Black Belt Show Preparation: Part 1

A system to ACTUALLY be ready.

So you’re called to sub for a band.  You don’t know the music. How do you get ready for the first rehearsal?  What if there is NO rehearsal? Plus, you have three other gigs already on your plate! AHHH!

I’ve always felt very uncertain about my preparation process.  It’s easy for it to get nebulous, uncertain and overwhelming.  I needed a system.

So, having no knowledge of martial arts whatsoever, I stole the belt rankings from Jiu Jitsu.

Jiu Jitsu fighters wrestling during a match


The Black Belt Show Preparation System: Passing the test for each belt – WHITE, BLUE, PURPLE, BROWN, BLACK, RED – represents a different benchmark of preparedness. Attack each belt test sequentially for a show.  The further you progress before the show, the harder you will crush.



The informed ear.

The Test:

The jiu jitiero/a, having listened to a full playlist of the set, will obtain their WHITE BELT.

On Stage:

You’ll at least vaguely know what’s going on. If your ear is incredible, you might even hit some of the parts.  It is recommended to progress beyond WHITE BELT in all but the most dire of emergencies.

Training Tips:

  • Put the playlist on whenever you can: chores, work, exercise, transit.  Hum along. Absorb the music by osmosis.

  • Assemble the playlist as soon as humanly possible after getting the gig.  You have to do it at some point anyway–might as well be now. The brain learns more if the listening is spread out over many days.

  • Live recordings of the actual band are always best.



The path mapped.

The Test:

The jiu jitiero/a, having obtained/written all charts and arranged them in set order, will obtain their BLUE BELT.

On Stage:

You’ll know exactly what you should be playing.  You may not be proud of how you play, but if you are a decent reader, you will survive the gig.  If you train-wreck, you’ll at least be able to get back on track. The songs you charted yourself will be fairly well-absorbed.

Training Tips:

  • Charting everything yourself is ideal.  You’ll learn the material best. But it is not always realistic.  For common tunes: Consult your personal library. Ask your colleagues for charts. Search the internet.

  • Add the term “filetype:pdf” to a google search to return only PDF files.  I’ve been shocked to sometimes find even deep-cut horn parts this way. Using the image search function is also sometimes effective.

  • You may be turned off by buying sheet music, but is $5 worth an hour or two of your time?

  • Always test an acquired chart against the recording for key, form and accuracy.

You may think to yourself: this song is so simple that I don’t need a chart.  However, you will be glad that you have it when this gig rolls around again two years from now.

Female Jiu Jitsu Fighters


The hero awakens.

The Test:

The jiu jitiero/a, having discovered and recorded themselves crushing the top 5 HERO MOMENTS of the gig, will obtain their PURPLE BELT.

EVERY gig is guaranteed to have both victories and defeats--but choosing your victories intelligently can make all the difference.  Don’t waste a victory on a part nobody will remember. Identify the top 5 HERO MOMENTS--the most important moments in the set for you to crush.


You have your BLUE BELT baseline for all the material, and you’ll knock it out of the park when it really counts.

Training Tips:

  • A HERO MOMENT is a point in the music where you will be the hero.  A point where you killing it has the most impact on the band and audience.  A solo. A feature. An iconic lick. An exposed moment.

  • A HERO MOMENT is not the same as a challenging moment.  Some HERO MOMENTS are relatively easy.  Some NON-HERO MOMENTS are fiendishly difficult.  Do not get importance and difficulty confused.  Difficult, unimportant moments may grab your attention, but they are actually low priority. We’ve all had this epiphany after the gig: “Why did I spend so much time on X? It didn’t matter. I should have been killing it on Y!”

  • If you're confused, picture yourself after the gig.  You just crushed it. What moments will your hyped fans be congratulating you on? What about your bandmates?

  • Be looking for these moments when listening to the playlist.  Flag them.



At this point, you are well suited to take on most gigs and come out feeling on top.  But, there are higher levels of mastery still to be achieved, for those gigs where good isn’t enough…  



Jiu Jitsu Fighters, one in black and one in white, during a tournament


Bryant Smith
Contributing Editor

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