Rhythm and timing are arguably the most important elements of music! Listeners will often put up with spotty-tonality (Bob Dylan’s raspy-nasal out of tune voice “adds character” to his music), but it’s pretty rare for listeners to enjoy music that is performed in a sloppily-out-of-time-and-out-of-control kind of way.
A fairly simplistic and broad description of music that I like is “organized sound.” And I also like to describe “rhythm” as events happening in time (sonic events if we’re talking about music, like we are today!). Counting (one way or another) is really the only way I know of to help you keep track of time and understand rhythm.
How to Count?
Out loud! Yes, it can be embarrassing to add your voice to music you are working on, but it’s so important because it will help you internalize the rhythms you are practicing and play the music more precisely and confidently in the future. Eventually, you won’t have to count out loud every time you learn new music, but many musicians I know (myself included) count out loud when they are practicing particularly difficult rhythms.
A former drum teacher of mine used to say: “Some people have perfect pitch. Nobody has perfect time.” It’s true, some people can tune a guitar completely by ear, and name every single note in a chord, but – while some people have better natural timing than others – timing is something that musicians can continually improve throughout their lives.
Learning to play music is exciting, but getting started can be confusing and sometimes overwhelming. Where do you start? Where do you go next? What do you do when things get tricky? What should you be focusing on?
These are all common bits of feedback we hear from those looking to get started with learning to play their instrument.
Introducing the Melodics Guided Path – a structured map through the Melodics Courses to help you find your way and improve your skills on the keys, pads, or drums.
The Guided Path gives you an overview of the areas you should focus on when starting your musical journey with Melodics. Working your way through each Course in the Guided Path will help you lay a solid foundation for you to build upon further.
We’ve designed this path for you to follow, but try moving both ways. Forward through the courses to master new concepts, but also back to lessons you’ve passed so you can see the improvements you’ve made, increase your scores and get those perfects. One of the joys of music learning is the satisfaction of easily re-playing a lesson you once found super hard.
The drum set (aka the drum kit or trap set) as we know it came to be in the United States in the early 1900s for vaudeville shows. The fact that the trap set could be played with all four limbs made it extremely popular and it rapidly became a fixture in American music and spread to popular music from all over the world.
The drum kit’s United States’ origins is why drum sizes (diameter of the heads and cymbals, and depth of the shells) are listed in inches even though most countries don’t use American units of measurement.
A basic drum set is a collection of percussive instruments: typically a snare drum, one or two rack toms, a floor tom, kick drum, hi-hat, and a cymbal or two. Unlike many instruments, the drum set can fill out the entire range of human hearing, from the deepest lows to the highest highs.
The snare drum sits squarely in the middle of the standard drum set. Its diameter is typically 14 inches, and it is often around six inches deep (shallower than the other drums). The top head (or skin) of the drum is called the batter head (it’s the one you hit!) and the bottom head is called the resonant head (the sound reverberates off of it!) – this is true of all drums in the kit. But what gives the snare it’s signature sound is a group of metal wires called “snares” stretched across the resonant head of the drum. These snare wires can be tightened, loosened, or bypassed completely to change the sound of the drum with the “snare strainer” or “thrower,” which is a mechanical device on the side of the drum that holds the snares in place.
The snare sound occupies the middle frequency range of the drum set and often functions the same as a clap (generally people clap along with snare drum part of a groove).
The snare drum developed as a means to communicate military commands across a battlefield and while marching – so they were designed to have a sound that cuts through a noisy atmosphere and across long distances. Because this function also works perfectly for cutting through a mix of instruments, the snare has been repurposed into all kinds of modern music, and often provides the backbeat (clap-along part).
Dylan Wissing demonstrates classic snare drums from throughout the last 100 years.
The kick drum (aka bass drum) is the lowest sounding drum of the kit and is also the lowest positioned drum. It sits on the floor in front of you and is played with your right foot (on a righty-drum set). A mallet attached to a pedal strikes the batter head of the drum. The diameter of the drum is around 20 inches and the depth ranges from around 14 to 20 inches. The kick sound provides a low thump that people can tap their feet to. In many grooves the kick drum locks in with the bass guitar or bass synth, accenting the important notes that they play.
The late great John Blackwell’s legendary bass drum techniques.
