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Sage Wisdom

"Good improvisation communicates harmonic progression melodically. Effective melodies manipulate harmonic content through the use of guide tones and preparatory gravity notes, masterfully woven in systematic tension, release, and transparent harmonic definition."

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March 19, 2009 | Ensemble Sensitivity: Corps playing

Anyone who ever played in a garage band, church praise team, high school choir, or community jam can tell you about the woes of playing with others. The good news: you get to play with other humans. The bad news: you have to play with other humans.

There are some guiding principles to effective ensemble playing and we want to offer our personal list of five. You go into a group aware of these strategies and intrapersonal dynamics, and you have a far better chance of not only keeping the group alive, you'll actually enjoy yourself.

A good corps member takes his/her turn. In street basketball, there's nothing worse than a ball hog. Sure you want your team to score lots of points, but where's the fun if it's just one "athlete" taking shots at the basket. Soloing is no different. You have your moment in the sun, and prepare yourself to lay back and support the next soloist. Enjoy your own playing, and take the time to bask in what your other ensemble members are doing.

A good corps member values silence as much as sound. Sometimes it's about laying back to support, but often it's a matter of laying out. You don't have to play all the time, and it's the surrounding moments of silence that can make your playing special to the collective ear of the audience. It can mean laying out several choruses and changing the texture of the music. It could also be allowing aural space between phrases or silence within the phrase itself. Just because it's on your plate doesn't mean you are obligated to eat it.

A good corps member knows what the other players are playing at all times. If your band is trying to cover someone else's music, listen for key textural changes. It can be noticing that the texture of the tom tom rhythm at the bridge needs highlighting, a variation of the bass rhythm after the chorus, a supporting counter melody that needs space--if you aren't listening or can't identify what the other players contribute, it's hard to know what you should be doing that's different, let alone supportive.

A good corps member understands and agrees with the "mission." More bands have been broken up by discrepancies in purpose. One seeks a recording contract, one wants to get the band to performance level for touring, one just wants to play with some friends for a few hours of socializing. These varying intentions are a recipe for disaster. Knowing and agreeing on the ensemble's collective goals is critical to the longevity of any band or ensemble.

A good corps member makes the other players sound good. Some of the best drummers are the ones you don't even know are there. All you know is the band is tight and the groove is intuitive; this is because that drummer functions to make everyone else sound good by staying out of the way, minimizing the moments of flash and stardom in return for establishing the "pocket." Every player has something to contribute to make the ensemble sound better; avoid that chronic "it's all about me syndrome."

Plays well with others
The Fight for Sonic Turf
Course Corrections
Jason's Rules
The Joy of Mandolinning

Posted by Ted at March 19, 2009 12:25 PM

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