmark a few starting songs and then we'll choose what's next based upon the energy in the room. No problemo.
We are taking turns on the piano and cajón. That's been fun. By far, it's a lot easier to prepare the percussion part: learn a pop groove: CHECK! Learn a rock groove: CHECK! Learn a polka/klezmer groove: CHECK! Learn a tango/Latin groove: CHECK! Listen carefully and have fun.
As a soloist, we subconsciously take more time or speed up in tricky spots. We cheat with our timing. Pianists are as guilty as everyone else. As much as we teachers would like to say that we don't, we do. We all do.
However, when playing in an ensemble, it's much more critical to play in time. Not only that, but to play in the style of the piece. Therein lies Challenge #2 & #3 for me. I get hesitant when I'm not confident in the chords and/or melody. It's human nature. Nor do I have all these styles firmly in my fingertips like my friends who gig regularly do (I'll get there, though!).
To beat that out of me, I've been playing along to Youtube recordings of some of the songs and just hammering out the chord changes. Once those are secure, I start to improvise. Once that's not too shabby, I look at the melody. That's different from the standard, "Learn Part A hands separately then hands together," line we tell our students.
The other approach I've taken is to work on specific musical styles. I heard from a fellow musician that another colleague achieved great success in mastering swing by just practicing swing - and only swing - every day for hours.
Now the gig is just around the corner, so I don't have the time to fully explore this approach. I'll keep the basic boogie, Latin, pop and rock grooves already under my fingers (more or less). I did add a tango groove and klezmer rhythms as the client has asked specifically for these styles.
Once the gig is behind me though, I will explore this in full force. My plan is to spend X weeks on one style - for all the instruments I play (piano, cajón, voice, melodica and conducting). Once that's coming along, I'll add another, and another.
It's a different practice approach for one who is classically trained. It is something that my friends who gig regularly have already mastered. It's going to be a fun project.