It is often up to you as to how many toms you want in your kit. A standard pop drum kit has at least one rack tom and a floor tom, however it’s not uncommon to have more of both. The rack toms are often mounted on top of the kick drum, but sometimes they are mounted on cymbal stands or placed on stands of their own. On kits that only have one rack tom, it is normally positioned above and behind the snare drum so that you can easily hit it with both sticks. Rack toms are generally 12 or 13 inches in diameter and at least 6 inches deep.
The floor tom has leg attachments so that it sits on the floor to your right. It’s normally 14 to 16 inches in diameter and about 14 inches deep.
The toms are used in heavier grooves and fills because they have a deep sound, occupying the low to high mid-range.
Phill Collins’ epic Tom Fill in “In the Air Tonight”
The hi-hat is a fascinating instrument with a huge range of sound.. It is two small cymbals (often 14 inches each) mounted on a stand with a pedal that allows you to control the top cymbal with your left foot. You can smack the top cymbal into the bottom cymbal in a variety of ways to produce a range of sounds: from splashy to crisp. And then you can also play it with your stick, tightening the hats with more or less pressure on the pedal for different articulations.
The hi-hat is positioned to the left of the snare drum (often close enough so that it floats over the left half of the snare drum). Its sonic range occupies the high frequencies of the kit and is frequently used to “keep time,” (that means play a steady pattern).
Bernard Purdie demonstrating a tight hi-hat groove with some open hi-hats thrown in.
A standard drum set usually has a ride cymbal and/or crash cymbal. Both the crash and ride cymbals are similar in size (around 20 inches in diameter), but the ride cymbal is thicker and designed to have a nice “ping” sound when struck with the tip of the stick. Like the hi-hat, the ride cymbal is often used to keep time. This is where the ride cymbal gets its name: you “ride” on it to keep time.
The crash cymbal is most often used for a special kind of accent called a “crash.” You crash a cymbal by striking it on its edge with the shoulder of your stick, often hard. The crash cymbal is designed with crashing in mind, and typically has a rich and heavy attack with a high-frequency, long shimmery decay.
You can crash a ride cymbal and ride a crash cymbal, but a heavy ride cymbal has a slower attack and more wobbly decay when crashed, and a light crash cymbal has a more washy, less articulate attack when struck with the stick tip like a ride. There is a cymbal type called Crash-Ride, which is on the spectrum in between the two cymbal types.
The crash cymbal is typically suspended on a stand above the left side of the kit, hovering above the rack tom, or above and between the hi-hat and rack tom. The ride cymbal is usually positioned lower on its stand on the right side of the kit, and floats between the rack tom/s and floor tom.
If you have more than two cymbals, it’s pretty common to place them at different height levels and positions around the kit: experiment and find the places that feel most natural!
Dan Mayo surrounded by interesting cymbals
One of the many ways a drummer can develop a unique voice behind the kit is by adding different percussive instruments to their kit. Shakers, side-snares, electronics, mounted bongos, are just a few instruments that can be used to expand the sound of your kit.
Advancements in technology throughout the 100+ year existence of the drum set have expanded the range and role of the instrument.
Sunhouse is a recent technological advancement that has given drummers a voice in electronic music by translating the acoustic sound of the drums into a powerful digital controller, and allowing them to use their skills on the drums to produce music for modern pop genres.
Email, social media notifications, alarms, auto-alerts, instant messages, it’s all a bit much, isn’t it? Over the last two decades, the internet has afforded us access to a phenomenal amount of information and connectivity, but it’s also created a set of conditions that can be very psychologically taxing. For many of us, both our working and personal lives play out in increasingly frantic, overstimulated landscapes; and it can be a real struggle to keep up.
In response to this, as smartphones, tablets and computers have become increasingly central to modern life, recent years have been marked in part by the rise of meditation, mindfulness and self-care apps such as Calm and Headspace. Free to download, they’re digital balms designed to soothe us, and by the process of guiding us through mindfulness and meditation practices, help us create healthier relationships with these tools.
