Stop playing sophisticated music

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I think one of the hardest things for musicians to do is to intentionally play at a level of sophistication that is lower than they are capable of. We are wired to want to demonstrate our skill; in some cases, we just flat out want to show off.

In my early years, I remember picking out arrangements because of their level of flashiness. Back then, it meant that I wanted to play Dino and Bruce Greer. To me, the whole point of playing an offertory was to show off technical prowess.

Somewhere along the line that changed as I realized an uncomfortable truth: the best musicians limit themselves. Most of the time, they don’t play as technically as they could. They don’t use all the cool chords they know. They don’t focus on impressing people.

I am studying reharmonization at Berklee and when reading the class lecture this morning, this paragraph jumped out at me.

Depending on their listening experiences, the average non-musician has a catalog of common, internalized harmonic progressions that may be more limited than those of the professional musician. The more experienced the listener, the more complex a reharmonization can be and still be acceptable.

The idea expressed in that quote is not new to me and I have even written about it here a few times. I was gratified to see it in print though. In a nutshell, here is what the author is saying: don’t play over the head of your audience. Maybe stretch them a bit, maybe surprise them some, but don’t dump all your musical sophistication on them and expect them to get it or like it.

I have seen an interesting phenomenon in my study of jazz over the past ten years. I have watched musicians struggle who should not struggle. They are fabulous musicians but can’t get concerts and can’t sell music in spite of the fact that they know a lot more than me and can play rings about me.

I would say I am perplexed as to why they struggle but I’m not. There is a very simple reason why they struggle and it comes down to this: they are not playing for the audience; they are playing to impress their audience and more specifically, other musicians than happen to be in their audience. They can’t just play a song. They have to make it so sophisticated that it really just becomes strange. In the end, they might impress a few people but their music moves nobody.

The truth is that if you want to move an audience, you need to know an audience. Here is a broad example that will apply to many of you. The audience in a church is not as musically sophisticated as the audience in a jazz venue. Consequently, the sophisticated chords you might get away with in a jazz venue will only leave your church looking at you strangely. If you are smart, you will dial it in.

I will give you a specific example. I like the sound of a dominant chord with a #9 as the melody note, which is a common sound in jazz. It is a beautiful, complex and dissonant sound and contrary to what anyone might tell you, there is nothing wrong with the sound. But I don’t use that sound in church. It would be too much; in all likelihood, many would think it was a mistake.

In my study of harmony over the years, I have learned that I have to find a happy place in the middle where I am using sophistication but limiting it based on what my audience can appreciate. Sometimes I wish I could go further and I do toy with the boundaries but in general, I know what lines should not be crossed. It is not a moral thing; it is an appropriateness thing.

The same is true for technical fireworks. Twenty years ago, a church pianist was expected to show off and play lights-out technical stuff. Today, it would just come across as strange. If you insist on playing as technically as you can, you can still expect to impress some audience members but don’t expect to move them. They just won’t quite get why you are doing it.

All musicians should remember that the goal of music is to communicate rather than impress. Let that thought limit what you do. You will be better for it.