Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Tip Six: Get Connected to Others

This is the sixth installment in our series of articles on hidden or obscure strategies for improving musicianship. These strategies are not intended to be a substitute for (I hate this word) "practicing." Spending time playing your instrument is mightily important.

But these 22 ideas are strategies you can use in addition to your time in the woodshed. How does one find a label for these strategies? Subconscious? Metaphysical? Whatever word you want to use, go ahead. It's just that these ideas are not often presented to you as part of a musical instrument learning regimen.

Understand that these ideas are in no particular order either of chronology or importance. In fact this one may be among the most important of the 22. So here it is.

In a word: interact.

That's right. Play music with other people. Does this mean form a band? It could. Don't laugh, playing in a group may be easier than it seems at first glance. And it has the potential to accelerate your learning by orders of magnitude.

There are two types of people in the world. There are those who play music better than you, and there are those who do not play as well. That's it. The trick is to find both types of people to play with. But although you will be picking from both groups, try to choose them as close to your playing ability as possible. If you play with people who are incredibly better than you or worse than you, there will be frustrations.

You want to be among a group of people you can teach to as well as learn from.

Keep in mind a few of the ground rules for ensemble playing.

1. Everyone will play a lot fewer notes than other wise. The more people in a group, the fewer notes each person plays.

2. You need to pay closer attention to dynamics (loudness). Remember that two people playing softly together could produce the same decibels as one person playing moderately.

3. Have an idea what the outcome should sound like. Perhaps have a recording and get everyone to agree that the goal is to sound like the recording.

4. Try to have at least one person in the group who has some experience in group playing. Sometimes groups consist of musicians who solely read music notation. But just as often that's not the case. You may find yourselves playing from a lead sheet (like a fake book). So you need to know what it is your instrument is supposed to do. Just as each player on a football team has a very specific job to do, so is the case with the player in a band. If the music is written out note for note, it's clear what everyones part is. But if you're playing from chord sheets, it's not so cut and dry.

If you are the piano player, you need to understand that you won't be playing too many melodies, if at all. The piano player in a group is usually part of the rhythm section, which means you play chords. Sure, it's not that simple. But basically, that's what a piano player does. Chords, chords, chords.

5. Strive for a variety of different instruments. What if your quartet consisted of four piano players? Or four drummers? Or four tuba players? Not good. Each different instrument has a particular function in a group setting. Diversification and balance is what you want.

6. Find your unique spot. This may be tough to explain. In an effort to diversify, there is a place within the music that is just for you. To find it, you must first listen to what other instruments are doing. Is there a rhythm guitar player strumming chords in a certain pattern? Let him have it. Find your own pattern. Don't try to double down his. Is the bass player playing a boogie woogie pattern? Then you lay off. Find something else to do with your left hand. There will be a place for each member of the ensemble. It might be good to discuss the over all strategy with the band ahead of time. Gently make (and graciously accept) suggestions.

Here's the most important lesson of all. Playing with other people forces you to depend and develop that part of the anatomy that is typically most neglected. Your ears. Playing solo is always better when the musician listens. Although many times they don't, it's still doable.

When you play with other people, however, listening is essential. You have to listen to everybody all the time. And it's hard to do sometimes.

Look at it this way. As a part of a group, your job is to make the over all music sound better. Don't add notes to the ensemble just because you can. Your job is to make things better, not louder or busier, and you can only do that if you are constantly monitoring the sound the group as a whole produces.

I can't give you specifics on how to listen better. But the more you play with others, the better you get at it, assuming you are striving for a better group sound and not just playing for the benefit of your own ego.

How do you find people to play with? An ad on Craigslist is a good place to start. A 3 by 5 card in a music store or some community bulletin board. Be sure to indicate what kind of music you would like to play, and give some examples. There's no place for a Led Zeppelin guitar player in a polka band.

Indicate your musical experience, perhaps the specific musicians you're looking for, and your desired goal. Whether the goal is "fun, friendship and mutual admiration" or to win Grammy Awards, just the simple act of playing together is THE NUMBER ONE WAY TO ACCELERATE YOUR PLAYING SKILLS.

Quote me.