Birth of a Song, Part 3: Bringing it all together

I started with a few verses, then decided that the song should end with a chorus I wrote 3 years earlier. The first part is an A-minor reggae groove, while the Rejoice! chorus in D-Major has a more West African feel – same tempo, but straighter eighth-notes. Since the song was inspired by memorable jam sessions, I have always envisioned Our Own Holiday as a jam vehicle. So I wanted the middle section to be an instrumental improv with a little bit of structure, ideally in A-Major. I may eventually write something for that part, but for the sake of getting to work rehearsing what I’ve got so far, I asked my good friend Scott if I could borrow a tune he wasn’t using.

Signs of Life is a jangly instrumental jam in A-Major, built on an Allman Brothers-style bass riff, set to a tribal sort of beat that would flow nicely into Rejoice (A>D.) Scott wrote the song a few years ago, right about at the time that Mystic Canyon went full-time acoustic, so it never found a home in the stage repertoire, but we’ve revisited it in casual jams a few times. Scott agreed that it would be a good fit.

One final touch was a brief turnaround in F-Major, to transition from the A-minor verse to the A-Major Signs of Life section. I put together a chord and lyric sheet and headed over to Keith’s house for Jersey Rhythm Mafia rehearsal.

We worked on a bunch of other stuff earlier in the evening, and in retrospect, we would have had a better first read if we had done the new tune earlier. It was a good reading that kind of ran out of steam, as we never quite worked out the ending. But I felt I was able to communicate what I was looking for. With a few more tries we’ll smooth the transitions and lock in the rhythms. A recording was made of the final run-through but I have not heard it yet. I’m hoping to see Keith before he skips town for a week so I can listen to what we’ve got so far.

I’ll continue this series in a few weeks when we’ve got a few more rehearsals under our belts and hopefully a recording worth sharing.

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Beyond the Campfire

I’ve been working on this post for a while, not quite sure how to whittle down what I’m thinking into a cohesive piece. What I’ve decided to do is use this as sort of a conversation starter and discuss some points further in their own posts as warranted.

Over the years I find myself more and more frequently in the unusual position of being a more experienced player than some of my musical co-conspirators. It’s forced me to think long and hard about what that experience has taught me, what I might pass along to a younger player if asked.

I enjoy music most when played with others – it’s probably why I don’t practice nearly as much as I should. As I have said before, I believe I’m a stronger ensemble player than a soloist. For a player in a band or ensemble of any kind, this element of musicianship is a much more important quality than talent. So without the benefit of that musical education, what would someone need to do to make the transition from casual jams to a band? 

We’ve all sat around the campfire, enjoying someone playing guitar, only to have the whole thing fall apart when a second guitarist or (heaven forbid) a drummer enters the mix. Whether it’s ego or insecurity, some players are so focused on what they are doing they cannot hear or feel how it fits into the whole. There is so much more to musicianship than just being able to play your instrument. A little time spent focusing on the following aspects of playing will go a long way to improving that campfire jam. These are just some random and generic bullet points that could apply to any player.

  • Learn lots of simple songs. They can help form the building blocks you’ll need to play harder stuff.
  • Learn the underlying concepts of harmony, rhythm and form in each song. You’ll be amazed how frequently they will reappear in another song.
  • Look around, make eye contact, see if anyone is trying to cue you to do something different.
  • Be open to suggestions and criticism. Don’t take it personally.
  • Know when to stand out and when to support. If you don’t have a lead, do something complementary or contrapuntal, or just find a simple pattern to vamp on. Don’t compete for attention when it’s someone else’s turn.
  • Sing only if you know the words. If you’re singing harmony, try to match the phrasing and style of the lead.
  • Paying attention to dynamics (not just volume, but also crecendos and accents) will instantly set you apart.
  • Serve the song. You don’t need to use the whole box of crayons on each and every picture.

I’d love to hear what you think. What do you think is important for musicians seeking the proverbial “next level” of musicianship? Some of these ideas, yours and mine, will be fodder for future posts.