As clinical psychology research has shown, in even just a few minutes a day, the benefits of mindfulness travel into our everyday lives: improved physical health, mental health, happiness and overall well-being. With repetition, five minutes of practice can extend into half an hour, and the longer you spend in a mindful state, the better you’ll feel. At Melodics, we often think about a simple but powerful idea that illustrates this all very well;
greatness isn’t born; it’s grown, and we believe playing can be a form of mindfulness.
Have you ever been so completely and utterly immersed in a task that nothing else mattered, and the time flew away on you? If you’ve been there, it’s a state you probably wanted to return to. Some people get there through video games, sports or art. Other people get there through music and Melodics can be a pathway to that zone. Sit down, relax, start practicing, and let yourself enter the calm. Eventually, these actions become an outcome as you switch off from the outside world and immersion sets in.
Melodics artist Indi, a contemporary experimental musician and composer, currently based in Berlin, but originally from New Zealand, can see the relationship as well.
“The practice of music, to me, is the ultimate mental and emotional nourishment,” Indi says.
“When everything else in the world is in a constant state of emergency, there is nothing more freeing than focusing on a single melody, rhythm or piece for hours at a time. Taking time to do this acts as a form of self-care and meditation. The practice of music seems like an ancient, innate compulsion that everyone feels – it is just learning how to open up those valves of expression again.”
Melodics artist Leonard Charles, a songwriter, multi-instrumentalist, programmer and producer from New Zealand, can also see the connection between music practice, mindfulness and meditation as well, but with a proviso. “It’s really important to learn to study your instrument in a relaxed mood,” he says. “It shouldn’t be a stressful environment. So, firstly, to get benefits from the relaxing nature of playing music, you need to approach playing your instrument in a relaxed manner.”
Leonard Charles’ thoughts underscore the realities often expressed by mindfulness and meditation advocates. These aren’t states you can instantly access; you have to build your way there through regular, consistent practice. It’s the same as working through Melodics lessons. Once you commit and get started, you’ll see results over time. With even just five minutes a day of practice, short streaks will become longer streaks, and a 50% score in a lesson will eventually become 100%.
Mindfulness is described as a practice for a reason, and much like Hungarian-American psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s concept of flow, or the flow experience – a topic that we will dig into more shortly on the blog – the rewards that come with entering the zone will encourage you to invest the time required to return there. “If the instrument is played in this manner, calmly and with intent, then performance can become meditative,” Leonard Charles says.
“When the brain knows it is in a safe and comfortable environment, it will develop, and the benefits of this are sky high.”
“That song sounds so familiar, I’m trying to think what it reminds me of….”
Chances are it’s another song with the same chord progression. There are certain progressions that have been used over and over again in popular music. In this post, we will look at a few examples of the most common chord progressions and the corresponding lessons from the Common Chord Progressions course in Melodics for Keys.
What is a chord progression?
A chord progression is the sequence that chords are played in. Sometimes pop songs will use only one chord progression that repeats for the entire song. This can be as simple as three or four chords. The chords to many of the most popular songs of all time are no more complex than the examples in the Common Chord Progressions course.
Throughout the history of Pop music, a number of especially popular and common chord progressions have appeared, and even if you might not have realised it yet, you probably know dozens of songs that use the same sequence of chords.
Each of these progressions has a name written in Roman numerals. A brief explanation about what these mean is provided at the bottom of this post. This is not essential knowledge but rather included for those who are interested in reading further.
Listen to the preview from the Melodics lesson Celebration Time. Sound familiar? This chord progression has strong associations with positive, high energy music.
There are endless examples of this chord progression stretching right back into classical music, but its usage in Pop music is heavily rooted in Blues and Rock & Roll. Listen to this classic example: Wild Thing by The Troggs.
In the lesson Celebration Time, this progression is in the key of C, so the chords are:
Another immensely popular chord progression, but this time in a minor key. This automatically brings about associations with heavier or deeper themes. On that note, listen to Rolling in the Deep by Adele and compare it with the lesson Reflections.
The lesson Reflections is in the key of A minor, therefore the chords are:
A MinorG MajorF MajorG Major
Here are a few examples of the same chord progression in other eras and styles:
Perhaps the quintessential Pop music chord progression, this chord progression belongs to so many different sentiments, but at its core lies the same four chords. This famous video from comedy group Axis of Awesome addresses how broadly this progression is used:
In the lesson Always & Forever, we return to the key of C Major, meaning that the chords are:
C MajorG MajorA MinorF Major
By now you are probably noticing that the same chords are recurring in slightly different orders for each chord progression. If you try playing one chord over and over, you’ll notice that it doesn’t seem to express much. Yet the motion created when we arrange a few chords creates a whole range of possibilities.
