You’ve learned a few chords, and you’re ready to rock and roll, right? Or, you have mastered the art of baroque phrasing and can’t wait to perform some Bach duets with a friend. Jump in! But, don’t forget a few things:
You are not alone. Don’t forget there are others playing with you. Every part, big or small, has a purpose and a function. Know yours, and stay within your parameters. Imagine a choir where every member tried to out-sing each other, adding runs and licks to every note to try to impress the crowd. It would be chaos, and horribly awkward to listen to. Hopefully we all realize that the greatest choirs are those that sound like one voice. A band or ensemble should have the same quality, where every member respectfully allows space for everyone else to play their part.
You are responsible for you. Learn your part. Be as proficient as you can on your own instrument, and encourage others to be the best they can on theirs. Remember we are all at different levels, musically, and let the beautiful combination be what sets your group apart.
Pay attention. It’s my experience that, that more you understand about what’s going on around you, the better you can perform your part. Music is about communication, and especially if you’re playing with another musician or two, it’s critical to know what they are trying to say. If you’re a keyboard player in band, you need to know what the bass player is doing, so you don’t play anything with your left hand that conflicts with his bass lines. The drummer needs to know what the acoustic guitar player is doing, and feed off the rhythms that are being played. If you’re primarily a melody-instrument player (trumpet, flute, violin, etc.), learn how harmony works and know what the chords are doing underneath your melody.
These principles apply to any situation where two or more musicians are playing music together, in any style. Respect goes a long way in this business, and allowing everyone to fulfill his or her roll in the group is crucial to sounding great. It might mean playing fewer notes, or even not playing at all for certain sections. Play music with the listener in mind, knowing that the greatest achievement is not outshining your band-mates, but together creating wonderful sounds that you couldn’t achieve alone.
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In an earlier post, I began touching on a subject that I feel needs more attention.
Intonation is one of the most important techniques you can master on your instrument. Piano and other percussion instruments aside, most instruments (voice included) have the ability to be played in or out of tune. This means if you’re trying to play a “A,” the note you play or sing is an “A,” and not any higher or lower. Intonation is a subtle art, and one that comes easier to some than others. I struggled with it for several years, and wondered if I could ever master it. Here’s how I did:
A musical note is basically just a frequency. It’s sound waves traveling at a specific speed to produce a tone. The goal in playing in tune is to manipulate those frequencies so that each note sounds correct in relation to the others around it.
Pick a major scale that you know well. If you have a metronome that plays reference pitches, begin playing the tonic pitch. For example, if you are playing a C major scale, play the reference pitch “C.” If you don’t have a metronome with this capability but have a smart phone or iPad, the app called “Tempo” has reference pitches. I also found this website: http://www.flutopedia.com/reference_drones.htm that has short clips of reference pitches. Maybe you can find better ones somewhere.
Once your reference pitch is going, begin playing your scale very slowly, listening intently to each note. You have to listen beyond the sound of your instrument and try to hear the actual sound waves. If you are playing a note in tune, you will not hear the “beating” of the sound waves. The notes seem lock in to each other when they are in tune. As you adjust each note, you’ll notice that the waves beat faster as you get closer to the correct pitch, and suddenly will stop beating once you are in tune. This is because your instrument’s sound waves and the reference pitch sound waves have locked into perfect sync.
Each note will sound differently, as you hear it as an interval between your reference pitch and the pitch you are playing. The first note will be a unison and should be the easiest to get in tune. The second note is an interval of a second, which is a dissonant interval. Although it is dissonant and will not completely sync up with the reference pitch, it is still possible to play it in tune, and your ear will tell you when it’s right. The third is a consonant interval to our ears, but the waves do not sync perfectly. There will be some beating, but again, your ear will know when it’s right. Fourths and fifths are what we call “perfect” intervals, and they will lock in to the reference pitch. They are much easier to hear correctly. A sixth is similar to a third, so trust your ear. The seventh is extremely dissonant, so listen carefully to find it.
It takes some time and careful listening to learn this technique. But, eventually you will find yourself playing more in tune, and hearing pitch much differently than you ever have.