Video#8 – Incorporating Notation-Reading Musicians

Watch this short video. To understand the thought process behind the teaching video, read the blog post below it.

The video above is #8 in the More Than Music Mentor training resource series.

For hundreds of years, since the birth of classical music, any serious instrumentalist or vocalist (at least, from the European tradition) would have to be able to read pages of a particular form of music notation that instructed them on exactly what to play and how to play it. Sometimes called “staff notation”, this written form of musical language uses lines, dots, symbols, letters, words, and more to tell the musician practically every detail of the music that they had to reproduce.

Check out this little bit of hand-written musical notation by J. S. Bach (1685–1750)!

Hand-written musical notation by J. S. Bach (1685–1750)

I have some experience and ability to read musical notation from my early years learning piano, playing brass instruments and from studying music in high school and as part of my college degree. But I was never very good at it. Reading musical notation was always difficult for me. While there was a joy in music at that time, the joy was somewhat offset by the onerous chore of reading notation.

But then I discovered playing without notation. Playing by ear. A new musical world of creativity, self expression and joy exploded for me. Music like this was wonderful! Approaching music – without the specific confinement of staff notation – certainly fit me better.

Since picking up the bass guitar and beginning to play music in rock bands (including quite a few years as a recording, touring pro), the number of times I have been asked to read notation – within my role as a bassist – could probably be numbered on one hand! That’s very few times. Ironically, any notation reading skill I had has become extremely rusty over my pro-musician years through under use!

I’d play by listening to the other instruments and creating my own bass parts – exploring different possibilities, considering the many options and arriving at what I thought worked best. All the musicians in the band would interact, throw out suggestions and together, we’d craft a piece of music that we liked most. This was especially the case when writing and arranging original music. The lines between writing, arranging and producing were wonderfully blurred.

If I was being asked to reproduce an existing song arrangement, I would listen to a sound recording and memorize the most important details and “feel” of the previously recorded bass part, but still leave some room for my own interpretation. Quite often a much simpler form of musical notation – the chord chart – would be used to aid memorization of the sound recording.

At times, just a chord chart (without the support of a sound recording) would be presented to me. These very loose guidelines would demand that each instrumentalist bring a great deal of themselves – musically – to the performance and hammered home the necessity of listening carefully to the other instruments.

Here’s an example of one of the many ways a chord chart might look.

Chord Chart

I wish I was better schooled to read and understand written music – staff musical notation and music theory. These are important skills and, in many musical situation – extremely important, beneficial and even necessary.

From one way of thinking about it, there are two “schools” of playing music: one that depends on written, musical staff notation and another that does not. Each “school” or system of playing music has strengths and weaknesses. The details of these might make the subject of a future blogpost, but don’t need to be discussed here.

The reason I explain all this is to make this point: These two approaches do not represent a “correct” way and an “incorrect” way. Neither is inherently better than the other in every musical situation. They are just different. And they can be complimentary.

But the people belonging to each “school” can easily think of their way as being the preferred way. The favored way. Cliques can form. Even within the Church, the team of established musicians – influenced heavily by the leadership – can rely mainly on one system or the other and, perhaps even without intentionally doing so, may exclude anyone from the other “school”.

Wouldn’t it be wonderful if the musicians who prepare sacred music in the life of the Church were intentional about recognizing and utilizing capable musicians of all “schools”? We ought to lean towards each other to learn from one another, understand each other better, pick up some of the language of the other “school” and, in so doing, become more effective at creating a unified musical “voice” that would better serve The Church.

J.S.Bach could hear his music in his head and play it by ear first. He only wrote it as notation so what he heard could be understood and reproduced by other instrumentalists. Thank God he did! There are musicians who are equally comfortable in the formal, notated “school” and the play-by-ear “school” of music. Of course, that’s the ideal. That’s the best set of skills for a musician to have, but it is quite rare.

There may be very capable instrumentalists within your Church congregation who don’t get involved in the music because they have a more formal musical background and only feel comfortable playing when they are reading staff notation. In this instructional video, I speak about how we can and should incorporate these musicians, even if they are unfamiliar with learning to play a song from a chord chart and a sound recording.

Watch Video#8 – Incorporating Notation-Reading Musicians again.