It could be said that this progression has strong associations with sentimentality, and here are a few examples that reflect that. See if you can think of others.
When dealing with themes that are more intense, melancholic or brooding, a classic technique is to use a chord progression that ‘rises’ into a minor chord. This gives a feeling of resolution, but the resolution is serious and intense.
The lesson here is riffing on a classic example of this progression, Running Up That Hill by Kate Bush.
In the lesson, we are in the key of A Minor again. The chords are:
F MajorG MajorA Minor(A Minor)
There are numerous other examples of this chord progression, sometimes with the last chord substituted for another VI or VII chord. Here are some other examples:
This chord progression is essentially the mirror of chord progression 2 (Reflections), with the crucial difference being that it is in a minor key. This means that although it has a ‘happy’ moment when it reaches the third chord, it continues to resolve back to a more melancholic home chord.
A classic example of this chord progression is the song Zombie by the Cranberries, in which the chord progression repeats without variation underneath the whole song.
In the lesson Familiar Faces, we are in the key of A Minor, so the chords are:
A MinorF MajorC MajorG Major
Another classic example of this chord progression can be found in the chorus of the song Hello by Adele.
The final chord progression in this course is a little different to the others. It is not often used as a chord progression to underpin an entire song, but rather as a short section to end or resolve others.
This chord progression and its many variants are a significant feature in Jazz and are heavily utilised in the music of the Beatles. Listen to the first four chords of the song Into the Great Wide Open by Tom Petty and compare it to the lesson.
You might have noticed that the name of the chord progression is much more confusing than the others too. Worry not! Further information on this can be found at the end of this post.
In Treading on Heels, we are in the key of C Minor and use these chords.
C MinorC Minor/BC Minor/BbC Minor/A
Notice that every chord is actually a variant of C Minor, only the note written after the ‘/’ is changing.
Here are a few more examples, some using slightly different variations, and usually only in certain sections of the song. Challenge your ears and see if you can figure out where this progression appears in each song.
Loss Ageless – St Vincent
While My Guitar Gently Weeps – The Beatles
I See Monsters – Ryan Adams
Further information regarding the use of Roman numerals
The numerals correspond to the root note of the chord in relation to the key. For example, in the key of C, we would have:
If the numeral is upper case (I) it is a major chord, if it’s lower case (i) then it is minor. So the chords for C Major are:
C MajorD MinorE MinorF MajorG MajorA MinorB Mino
Applying this system to the key of A Minor, we have:
A MinorB MinorC MajorD MinorE MinorF MajorG Majo
Notice that the chords are identical in C Major and A Minor but appear in a different order and have different numerals. This is because these two keys use the exact same notes but have a different home chord. They are known as relative keys.
The reason we name the progressions as with roman numerals is because even if a song was in G Major, it could be using the exact same chord progression as a key in C Major. Here is an example:
In C:C MajorF MajorG MajorF Major
In G:G MajorC MajorD MajorC Major
This means that if we know the numeral names, we could play the same chord progression in any key, and you’ll find that many of the songs in this post aren’t just in C Major or A Minor, yet the sound of the progression is the same.
In regard to the last lesson, we have some chords that use a ‘/’. In theory, this is simple; if a chord has a ‘/’ in it, the numeral on the left is the chord played and the numeral on the right is the root note played underneath it. We call these slash chords or compound chords. When the notes played underneath do not come from the key of the song, we can alter the numeral with a sharp (#) or flat (b) symbol.
So if we have:
A MinorA Minor/GA Minor/F
Then adding an extra passing note before the G would give us:
A MinorA Minor/G#A Minor/GA Minor/F
ii/#VIIi/VIIi/VI If you are interested in learning more about music theory, a good place to start is the Melodics Music Theory course, and you can also read on here: link
In an interview with Dean Brown, he broke down his fundamentals of musicianship to three key points.
While these aspects overlap by nature and are blurry by definition, let’s look at some basic exercises and ideas to help build each of these cornerstones.
