Archive for the ‘Advanced’ Category

The Sheepherder Band Leader

August 16, 2017

I am often asked if I can help a “play along” group sound better and how the leader can be more effective. I came up with this way of explaining the leader’s role:

Think of a sheepherder and his herder dogs. The role of the herder and his/her dogs is to keep the herd together. When a couple of sheep wander off, the herder’s job is to bring them back to the others. Without that control, soon the herd would split into smaller herds and become unmanageable. Their job is to have an overview of what’s going on, notice these things happening, and correct the problem before it becomes too big.

The herder knows which direction to take the herd, so he/she pays attention to their location so that the herd can be lead in the proper direction. He/she looks ahead and anticipates what is needed. As beautiful as the surrounding landscape may be – the sheepherder can’t kick back and enjoy the scenery as much as they’d like to, as their job is to keep a watchful eye on the herd.

So to the leaders of play along groups – remember that your job is to lead the group.

As you guide your players through the song, you need to be able to detect when one or two players stray from the beat or the arrangement of the song, and bring them back to the rest of the group. Sometimes a gentle reminder of “We’re at the chorus” will do, or some other indication of where they should be. Sometimes you need to indicate that everyone should vamp – repeat the main chord over and over – until order can be restored. Bring those stray sheep back to the herd so the larger group can continue on the right path.

Like the sheepherder that has to choose which valley to guide the herd to, your job is to anticipate the upcoming change from verse to chorus, and let everyone know what to expect. Sometimes it happens by itself, but at other times, everyone needs a cue. That’s your job.

As much as you’d like to get everyone started and then pick up your instrument and sing along – as leader, you need to stay on guard all the time. If you want a break to play and have fun – ask for someone else to lead.

This doesn’t mean that you can’t have fun and participate – it just means that your primary role is to lead.

Your herd depends on you.

Thoughts?

Perfectly Imperfect

May 5, 2017

I teach music to a lot of people these days, and the most useful tip I can give them is to learn how to be imperfect.

We all stumble. We all make mistakes. But it is in how we handle those mistakes that shows our true character – and experience.

For example: I have seen many an open mic performance, where the singer/player makes one little goof, then makes a horrible face, and then apologizes for that mistake. We all heard it – but now we are remembering it. Had the player just skated on past it, minimizing its impact – chances are we would have moved on to the rest of the performance and forgotten all about it.

Forget a lyric? Make one up. Improvise.
Sure, we want to “tell the correct story” in our lyrics, but what’s more important: start, stumble, stop –  or keeping a nice musical flow? Chances are – if someone does notice that you made up a word here and there, they would also notice the skill and cleverness you demonstrated in a tight spot.

Forget where you are in the song? Vamp!
Vamping (playing a chord or chords over and over) is a very useful tool. It keeps the music and the performance going, while you gather your thoughts. (It’s also a great way to start songs, as it gets everyone’s attention and sets the mood.)

The point I am trying to make, is that all but the very most experienced musical geniuses make a mistake here and there, (and even then, I think they do, too.) But the reason you don’t notice those mistakes so much is because attention isn’t drawn to them. They have practiced being imperfect.

Here’s a practice tip I find useful:
Practice a song you like, but don’t refer to the lyrics. Start with the words you know, and when you forget something – make something up that fits in with the chords you are playing. Keep trying – sometimes it will be silly and nonsensical, but you will be amazed at how at times, it will actually be pretty clever. You can even try singing complete nonsense, and see how musical you can make it.

Practice being perfectly imperfect.

Iron out that wrinkle – a way to practice.

May 4, 2017

Let’s imagine you are getting ready for an important meeting, and you need your suit or dress needs pressing.

You pull it out of the closet, lay it down on the ironing board and begin. You do all the easy parts first, and then notice a significant wrinkle.

Question: Do you take the time to iron out that wrinkle, or work around it and pretend no one will notice?

If you want to look good, you would be wise to spend a bit of time ironing out that specific wrinkle before moving on the the rest of the garment. It’s not going to go away by itself.

So why do I so often notice, that many uke (and guitar) players practice songs by starting and going full throttle until they hit a rough spot, then chuckling about how “that is a hard chord”, then moving on, pretending that the problem will fix itself somehow?

If you really want to learn and get better – you’d be wise to stop at the “wrinkle” in the song, and work on it. Iron it out. Forget the rest of the song for the time being and work just on the problem area, over and over, until you’ve smoothed it out and you no longer notice any difficulty.

Then, go back and practice the whole song again, and glide right through that former rough spot, making your entire song sound as wonderful as it should.

 

Can you imagine trying to have a conversation with someone who can’t hear you?

August 17, 2016

I was teaching a workshop the other day and was having a hard time hearing individuals when they asked questions. People were talking between themselves, or doodling on their instruments. I had to ask everyone to please listen, as whatever question was being asked was important to the person asking it as well as to me, and that we would all benefit from the answer I was to give.

It then occurred to me that this was yet another analogy about playing music: that we have to be able to hear what is being said (played) in a musical situation in order to be able to respond accordingly.

In a band, we must ask ourselves: can we hear everyone? Can we hear the singer, bass player, drummer, and/or other “strummers?” Do they need to “come up” (be louder) or do we need to “come down” (be quieter)? (Often, it is the latter of the two.)

If we can’t hear what is being said, how are we to know how to respond?

I am sure we’ve all experienced a conversational situation where someone doesn’t hear the actual question, and responds with something completely out of context. Sometimes it can be quite humorous, but most often it simply stops the conversation until everyone gets back on track.

Have you ever noticed  in a playing situation, where someone (or several people) don’t seem to be listening and playing with the rest of the group? Perhaps they are soloing and doodling around while someone is singing, or not ending with the rest of the group.

This is a perfect opportunity to ask them, “Can you hear everything? The bass? The other players? Should we move closer together? Do we need to be louder? Can you play a little softer?” Whatever it takes to bring it to the group’s attention.

Soon it will be second nature to you all to insist that you hear everything – all the time.

I know where to buy the record…

July 30, 2016

When I go out to see a band or solo performer, I’d like to think that I am witnessing something special – that my presence in the audience actually matters – that the performer takes into consideration all these eager ears and faces and performs for them… me! I want to be able to say, “You had to be there.”

But I think sometimes, that in a performer’s eagerness to honor and prove their dedication to a particular artist, they merely copy the song: the arrangement, tone of voice, and delivery. But what is often forgotten, is that a recording artist often performs their songs differently. Their live version is actually live, versus their studio recording. Their acoustic version differs from the electric. There are multiple ways to play any one song.

And I remember hearing once, that a really well written song is one that can be interpreted many ways. A Beatles song, for instance, could be played in any style and still be recognized, sung to, and enjoyed.

This doesn’t mean that we can’t work hard to learn all the key parts of a song, practice the heck out of it, and deliver an amazing cover. That has its rewards both for the performer and the listener, but remember: we can buy the “real” tune anytime we want to hear it the exact way the original artist recorded it, but we can never buy the moment we sat or stood in front of you and you “blew us away” with your heartfelt, original and confident delivery of a song we thought we knew, but had never heard it played so personally… to us, the audience, on that special night.

Don’t just go through the motions – deliver the emotion.