Posts Tagged ‘musical conversation’

Setting Musical Priorities compared to learning to drive a car.

September 16, 2020

I’ve seen and read about many a performance where the player is focused on what I will refer to as minutiae – details that, though important to a degree, are not a priority. Examples of this might be: exact arrangement of original recording, type of strings used, instrument type, factoids about the original artist, techniques used…

All this is good information to think about – but it’s not the most important. Let’s consider learning to drive a car:

Many of us learned to drive a car in an open space, like a parking lot or rural road where there was little chance of us impacting others when we made a mistake. We learned to change gears, start and stop smoothly, and how to check our mirrors to see what is around us while we drove.

Once on the road, our priorities were to make sure that our tires were in good shape, that our alignment was proper, and that our brakes worked. This was to ensure that we could stop safely, the car would steer properly, and that our tires would grip the road as intended. The make, model, and color of the car; who designed it; who was famous for driving a similar model, and other auto related details were not as important as making sure the driving experience was safe and that the driver was able to take on passengers. We weren’t trying to keep up with other drivers.

And so with music, there are priorities that should be addressed first, before focus is put on the details.

Are you able to play the required chords for the song?
Can you transition from chord to chord smoothly?
Can you maintain a steady pace with the most basic rhythmic pattern?

I compare playing music to driving this way: your chords are like the tires on a car. There are many types of tires; tires made for different purposes, like: city driving, off-road, and racing. Depending on the type of driving you are doing, you might select a certain type of tire.

Simple songs require the most basic knowledge of only a few chords: C,F,G,Am… these will get you through many simple songs. Learning a few more chords: Bm7b5, Ebmaj7, and perhaps C#dim will let you go “off-road” and play some jazz. Learning even more types of chords and a bit of theory will allow you race with the best. But you have to learn to drive slowly and safely before you head to the racetrack.

Switching cords smoothly and with steady rhythm might be your “alignment” without which your chords and song will wobble and wear unevenly. If you’ve ever ridden in a car without good alignment, you know how uncomfortable that can be, not to mention dangerous.

And finally – how do you start and stop your playing? Is it rough and jerky, like using power brakes for the first time, or can you ease in and out of a song with grace?

Like learning to drive in an empty parking lot, we practice our songs in a safe manner, often by ourselves and not in “performance” mode. That’s when we can learn to steer our song this way and that, stop and start, and experiment with the controls.

But when we take on a listener and hit the musical streets – that’s when we pay attention and make sure our focus is on a smooth and safe musical ride. I know as a passenger in a car with a new driver, that I would prefer a slow and safe ride vs. a fast, jerky, stop-and-go ride that leaves me gripping the dashboard and turning prematurely grey.

Of course – playing a song at an open mic or with friends isn’t going to harm anyone or dent anyone’s fenders. And one might even compare the casual musical gathering to the empty parking lot – a place where it’s safe to experiment and feel safe doing so.

So please continue to play, experiment, and have the most fun doing so. There are no exams to pass; no minimum height requirements to reach, and no one else on the road to compete with.

But do consider your priorities when learning: keep it slow and steady; make sure you’re tuned up and ready to roll; check your rhythmic mirrors, and have a nice musical ride.

Playing with others.

August 6, 2013

(An expanded and edited version of this post appears in Rhan’s new book, All In Good Time – a Book About Playing Music for the Aspiring Ukulele Player. It is available at: www.rhanwilson.com/allingoodtime )

 

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

The Elusive “Pocket”

May 12, 2013

There is this term used in music called the “pocket” or the “groove” and I can only describe it as this musical place where your one usually simple rhythmic part fits in perfectly with the other perfectly simple parts.

Consider an automobile engine for a moment. Each of the 8 cylinders fire only once, but in perfect succession, creating a powerful energy that can move a car! If one of those cylinders fires in the wrong place, the engine loses energy and doesn’t function as well.

In a band, a powerful rhythmic energy can be obtained by, contrary to a beginner’s first instincts, playing less rather than more. The trick here is to find out just which notes are really the important ones to play, and then play them in just the right place, with perfect timing. As each person finds their perfect part, the combined effect is a full, powerful sound.

But what the real obstacle often is, is the player’s willingness to forego the notion that playing more means you are a better player. I consider a good player to be one that plays the right notes at the right time, not a bunch of notes all the time.

Consider another example:
Have you ever noticed someone who talks constantly about themselves and their achievements to the point that no one else seems to get a chance to join the discussion? They talk so much that they leave little room for anyone to contribute to the conversation.

Now see if you recall anyone who tends to wait patiently for the just the right opportunity to say the perfect, simple statement. That statement is often so insightful that it encourages others to share their thoughts on the subject, too.

Finding that elusive pocket means being confident in your abilities to the point that you don’t feel the need to show off or dominate the musical conversation, but rather finding that simple yet profound statement to contribute. And it’s a group thing – you find and create your part with the others’ in mind.

This is a hard concept to explain in words, but I can only tell you that when you have truly experienced this, you won’t forget it. Playing becomes effortless and magical.

I’d love to hear your thoughts.

Have you ever experiences anything like this?