For clarity’s sake, we’ll say ears refers to both being able to learn music increasingly quickly and accurately by ear, and maybe even more importantly, the ability to listen and respond to others while playing.
Lexicon refers to your vocabularies, plural. Rhythmic vocabulary, melodic vocabulary, harmonic vocabulary, and maybe most importantly song vocabulary. For a working musician, especially playing jazz or doing covers, this might mean knowing how to play a lot of songs. I am more generally referring to familiarity with songs though. Being familiar with a lot of songs means that you have listened to a lot of music. This is obviously pretty crucial if you want to be a good musician. These days, personally, having familiarity with tunes is what makes them hard or easy to learn and to remember. There are tunes I’ve played before, maybe more than once which I would struggle to tell you any changes to. Because I never really got familiar with the song, I just read the chords or the part. It’s also what make strange parts or structures in songs no longer strange. It’s also easy to see how the osmosis of a lot of music will inform what you play.
Technique is the most self-explanatory. Technical proficiency. Can you play this fast passage? Can you play these complicated chord changes in time? Can you play in time Full stop? If we get a bit deeper, can you match the tone of this song (ears figures in here too, and perhaps also lexicon in recognising different effects or eq settings)? Can you match the FEEL of a groove? Can you perform under pressure or on big stages? While I do not believe there is any particular hierarchy with these 3 fundamental elements, technique is probably the easiest and fastest to recognise in a player.
Here are 3 additional musical fundamentals to consider. Two of these were drilled into me when I was learning guitar, but they translate 100% to every instrument including the voice. Time and Tone. The further you look into it, the more symbiotic these concepts become. Your tone influences your time, your time makes your tone work. Any great player will have abundant levels of both. You could call your time feel technique, you could call your tonetechnique and ears. The Third one is Taste. This is the subjective part of music no-one can really decide for you but yourself. However, your lexicon is probably the most influential outside informer of this.
Obviously this is a simplified view. Music is bottomless and so are the concepts and approaches within it. It is important to remember that it’s the fundamentals which will make you a good player. You can play the most complicated stuff in the world, and without them, it’ll never sound right. With them, you can play the simplest nursery rhyme and it will be good music.
Throughout the past century of music, there has been a huge amount of change. Movements have come and gone, while technology has given people access to the immense diversity of music. When you step back and look at some of the biggest changes, minimalism stands out as one of the most impactful. Minimalism in western music, which sprouted in the mid-20th century, can be found today everywhere from electronic dance music to the orchestra.
Within Melodics, you might have come across the term ‘minimal’ or ‘minimalism’. Maybe you’ve heard these terms used when describing a dance track or a piece of art. Maybe this is totally new to you. Either way, it can be tricky pinpointing what people actually mean by this. Does a piece of music need to include minimal content, structure, or have a short duration, in order to be considered minimalist?Does minimalism make the music simple?
Let’s first acknowledge that minimalist music can have many different definitions. Among them is that minimalist music uses limited musical materials. I once had an acclaimed professor of music history at my college describe minimalism as music where ‘all the voices are immediately apparent.’ While most definitions like these aren’t necessarily wrong, they don’t get the full picture either. Music from oft labeled ‘minimalist’ composers, like John Adams or Steve Reich, is richly orchestrated, deep, and full of motion and change. On the other hand, when you’re spinning tracks by Plastikman you’ll hear just a synth and kick repeat the same couple notes for several minutes at a time. So if minimalism can range from the club to the orchestra, and from 50 instrumentalists to 2 – 3 synths, what else can we use to describe minimalism other than ‘limited musical material’?
One of the most important elements frequently left out when talking about minimalist music is the concept of process. Often times, it doesn’t matter how many voices are active. What’s more interesting is how they’re changing. In minimalism the excitement comes from the discovery of process. One voice can split into two or three. A synth’s tone can slowly evolve over the course of 10 minutes to a steady beat. Minimalism is best enjoyed when you discover the pattern, or the ‘rule’ behind how changes in the music are made.
Still feeling a little fuzzy on minimalism? Dive into our keys course on Minimal Music. You’ll have the opportunity to experience some of these ideas first hand.
