Communication between musicians

Maybe eight years ago, my wife and I went to a concert that changed the way I viewed music forever. It was in a tiny venue in downtown Atlanta. My piano teacher at the time was on the piano and he had a drummer and a bass player with him. At one point in the concert, he called an audience member with a trumpet onto the stage to play a few songs.

The music was incredible; it was from the Great American Songbook, which means the great American popular music of the 20th Century from Broadway, movies, and musical theatre. The arrangements were long and complex and very technical. I was in awe.

But as the night went along, I started to realize something that made me even more in awe. It started to become clear that the musicians were creating all that music on the spot. No practice, no pre-planned arranging. Those elaborate intros, sophisticated chord progressions, solos and endings? They were being created on the fly.

Until that point, I did not know that such a thing was possible. It seemed like magic. I asked my teacher about it and he discussed what was happening in sort of an abstract way I did not understand. All I remember him saying really was that it was about communication. Not verbal communication, not visual cues. Just communicating through the music itself.

A long time has passed since then and a few weeks ago, I found myself playing in a similar situation. I met a bass player and drummer at a venue for the first time. We had no rehearsal but we played Great American Songbook songs for two hours. I would call out a tune and count off and we would start an intro. We did chord changes and solos and eventually put an ending on it. I would not call it magical but I can say this for sure: there is no way I could have done that ten years ago.

How did we do that? It is simple really; we communicated. Not primarily by talking and not by nods though there was some of both. The primary way we communicated was musically.

Here is why I bring this up. Last week, I published a video discussing transitions between worship songs. I discussed how musicians can improvise transitions on the fly and someone challenged me a bit with a very good point. He pointed out that a lot of the problems could be alleviated simply by actually planning and practicing the transitions ahead of time.

I have to admit I should have included that tip in my video and article because planning transitions does help. But on the other hand, that is not the answer in itself. Transitions do not normally go as planned–you really don’t know how long a worship leader is going to talk for example. So working out a smooth transition note for note could be great or could be bad. If a musician can only play pre-planned transitions, there are going to be problems. There is no question of that.

But here is the bigger reason why I did not include pre-planning in my list of tips: I just don’t think it is usually necessary. You don’t need to pre-plan if you understand what is happening musically and you are communicating musically with everyone else.

I hinted at that idea last week in the video when I talked about cues. You communicate musically in lots of subtle ways: the choice of a chord, dynamics, accents, texture, etc. For example, if you are playing quiet and simple and suddenly start to get louder and busier, the other musicians around you will hear that and know that something is about to happen. That is a perfect example of musical communication.

Being a good church musician starts with getting the technical side of things down. Second to that, you need to have an understanding of what is happening musically. But even with those two things under your belt, you will never be as good as you can be until you start communicating musically. That is a two-way street by the way; it involves saying things musically and also being conscious of what other musicians are saying.

In a church setting where making music is always a group effort, communication is the glue that holds everything together. It will make things work almost like magic even without a lot of pre-planning.  Start saying things musically and start listening musically and good things will start to happen.

I can imagine how nebulous that may sound to some. But it works. Try it.