Take this link to watch the full rendition of “Be Thou My Vision” featuring classical musician Syneva Colle on cello.

 

For more free resource videos and info, visit www.MoreThanMusicMentor.com.

Video#7 – Drums: Keeping Solid Time

Watch this short video. To understand the thought process behind the teaching video, read the blog post below it.

 

In my earlier years of playing bass guitar in bands, I worked with my fellow musicians for countless rehearsal hours to try to get our songs to be, what we called, “tight”. We were “tight” when we assessed that our playing was really together – landing all our notes precisely in time with one another.

In my mind at the time, some of those bands were tight. But then in my first recording session, my best-rehearsed, “tightest” band and I were asked to play with a “click” – an electronically produced metronome that showed us where perfect time really was. It was a rude, shocking awakening for all of us. We were WAY off. We were not tight. We were in fact, as the engineer informed us with bemused resignation, “As loose as a goose!”. Our attempts at recording – transposed over the correctly timed click – proved it.

We were rushing (pushing earlier than the beat) for every accent, every increase in dynamics, during every drum fill. And every time we rushed, we rushed at slightly different rates. We thought we were tight, but we were sloppy. Before then we had no idea!

I realized that adrenaline can do strange things to my sense of time. Sometimes my internal metronome lies to me.

Unconscious Incompetence:
– When I don’t know what I don’t know.
– Or thinking that I know something, when I actually don’t.

From that moment, I realized that I needed to train my internal metronome to have a better sense of time. I had to practice with a metronome and with professionally recorded (metronome perfect) songs. And perhaps most importantly, I had to play with drummers who were training their sense of time. No matter how good the timing is from other band members, if the drums are out of time, it’s all out of time.

Hey, not all music needs to be in metronome-perfect, constant time. Some of my favorite music goes through shifts in the lengths of the beats – sometimes very obviously and other times more subtly. But to improve the sound of our guitar/drum driven Church bands we must improve our time-keeping ability.

Music sounds better when it’s played in time. Congregations will feel more confident to engage if the leading musicians are together and timing the music well. There may not be many people in your Church congregation who would be consciously aware when the band is not keeping good time – with a better internal metronome than the musicians – but poorly timed music puts people on edge, does not invite, can hinder people’s ability and willingness to sing along.

In any vocal/guitar/keys/bass/drums band, time is established by the drums. In my mind, the drummer is the modern-ensemble’s conductor. It’s up to the drummer to make sure the band knows where correct time is. While it’s important that all musicians improve their sense of correct time, it’s even more important that drummers do. All drummers should utilize a metronome. This can be done in one of three ways:

  1. Use headphones from an electronic metronome for focused, personal practice.
  2. Use that same metronome set-up while you’re playing with the band.
  3. If your band is using in-ear monitoring, arrange for your metronome’s click to be fed to the other musicians too. (Note: A metronome click through open speaker monitors will be a terrible, unmusical distraction).

This might surprise you: My ideal is that the band should NOT use a metronome – a click –  while we are rehearsing or engaging a congregation -not even just for the drummer. But that ideal band will need to have each member – especially the drummer – with well trained internal metronomes.

Why?

  • I want the freedom to have subtle, intentional time changes in our songs.
  • I do not  want to have to wear in-ear monitors as they make it very difficult for me to connect and assess the congregation’s singing.
  • I want to be able to have different instruments in the band play sections of the song without the need for constant time keeping from a drummer.
  • I want introductions to songs that do not need to wait for the drummer to reset and switch on the metronome.

In a live music situation – especially leading a Church congregation to worship God through songs – I would rather not lean on the robotic, perfect time of electronics.  I believe the human sense of time, when well disciplined and trained, is best. But until we have that, let’s use the metronome and never assume that out internal sense of time is perfectly correct.

The video above is #7 in the More Than Music Mentor training resource series. In it I speak with drummer Jonathan Truman about the importance of training our internal metronome and keeping solid time, and the different ways a drummer can use a metronome’s “click” to establish and keep better time for the whole band.

Watch Video#7 – Drums: Keeping Solid Time again.

For more free resource videos and info, visit www.MoreThanMusicMentor.com.

Video#6 – Acoustic Guitar: Keys & Capos

Watch this short video. To understand the thought process behind the teaching video, read the blog post below it.