For your listening pleasure, here’s some amazing examples of minimalist ideas in music:
Without a doubt, music gives back what you put into it. There is no substitute for time spent ‘shedding’ on your instrument. There is no shortcut to either technical proficiency or (more importantly), conviction and ‘a voice’ in your playing. It is a humbling and never-ending journey.
Practice is cumulative, and muscle memory is built through repetition over time. For this reason, I often tell beginner musicians that 5 minutes a day will be much more beneficial than two hours once a week. As your playing and understanding grow, your practice sessions may demand more time, or become more conceptual than mechanical. You might also find that the breakthroughs happen after an hour or so of banging your head against the wall. But this is down the track. For now, regular time on the instrument (or program as our modern landscape may have it), and building the habit of practice are what will get you the best results.
Everyone learns differently. One aspect of effectively practicing and internalising pieces of music, musical techniques, and musical vocabulary is developing an understanding of how you learn.
These concepts quickly become quite cerebral, so in the spirit of this piece (as I’ll soon explain), let’s focus on something immediately tangible.
How do you learn a passage of music you find technically difficult?
If I had a one-word answer, it might be ‘microscopically’.
The process explained below for guitar is used in all Melodics lessons. The pieces are deconstructed into steps, so you can gradually rebuild from the foundational elements up to the full parts. Remember, if anything feels too hard at any stage, repeat it, slow it down (use the tools in Practice Mode), and zoom in.
Let’s use Link Wray’s seminal tune ‘Rumble’ as an example (which a fledgling guitar player may find some aspects of challenging):
The first 8 bars of this 12 bar blues are pretty easy. To me (and for simplicity’s sake), the tune is a slow blues shuffle in 4/4. I think the sheet music has it as 12/8. You strum a Dsus2 on beats 3 and 4 before the downbeat, then strum an E ‘on the one’ and let it ring for a bar and a half. Then repeat. Then do the same thing but go to an A. Then the same returning to the E. Provided you know these chords, this will take about ten seconds to learn. If this is confusing at all, have a listen to the link and it will become clear.
In bars 9-12, there’s a B7 chord which is likely less familiar than the first 3, followed by a 2/4 bar (which feels natural enough it won’t catch you off guard), followed by a descending E minor pentatonic scale using the open strings. Again, use the recording for reference.
Most people starting out on guitar don’t find playing chords especially difficult, but changing between them in time is another story. My fairly amateur keys playing can attest to this being a cross-instrumental issue. Even if it seems counterintuitive now, most people will play a song from the start and trainwreck it at the same place over and over. And wonder why that part always goes wrong.
Let’s assume the first 8 bars of this song have become pretty solid after a bit of practice. But when you practice, you are you still playing the song from the beginning every time and falling off the rails in the same place every time. In this case, Bar 9. Surely it would make sense to isolate the challenging aspect, and focus your energy there if that is what is causing you problems? Here’s where we can start zooming in.
First things first, you need to get the B7 chord sounding good on its own. Zooming in further, I would make sure the left-hand fingers are in the correct position, then play the notes of this chord (arpeggiate it) one at a time with my right hand. If any of them are choked or aren’t speaking properly, something in the left-hand needs to adjust. Until they all sound cleanly, things can’t progress. Maybe working on just the B7 is the practice on this tune for today.
Once that chord is under control, the change to it from Dsus is next. I would zoom out slightly and focus on just looping the D to the B7 back and forth. First without time just to get the muscle memory happening, and then in the correct rhythm for the song. You can make these exercises musical. I would set a metronome to a similar tempo as the tune (or initially slower if necessary), and make a 2 bar loop. Part of the reason I chose this song as an example is that it is slow and simple. On something more uptempo or complex, I would always start practicing with a metronome well below the true tempo.
Once this feels good, zoom out again. Now might be a good time to play the tune from the start to bar 10, and put your new part in context.
Finally, we have our minor pentatonic run. Like many parts, this sounds cool so difficulty is assumed. It’s actually very simple. However, it will almost certainly trip you up if it isn’t looked at in isolation first. Zoom back in. Use the same process. Play just the descending E- pentatonic scale a few times. Do it in halves if you need to. Then introduce time. You can either keep the metronome in 4/4 and play them as a triplet feel, or move the metronome over to divisions of 3. Either way, start slow! I can’t emphasize enough that the slower and smaller you make parts, the easier they get, and the more solid your understanding and foundation of that music will be. With that in mind, maybe just getting that run under your fingers so it sounds badass and confident is today’s practice. Maybe you work on it just for 5 minutes.
