(Artwork care of Karen Ramsay (www.karenramsay.com), profile photo care of brianlackeyphotography.com)

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Musings - Communication: verbal and non-verbal

I went back to Florida this summer and had the chance to sit in with my brother's band. I was mostly adding guitar, but Mike did ask me if I could play bass on one song, The Boys Are Back in Town. While my bands tend to focus on originals, my brother reminded me that their cover was pretty close to the original version. So, I listened to Thin Lizzy a lot, looked up the tab, and practiced until I could reproduce Phil Lynott's bass line.

I mentioned to my brother that I assumed they were playing the song in the original key of G#. "No, I think it's G," said Mike. Uh-oh, time to reevaluate. Transposing wasn't too bad, I just had one spot where I'd be playing an open string instead a fretted note.

A day or so before I headed to Florida, my brother sent me the setlist along with key signature notes. The Boys Are Back in Town was there but he had it listed in C! Time for a crisis email: Ahh, Boys in C? Are you playing G - Am - C on the chorus? Nope, those weren't the chords. He sent the charts and a YouTube link and all was clear.

It turns out they weren't doing the Thin Lizzy song. The Busboys also had a fairly popular song with that title. It could have been really strange if we hadn't cleared this up before the set!

On the surface, this points out the importance of communication in music. We could have avoided a lot of stress and work if Mike had simply sent me the recording or a YouTube link. At a more general level, I've been in plenty of bands that would have benefited from simple clarity about goals, expectations, and creative direction.

But there's a deeper lesson here about managing expectations and creative chaos. We caught our misunderstanding before the gig, but what if we hadn't? The two songs are radically different, so I would have known from the very beginning that I was in the weeds. The Busboy's track is a simple blues jam, so I would have been able to adapt easily, just watching the drummer to cue the punches. After a brief panic, I would have been completely in the moment, picking up on the changes and surrendering to the song.

So, communication is key, but over the years, I've found myself in musical situations that defied my expectations. It's why I prefer to play with people who can listen, adjust, and save the song. Sometimes, this chaos can push a song into a radical new space that opens up a rich set of creative expression.

Lately, I've had some informal sessions with a friend who plays violin. I've been swapping between bass and guitar. My drummer just joined us this week. We share similar goals (a mix of improv and arranged material, some plan to play publicly sometime). But when we're playing my songs, I try not to direct her violin playing. In this case, I want the music to communicate to me and tell me where we should go.

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