Playing with others.

Playing with others: we do it often, joining play-alongs and jams,  yet we often jump in blind with no one to guide us through the basics. I offer here a way to think about the social act of playing music together, by way of describing a typical, healthy conversation. Then, I compare it to playing music together.

THE CONVERSATION
If I were talking to myself, I could ramble on and on, switch topics any time I wanted, and start and stop at will. (And I do that often.) However, if I wanted to have a healthy conversation with someone else or a group of people, the rules change a little. Let’s examine some of the things we do when conversing:

LISTEN.
Have an idea of what is being discussed before jumping into the conversation. What is the topic? At what level are people talking – both in volume and in intellect? That way, when you join in, you are able to do so without causing a distraction.

TAKE TURNS.
It’s a great conversation when someone can make a statement and then allow someone else to comment. (We’ve all experienced the constant talker who never pauses to let anyone say anything.) You may be an expert at a given topic, but unless you’re teaching or giving a lecture – don’t hog the conversation.

LISTEN.
I’ll say it again – listen. Has anything changed? Are we now talking about something else? If so, update! And if you want to get back to an earlier thought, you might say, “I’d like to say something else about ______ before moving on.” This let’s others know you have been paying attention.

BRIEF INTERJECTIONS
One needn’t be absolutely silent when someone else is talking. A quick “right on!” and nod of the head signals your agreement without hijacking the conversation. It lets the speaker know you are listening and can build enthusiasm.

LISTEN. (Have you noticed that I keep coming back to this?)
Be interested even if you’re not the one talking. Ever notice how some people get frustrated and impatient when someone else is talking? It seems they are not really listening at all but rather only waiting for a break so they can get back to what they were saying.

SENSE THE ENDING
Know when the conversation is ending. I like a long conversation myself, but when people have stood up, put on their coats, and are headed for the door, it might be prudent to hold off on starting up the conversation again. I can wait till the next time you all get together.

Playing music with others is very much like having a conversation.

LISTEN!
In the same way you assess a verbal conversation before jumping in, listen for musical cues as to what is already going on. What is the tempo? At what volume are the other people playing? Are you playing with beginners or with more advanced players.?

This doesn’t have to take long  – just a moment – long enough to be aware of what you are joining.

TAKE TURNS.
Listen – play – listen – play…. Here’s one way to think of it: if you are playing by yourself, you can pretty much play as much as you want (100%), but as soon as there’s someone else, I’d like to think that the sound space be split 50-50.
Be careful not to hog the musical conversation. Leave room for others to add to the sound and be part of the dialogue. Sometimes, the rate of “taking turns” can happen very quickly. Other times, it occurs over several measures.

LISTEN TO THE TEMPO!
We are not machines. Our tempos change slightly. We all may start together, but we have to monitor the tempo constantly, just as we correct our steering when driving down a long straight highway.

BRIEF INTERJECTIONS.
Throwing in a brief 3 or 4 note response (lead) now and then after a notable lyric can be cool. It says, “I’m listening” and “I agree” much like a spirited “Amen” during a sermon.

We might compare soloing (playing lead) with talking. You might have something interesting to play/say, but if you dominate the conversation, interrupt while others are playing/talking, solo too long, etc. – you might as well be playing by yourself.

LISTEN.
Great music is all about the space in between the notes. Be interested in what others are saying and playing and comment/play when it is called for.
(LEAD PLAYERS: Even if you are the only lead player in a group – try to make what you say/play count. Leave some space now and then so other nuances in the music can be heard. Sometimes playing music means NOT playing music.)

SENSE THE ENDING.
Watch the leader (or anyone and everyone) for cues as to what to play, when. Pay attention to when the song is about to end and try to finish with the others. Even though you may want to add that extra verse or chorus; if everyone has all stopped together – please don’t be that one or two players who insist on ending it “their” way, even though everyone else has already done so. You might as well be playing by yourself.

Remember – you are part of a group. Do your best to make everyone sound good. To quote Spock: “The needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few. Or the one.”

Finally, I acknowledge that this post represents only my opinion, though that is based on 45+ of playing music in both casual and professional settings. There are many types of jams, just as there are many types of conversations.

Your turn – what are your thoughts?

Rhan

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14 Responses to “Playing with others.”

  1. Carolyn Kennedy Says:

    I enjoyed reading this thoughtful piece
    I especially enjoyed the notion of putting what you don’t immediately grasp into a little orbit to be understood or integrated at a later time

    Carolyn K

  2. keithmj Says:

    Hi Rhan. When you get time can you post the chart for Summertime? I also changed one of my Lanikai Sopranos to the Low G and love the sound. Thanks and I love the song

  3. Susi Downey Says:

    Okay it took me a few days to read this but WOW it is so perfect for me at this time!! Thanks for a great comment on the art of conversation – words and music! I find that I want to listen more but get carried away with a conversation so this helps me to get back on point. It is so much of the “be in the moment” with others to give and take. Listen is a beautiful word! Susi

  4. neil Says:

    Thanks 4 the thoughtful words of wisdom … 4 conversation … & music !!!

    taking this in @ a deep level …

    best 2 u 2 … ♪♥♪

    neil

    Sent from Samsung Mobile

    All

  5. Sandra Taylor Says:

    Thanks Rhan! Indeed, a very good analogy. I will work on that. ~s.

    ~ Misspelled miserably, by my iPad ~

  6. Freddly Slacker Says:

    Right on, Rhan.

    This is a ratio worth pondering: we have 2 ears and one mouth.

    Ears are always in the open position,
    but our mouths we can voluntarily close.

  7. Martin and Syd Carlson Says:

    Great piece Rhan.  Marty

  8. david joel Says:

    Terrific articulation of what it means to play music in an ensemble no matter what the size or configuration.

    • Rhan Wilson Says:

      Thank you so much for commenting on this. There is so much to be said about this comparison between playing and conversing – it’s fun to see the similarities.

      Rhan

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