Assuming this lick is sounding good, zoom out a bit. Using the same process, put the last 4 bars together. Once that feels good, include the Dsus2 chords which lead into bar 9. Once this is all grooving and locked in, I think you’re ready to play the whole tune and rock it.
From personal experience of learning to play things way beyond my skill level, I believe anyone can learn to play anything if they have the patience to break the pieces down into tangible amounts. Even the most intricate music can be attainable by zooming in and working on a few notes or a chord change at a time. It’s the patience to do so, and the focus involved which is the true skill.
Abraham Kunin is a producer, songwriter, session guitarist, and recording engineer. He has toured internationally with a wide spectrum of bands, theatrical productions, and festival stages. abrahamkunin.com
One reason music theory is so valuable is that it offers us a shared language. It gives us names for the notes we play and their relationships with one another.
Although music is a language in its own right, having names which represent these arrangements of notes and rhythms makes the communication and notation of ideas faster and clearer.
In this clip well worth watching, the great musician and educator Victor Wooten beautifully conveys his perspective on ‘music as a language’ (and other deep insights):
I learned theory comparatively late compared to a lot of my peers. I came to University with only a rudimentary understanding of some of the more familiar scales, underdeveloped ears, and was unable to read a note on any clef. How I got in I don’t know, but one of the most daunting barriers to making this stuff ‘click’ was understanding the world of music jargon and terminology. It’s easy to be overwhelmed by ‘root’, ‘tonic’, ‘mode’, ‘scale’, ‘minor 3rd’, ‘major 3rd’, ‘5th’, ‘V’, ‘Bb’, ‘A#’ etc etc. Often there are multiple names for the same thing. Like any language, you probably already have some understanding of what the thing is (in this case an aural familiarity), you just may not have heard it called by that name or given that label.
As a guitar player, I sidestepped theory for longer than I could have on other instruments such as keys. Typically, pianists learn to read as part of their early education, and identifying the notes is a little more straightforward visually. With these cornerstones, much of the subsequent theory falls in after this. However, in the modern world of the producer, it is very likely many using keys are finding themselves in a similar place to myself as a younger guitarist.
To some degree, building your own understanding of theory has a lot to do with decoding its jargon. My own process is not so far in the past that I can’t recall how frustrating it can be, and how easy it is to think ‘what’s the point?’. It takes time, but it is now without a doubt one of the skills in my proverbial toolbox which makes a career as a musician possible, and from that toolbox, one of the most commonly drawn upon.
Over the next few weeks, we will introduce theory in digestible portions to coincide with the practical elements of Melodics lessons. Like any kind of practice, it takes repetition, and as such I will end up covering the same ground multiple times.
The first things we’ll look at are:
What notes are we playing?
What chords are we playing?
What key do they belong to, and what is their position in this context?
Abraham Kunin is a producer, songwriter, session guitarist, and recording engineer. He has toured internationally with a wide spectrum of bands, theatrical productions, and festival stages. abrahamkunin.com
My best piece of advice for performing, is that the first time you play a piece in front of people, it shouldn’t matter.
The first time you perform a song in its entirety that you’ve been learning shouldn’t be for a high stakes performance such as for an exam or competition. That is too much pressure. The first time you play in your live electronic duo shouldn’t be to a packed room of 150 people who have all paid $20. Playing to 20 people who you know and will smile encouragingly when you blast them with a slightly too loud hi-hat is a better idea. The packed room can wait.
The actual setup
I had a Piano exam around the age of 11 that was going to be on a Grand Piano. Up until that stage I had only ever played on upright pianos, and my wise piano teacher knew that the position of where the music sits on a Grand piano is higher. This could have caused extra stress and nerves for the real exam. A few weeks before the exam, I spent a few hours playing on the actual Grand Piano I was going to be examined on and was able to adjust to the much higher music location. When I arrived for the real exam, it was one variation I didn’t need to worry about. I passed the exam.