Please understand this – I do not claim to be an expert acoustic guitarist. I’m actually a bassist! Bass guitar is the instrument I dedicated a huge chunk of my life to – to make myself the best bassist I could possibly be. I was a pro bassist. Now I’m a speaker/teacher who plays a bit of acoustic guitar.

While I have usually had an acoustic guitar lying around the house somewhere gathering dust, I have really only picked it up in the last several years and started to play. I feel quite underconfident with my acoustic playing and (I’m a bit embarrassed to say) I have never made the time to really work at the instrument like I have the bass. There hasn’t seemed to be the available time! My playing is getting better because I play a lot as part of my job, but I’ve got a long way to go.

But that possibly makes me more able to relate to most acoustic guitarists in the Church. Not many of us feel truly accomplished. We’re not at “pro” level. We need every hint and tip we can to make this acoustic guitar thing work! That’s where capos can be extremely useful!

Perhaps because I have stretched my left hand so much doing big, wide hand shapes on the bass, I find bar chords (where the ring and pinky fingers on the left hand need to be “glued” together) extremely difficult. Those fingers don’t seem to want to do that for me! I can play bar chords (sort of) but to do so well, while engaging a congregation, singing, leading a band, remembering lyrics and (hopefully) being tuned to the leading of the Holy Spirit is tough.

And I don’t really like the sound of bar chords compared to more “open” chords – where more notes are being made from unfettered strings. Bar chords (at least on my guitar and with my hands) rarely sound as full and rich.

But with capos, I can find a way of playing pretty much any song I want from the Church repertoire in pretty much any key! I have  dedicated time and energy to understand song structures, chord sequences and chord voicing. While doing that I have discovered some ways of using capos that are all quite simple, work well for me and hopefully are useful to you!

This video is #6 in the More Than Music Mentor training resource series. In it I demonstrate the way I have integrated three different capos into my acoustic guitar playing. Each in their own way help my playing to be simple, have a good constant sound and bring more song keys and chords within my reach. I’d be quite lost without them!

Watch Video#6 –  Acoustic Guitar: Keys & Capos again.

For more free resource videos and info, visit www.MoreThanMusicMentor.com.

Video#5 – Bass Guitar vs. Keyboard

Watch this short video. To understand the thought process behind the teaching video, read the blog post below it.

One of the things I love most about a band – especially in the Church service setting – is that a band gives a great opportunity for a group of musicians to demonstrate to the Church what The Church should be: A collection of people making selfless choices for the sake of others – for something greater than themselves.

Sometimes with good reason, musicians are stereotyped as self-centered and lacking consideration for others. It’s certainly true that, musically speaking, we can so easily get caught up in playing exactly what we want to play and expressing ourselves. And needing to be heard by an affirming audience –  even above others.

But great bands – and I’m thinking especially of bands that can lead a Church congregation well – are made up of people who are listening to the overall sound, and the parts of their band-mates just as much as they are listening to themselves. They will constantly make musical choices that leave space. They will play less, rather than more. They want to support the roles of others, rather than pushing themselves to the fore. The resulting musical synergy means that (as the old saying goes) the whole of the band is greater than the sum of its parts.

This is no more obvious than with the choices made by a bass guitarist and a keyboardist/pianist. Most keyboardists learned to play piano on their own first before joining a band. A keyboard or piano can work well on its own as a solo instrument or accompanying a solo instrument or vocalist without any other instrumentation required.

Bassists have usually only ever known what it is to play in a band. While bass guitar is an important instrument, there’s not much call for it solo. Although there are a handful of virtuosic exceptions, the bass guitar is primarily an ensemble instrument and requires other instruments around it for its parts make musical sense. I would argue that the bass notes – the low notes – are the most important notes in any musical accompaniment – second only to the notes in the melody of a song.

As a pianist/keyboardist shifts from playing on their own to playing in a band with a bassist, they must make significant changes to the way they play,  especially in the left hand. They are no longer the main instrument in the lower register. If the keyboardist tries to “rule” the lower register of the band, clutter, mess, discord and dissonance can and does result.

