Wednesday, April 25, 2018

Tuning Slide 3.43: Listening While You Play

Weekly Reflections on Life and Music

To me, groups of musicians playing together, not fighting each other, but playing a groove together is one of the most exciting things to listen to.
-Phil Collins

One of the most exciting things about being a musician is the opportunity to play music with others. I can sit in my practice room for hours playing all the great stuff I want to play, but if I’m only doing it alone, I am missing out on the ultimate joy of music. Our brass quintet recently got back together after a fairly long layoff. I had been practicing the pieces we have played and want to play, but I had no idea any more how they sounded together. At our first rehearsal a few weeks back I actually got lost because I became distracted by the other parts. My part didn’t sound the same as it did in practicing. (Doh!)

I have talked before about the joy of listening to a band play from within the band. What I am talking about this week, actually, is the way we have to listen to each other and how we build that into our performances. Such awareness is not natural for most of us. It makes us move outside of our own bubbles and pay attention to who’s with us and what we are doing.

In the book Making Music for the Joy of It, the author, Stephanie Judy goes into considerable detail about the direction of learning to play well with others. She calls it “extended awareness” that goes beyond the notes any one of us is playing to how we play those notes together. (p. 196)

She starts with a new group or even anytime an established group gets a new piece of music. The first time through everyone is essentially playing solos. You know the drill. We stare at the music when it’s put in front of us. We do the normal quick scans- key signature, key changes, tempo, repeats, dynamics, do I need a mute, etc. Then we start playing. We stare more closely at the notes. The pages seem to be endless. We make more mistakes than we care to admit. Unless you are a far more advanced musician than I am (and many of you are) that first run-through will be solos. You have a vague awareness that there are others around you, but most of the time you are listening to yourself with only an intuitive knowledge of what else is going on.

It is in that first run-through with others, though, that we actually do begin to listen. We can’t help it. The longer we have been playing the easier it will be for us to play our parts at least okay and get the feel, the groove, the inner listening of the piece.

Then, even as early as the second time through, we can move beyond our individual part to a better picture of the whole. We begin to hear on some levels how we fit together. We become aware of the ways we play under, over, through, or around others. We can begin to sense when we are leading, supporting, holding back, or enhancing and drawing out another part. Balance comes along as we think (unconsciously?) about it. We see and hear the dynamics. We pay attention to our sound and whether it fits or is not matching the piece. We begin to know our roles in the different parts of the piece.

This takes effort. It takes an ability to do more than one thing at a time. How can I stay focused on my part while watching the director and listening to the flutes or the trombones across the orchestra? How can I pick up the groove from the bass or give appropriate support to that saxophone solo without making it about me?

At the website Making Music, ( Christopher Sutton talks about "4 Extra Skills Musicians Need to Play Well with Others." They all include one form or another of listening. Christopher’s comments are in italics. My comments are in the parentheses in normal type. Here they are:

1. Exercise some patience.

Practice taking some slow, calming breaths when you find yourself getting “worked up” about something. Slow your thinking processes down. It may even help to close your eyes momentarily to remove yourself (if only for a few seconds!) from the stressful situation you find yourself in. (Listen to yourself and what’s going on within you. By learning self-mindfulness you can often discover new ways of reacting and interacting.)

2. Learn to be adaptable.

As human beings, we adapt to our surroundings naturally, though not always willingly. A big part of learning to adapt and accepting change has to do with keeping an open mind. Though it may be temporary, adapting to another musician’s creative process and meshing it with your own may be a big hurdle to overcome. (Listen to what they are saying and/or doing. Be open to hearing new and creative ideas. They may not be what you had hoped for, but you are now playing with others. Collaboration and listening go hand-in-hand.)

3. Make communication a priority.

Just as with pretty much every other relationship in life, communication in a collaborative community is key. In order to effectively balance your creative goals and those of your collaborators, there needs to be clear and consistent conversation. It may seem cliche, but sometimes the safest thing to do is to over-communicate. It’s better to be accused of this than to be reluctant to share your side of the story. (After you listen, make sure to set up and keep communication open to continue the listening.)

4. Try to have a sense of humor.

Perhaps the most important thing to do during this time is to have fun. Learn to not take things or to take yourself too seriously. (In the 12-step communities they will sometimes talk about “Rule 62.” It simply means: Don’t take yourself too damn seriously! Good advice for musicians!)

It is an amazing activity this whole thing of making music with others. Listen, join in and enjoy!

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