Now this is looking at the context of a performance where it is relatively straightforward, where it is just a Piano player checking that they can see the music and touch the pedals. Or perhaps it is a trumpet player ensuring they’re warmed up, in tune and have put in valve oil. Basic operational checks, like a Guitarist ensuring their strings are not rusty and the loose input jack is fixed. When you add any technical aspects, such as guitar pedals or amp variables, your preparation for performance should look like your real deal performance. I’ve have had students who haven’t used a fuzz or wah pedal enough to be totally confident, and then it adds another layer of nerves when they use it in their performance. Practice your instrument with the same setup as you will perform. This includes those who plug controllers into laptops.
There was a national competition I attended and one of the band members used a laptop, USB audio card and a hardware sampler/controller. The band walked on stage but couldn’t get the sound to work on the laptop and they spent 10 minutes trying. The musician hadn’t used the USB audio card much, and so didn’t realise that when you close a laptop, it defaults to the internal soundcard (I jumped on stage and rectified the problem). This problem not only delayed the competition, but more importantly the musician was visibly upset when they went to play. Technical setups such as modular synths, laptops or anything with more than 2 or 3 electronic sound sources require a higher level of confidence in their use to reduce nerves. Being consistent in how and where things are plugged in is less important than 15 years ago as USB and Laptops are becoming less temperamental. However, focusing on reducing the variables and thus things that could go wrong onstage will lower stress and anxiety. Then you can just focus on your performance, not the gear. (Note: updating software the day before performance is not a good idea. What happens if a little tweak of a menu location happens and you can’t find that parameter?)
Knowing your part.
Do I get nervous? Not if I know what I’m doing.
After playing music for over 30 years, I still get nervous, but I now know why. It’s down to two reasons:
I haven’t practiced my part enough and so I am only 80% confident I’ll get it right.
It’s that 20% of doubt that creeps in and affects my playing. If I can play my part totally correct at least 20 times in a row, then I know I’ll be fine. This applies for me playing in a Symphony Orchestra, busking on the street with friends, or DJing that great mix.
I don’t know what’s happening around me. This is because I am not totally confident of what is happening on stage with the other members of my band. For example, knowing the exact cues that the drummer will give when she is finishing her solo for me to start mine. In one of my bands, I do quite a bit of the signalling to move to the different sections, solos and improvised sections. It took a solid year of practicing what those signals were, including what to do when the others can’t see my raised eyebrows in low-light gigs, or when I’m wearing a cap and sunglasses! Once we felt secure in communicating with each other, then we all felt less-nervous and anxiety levels dropped.
There is a fine line between a performance having that spontaneousness from feeding off the crowd and each other, and the song collapsing due to key transitions being missed because the band members just didn’t know what was happening.
Playing in front of people
So if you’ve taken care of the above points, then all you’ve got to do is play in front of people.
When I’m working with individuals or bands in preparation for a competition that is judged on a single live performance, I ensure that they’ve performed their full set, as close to how it will be in the end, at least three times. I advise the first time be to 3 or 4 trusted friends and their teacher. The second time is in a more public space, but still controlled and with an encouraging crowd (students younger than them are usually good audience fodder). The third performance should be a high-stakes performance, such as a lunchtime concert, or assembly slot, but without the judging aside from the crowd clapping after each song. The important thing with this last performance, is to try and recreate all aspects of the performance. This includes walking on stage, talking to the crowd, changing guitars, changing synth patches and using stage monitors or in-ear monitors. At my school, we bring in a similar P.A sound system that the final competition will have, to give the students that experience of subs kicking in, the overall volume, and also to hear what it sounds like to have foldbacks, and FOH bouncing back off a wall. They have lights in their eyes, smoke machines, and are at one end of a big hall.
I know that performing three times is not ideal, but it is a good place to start in reducing nerves, anxiety and a fear of performance.
And remember, don’t make the first proper performance actually matter.
Martin Emo DJs and plays in 2 ½ bands on the Trumpet, Surdo, and in a Live Electronic Duo. He is currently studying a Masters in E-Learning at Victoria University, Wellington, NZ and is the National Facilitator for Te Kete Ipurangi Te Hāpori o Ngā Toi (Musicnet), an Examination Contractor for the New Zealand Qualifications Authority and a Music Technology mentor for EDnet and Midnight Music.
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