Now, when a bassist and a keyboardist are walking all over each other in the lower register (as can often be heard – or made out through the sonic mush – in Church bands) they are probably not doing so intentionally. It’s most likely that they are completely unaware! They are yet to learn the ability of truly listening to each other and communicating with each other. Neither party is consciously fighting any sort of musical battle for territory, but there is a sonic battle happening nonetheless.

There needs to be a mutual agreement to allow the bass guitar to be the dominant voice in the lower register. The band leader, the sound engineer or the individual players themselves need to hear what’s happening and then be bold enough to draw attention to it, if there is a problem. Personal musical sacrifices may need to be made.

But as the keyboardist and the bassist listen to each other, support one another and leave room for each other, more (not less) clarity, musicality and “connectability” results.

This video is #5 in the More Than Music Mentor training resource series. In it I have bassist Aaron Sands and keyboardist Zach Vinson demonstrate negative and positive examples of the interplay between bass guitar and the keyboard’s lower register.

Watch Video#5 – Bass Guitar vs. Keyboard again.

For more free resource videos and info, visit www.MoreThanMusicMentor.com.

Good Loud and Bad Loud

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When I was a kid growing up in the Church, music for the Sunday morning services primarily used organ for instrumental accompaniment.

This electronic organ was top of the line, and played by a pro. While it wasn’t a cathedral-style pipe organ, it was the best available instrument to replicate that sound. The organ had a dedicated sound system with multiple, huge, high quality speaker enclosures suspended around the auditorium. They could fill the whole room with rich, full sound. In those moments when the organ was really cranking, it created a formidable sonic experience. My memory was of a sound that I could feel on my skin as well as hear with my ears. I loved it. Everyone loved it. Especially the older people.

Back in the 80’s, as a keen, music-loving, bass playing teenager, I tried to introduce a more contemporary style of music to the once-a-month, evening youth service. Some friends and I formed a band using drums, bass, electric guitar, a keyboard, singers and a few brass players.

But our sound was whatever we were making from the “stage”, augmented by the vocals going through two tiny public address speakers attached to the ceiling. These had been installed with only the projection of a single preacher’s voice in mind – not a band like ours. As beginners through such an inadequate sound system, we must have sounded pretty terrible.

We got a lot of complaints – especially from older people. And the complaint we heard the most was that we were just “too loud’.

Being young and inexperienced, I didn’t really know how to process the criticism. But I was sure we were not – could not be – as loud as the organ. And so, the idea of “good loud” and “bad loud” first began to form in my mind.

Good loud is full and powerful but well-rounded. Good loud shifts some serious air in the low end of the frequency spectrum, but is never aggressive in the high-middle to high frequencies. Too much level in those higher frequencies is sure to make loud turn bad. They are the frequencies that are most likely to cause irritation, pain and (in extreme cases) potential permanent hearing loss.

While I sometimes like loud music – louder and probably more often than most people – I never like loud music that’s harsh on my ears.

You can feel good loud against your skin and still have your ears enjoying the experience. Good loud draws people’s attention and invites them to connect. Bad loud has the opposite effect. Bad loud is aggravating, gives a horrible experience and can cause harm. It pushes people away.  I don’t ever want to have music  – or any other sound – annoy me, cause me physical pain or (any more) permanent hearing loss.

I have heard too much bad loud throughout my life. Some self inflicted. Some not. I have the constant ringing in my ears to prove it. I do not wish that on anybody.

A cheap guitar amp with too much gain, a crash cymbal or a snare drum played with ill-judged intensity or (heaven forbid!) feedback are more likely to make a listener feel discomfort than lower frequencies. These harsh, biting sounds are characteristics of bad loud and will be more likely to draw complaints from people feeling like the music is too loud for them.

Of course, people have their different, subjective tastes for music volume. If someone thinks the music is too loud and you don’t, they’re not wrong and you’re not right. You may just have different preferences.

But if the loud is bad loud, that’s far less subjective. If it’s harsh and causing irritation (or worse) to anybody that’s being asked to listen, it is too loud.

While I am not an advocate for the “If it’s too loud, you’re too old!” motto, there is a certain truth to it. Generally (and medically) speaking, older people are more sensitive when it comes to loud, harsh sounds than younger people. An appropriate level to youths, might be causing physical pain to the grey hairs!

That said, if I don’t like the performance or the type of music, I don’t like it at any volume. The louder it is, the more I will dislike it. Sometimes people use the descriptor “It’s too loud” when what they mean is, “I don’t like this music at any level that I can hear.”

And out of a lack of vocabulary and/or technical expertise, a person may describe music as being “too loud” when actually, it’s not the overall decibel (dB) level that’s the problem. Actually the sound could be harsh, biting, aggressive sounding. It just plain sounds bad to them.

Good loud is more easily achieved in smaller spaces – smaller rooms with smaller crowds. The bigger the room, the more difficult it will be. Shiny, hard surfaces like glass and tile that bounce sound rather than absorb it, will make the task tougher too.

So, should the music in a Church service ever be loud?

I’d like to think, yes, but it depends on several very important factors:

  • The loud should never be bad loud – only good loud.
  • The public address (PA) system must be capable of producing good loud.
  • The audio engineer operating the PA must be sufficiently (highly) skilled.
  • Even if it’s good, loud should not be sustained for too long. Creative use of dynamics with periods of good loud will strengthen the overall musical invitation.
  • It should never overwhelm the loudness of the congregation’s singing. (See my separate Vlogpost about this).

A lot of Church audio engineers are given certain decibel (dB) levels that they must not exceed during a service. But this approach is only helpful to a certain point. A dB meter cannot tell the difference between good loud and bad loud. A human is needed for that. With the skillful application of good loud, the dB limits might be able to be adjusted in the upward direction.

But I don’t say all of this just because I like good loud music. Instead, I sincerely believe that the correct application of good loud offers an important tool that can help God’s people sing! Sing better than many of us are singing now. Sing with some passion! Some abandon! Sing loud!

God created all things, including sound of every level. Good loud can be used for His glory, and as a sincere expression of worship.

 

“Is it possible to make a living glorifying God through music?”

bass guitarist

I received an email the other day from a sincere, determined and capable young Church musician who asked some big questions:

“What advice do you have for me as a bass player who would love to play bass for a living some day? Is that possible? I want to play worship music. Is it possible to make a living glorifying God through music?”

These are questions that I too struggled with before my years as a pro bassist. I’m not sure I have them all fully answered yet.

I responded to the email to the best of my ability – not in a way that’s specific to bass players – but for any musician who is following Jesus but aspires to be professional. I hope you may find this helpful too:

You asked “Is it possible to make a living glorifying God through music?” I did for quite a few years … although (in good conscience) I should say that it was my – not necessarily humble – assessment of whether or not I was truly glorifying God. I have learned more recently to be more intentional about seeing God as the final authority there.

Glorifying to God? To some extent, yes, I hope so. That was the intention. I can say that the songs were primarily about Jesus and the intended audience was the Christian Church.

In Melbourne Australia (prior to 2002) I was able to eat and pay my bills (just) playing in a Christian band and also playing in bar bands. I would not suggest bar bands for everyone.

After 2002 I was living in Nashville and played bass as a band member in a couple of pro Christian bands and also recorded and toured as a backing musician behind established artists. It was easier to survive financially in the US, but still not easy. It became more difficult since I was now married and then, in 2007, had a baby son. The pro bass thing ended for me in late 2007.

Quite a few bassists who are sincere followers of Jesus are playing professionally. There’s no reason that I know of that would tell me that you shouldn’t go for it – although I do not know you well. It’ll cost. And there are dangers. It’d be best if you’re at least aware of the potential costs and dangers going in.

My first and biggest piece of advice is contained in this short video.

I would also say that, if there’s anything else (and I mean ANYTHING else that isn’t being a pro musician) you can do and still have a sense that you are responding to God’s call on your life, do that. It’s a tough road you’re asking about – and full of often hidden potholes.

If you’re going to go for it, I would also suggest that you:

  • Make a big effort to get established while you’re single and young.
  • Be ready to relocate to a bigger city. Maybe even Nashville – which is the Christian music capital of the world. I imagine opportunities to go pro are slim in your part of the world, especially if you want to be involved in music for the Church exclusively.
  • Decide if you’re an “artist bassist” (band member with importance on self-expression and being part of the creative process) or a “technician bassist” (extremely accomplished on your instrument in a wide variety of settings and styles and ready to adapt to play whatever you are told to play … and be happy that way).
  • Add to your musical abilities things like playing other instruments, singing, arranging  and song writing. Especially song writing.
  • Persist!

Talent and ability are important ingredients. But I would rate persistence as even more important.

I hope that’s helpful.

Peace

Grant

Video#4 – Assessing The Room Volume

Watch this short video. To understand the thought process behind the teaching video, read the blogpost below it.

Even people who don’t think they can sing will sing in the shower … and enjoy it! Why?

It’s because the hard tile and glass surfaces in the bathroom reflect the sound giving natural delay and reverb effects that improve the sound of the single voice. That one person singing is immersed in the sound of several voices singing. It feels like they’re part of a group. And even though there might be family members who can hear through the walls, the person in the shower has no sense that they are performing for an audience.

Sometimes I’m more likely to sing in the shower than when I’m in a Church service.

Ideally, these sonic “shower” conditions (without the falling water and nakedness) should be replicated for a Church congregation who are being asked to sing as an expression of worship:

1) Each individual should feel like they are part of a collection of people who are singing.
2) No one should feel like they are required to perform solo for an audience.

There are many reasons why people will struggle or even resist singing along in a Church service. Many of those we cannot control. But some we can. Volume – especially the volume in the room from the leading team of musicians – is one of them.

Sure, there are many other factors involved, but I believe that individuals in the congregation are most likely to sing if they feel like they are part of a group of people who are also singing. Not many people want to feel like they’re a soloist. And we can be encouraged to greater levels of volume and passion if we move there with those around us.

So what influence does room volume have?

Too little volume from the leading singers and instrumentalists through the PA into the room, and the people won’t be engaged. They won’t hear the invitation to join the band with their “voice”. They’ll strike up conversations, find some distraction on their smartphone, politely wait until the music’s over or maybe even fall asleep.

Even though the people’s attention will be drawn to the sound, too much volume and they will tend to remain passive. Their lips might be moving a little – perhaps out of habit or obligation – but subconsciously they’ll have a sense that they are spectators at a concert performance. They will not have a sense that they are being invited to participate – to join the band with their “voice”.

So here’s the primary consideration: We want the volume level in the room from the leading musicians through the PA to create an environment where people want to sing! More important than the dB measurement at the mixing desk is whether or not individuals in the congregation can at least hear their own voice and the voices of the people behind them and to their left and right.

If individuals in the congregation cannot hear the voices of the people directly around them, we have one of two situations:
1) The people are singing but the room volume from the leading musicians is too high, or
2) The people are not singing, or singing only very softly … in which case the room volume from the leading musicians is also too high.

To get a sense of how well the congregation is singing, the FOH audio engineer will probably need to leave the safety of the mixing console from time to time and move out amongst the congregation. Listen. Then head back to the desk to make adjustments. Or better yet, they’ll have freedom of movement because they are mixing wirelessly using an iPad or similar mobile device.

If the necessary changes are beyond the scope of the engineer, more fundamental changes will need to be made. Most likely, this will be the case if the stage volume is too great and is overwhelming the room volume. The band will need to find ways of making their stage volume level lower.

Is the congregation singing? Are they singing well? Are they projecting volume into the room that encourages the whole? Does the “voice” of the congregation balance well with the sound of the band in the room? Can the band – especially the praise leader – hear the congregation in the room over their stage sound? If your answer is “no” to any of these questions, inappropriate volume level might be a contributing factor. Maybe the biggest contributing factor.

The room volume from the musicians must “meet” the congregation where they are. Over time, volume can be used to encourage and teach greater levels of vocal participation from the people.  We must find creative ways to make a musical invitation to the congregation. They must know that their participation – their “voice” – is essential.

Without the “voice” of the congregation taking prominent position in the mix, we might have some cool background ambience music, or we might have a jaw-dropping concert performance, but our main objective of having God’s people raise their voices in praise to God will be lost.

This video is #4 in the More Than Music Mentor training resource series. In it I share thoughts about a highly contentious issue in Church music: What’s the best way to assess the most appropriate volume level?

Watch Video#4 – Assessing The Room Volume again.

For more free resource videos and info, visit www.MoreThanMusicMentor.com.