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Ensemble Techniques

Personal, Musical, Professional and Emotional Connections

 

Every player, regardless of style or experience level, will eventually find himself in a position where he will either want or need to play with other musicians in an ensemble setting. This can be in a blues band, with a string quartet, as part of a metal outfit or as an accompanist with another instrument or singer. People outside the business of making music have a number of misconceptions about playing with others. Unfortunately many musicians bring these same misconceptions along with them to the ensemble. Our goal as musicians shouldn't be to blindly throw ourselves into the business with the thought that we'll more than likely be ground up and spat back out. Our goal is to rise above the poseurs and achieve something grander, be it artistically or financially. I'd like to relate some hard-learned lessons and some common sense, then team them all up with some basic ensemble performance technique.

 

Part Four

Hand Signals and Chord Numbering

Where the heck are we??!!?? You are furiously looking at the drummer. You are desperately trying to catch the keyboard player's eye. The vocalist has just begun singing the... What??? Is it the bridge? Did he cut back in to the second two lines of the first verse? Maybe he just came in three beats too early! Hearing a rapidly disappearing accompaniment, the singer starts looking at the rest of the guys. The tune collapses.

Thank God this happened in the rehearsal room and not on stage at the Palace Theater. Usually by the time a band makes it to the big stage, these kind of hiccups are virtually extinct. But things still do go wrong. It is a well-rehearsed and professional band that doesn't let the audience know when something has gone wrong.

Music Theory and Numerology

The first the you need to know when driving on a long trip is... where you are. If you don't know where you are, you won't be able to formulate a plan to get to the next item you must know -- where you are going. Once you know where you are and where you want to be, there are road maps and landmarks that help you go from point A to point B.

What does that have to do about music? Well, without going all Zen or New Age, music is a journey and you have to have a map and landmarks to successfully complete the artistic voyage we call a song. We are dealing mostly with Western music and the western theoretical practices as these practices and theory are the backbone of every form and style of music from Beethoven and Bach to Marley and Hendrix, from Blues and Jazz to Punk and Hip Hop. Here is a quick introduction to structure and harmony.

The song you are playing is in a key. Let's keep it simple and say that the key of the song we are playing with the band is C major. C major has a tonic and the tonic is the name of the key. The chord and note of the key is the tonic (the C note and C chord in this example.) The scale for the key of C is: C, D, E, F, G, A, B & C. That's one octave. In solfege (sight-singing) these notes are sung as do, re, mi, fa, sol, la, ti and do.

Obviously, chords can be built on each of these scale tones. Stacking thirds on C, we have a C major chord of C + E + G. Although this isn't critical to the present discussion, this is a major triad as the first third of the chord C+E is a major third and the second third E + G is a minor third. A major third with a minor third stacked on it is a major chord. Similarly, a minor third with a major third stacked on top is a minor chord (A + C + E is a minor chord, A minor.) [Two major thirds is an augmented chord and two minor thirds is an augmented chord.]

In C major, the chords built off the scale are: C major, D minor, E minor, F major, G major, A minor, B diminished and finally returning to a C major. The highlighted chords are cornerstones of all western music. These chords are the tonic, the subdominant and dominant chords. Due to their numerical relationship to the scale they are often called by the Roman Numerals I, IV, & V. or the one, four and five chords. This is not just a clinical way of theoretically discussing the chords based on the scale, these form what is known as a chord progression. Pick up an instrument and play a C major, an F major a G Major and finally a C major. The strongest relationship between the chords is the tonic/dominant or I/V relationship. The dominant needs to be followed by the tonic. Make that dominant an dominant seventh chord by adding an F to the G major triad, and you have a chord that simply screams for the resolution of the c major.

Another common chord progression is I, vi, IV, V & I. This is a typical Doo Wop or oldies progression. Think 'In the Still of the Night'. Some songs are even simpler and revolve around the tonic/dominant without a subdominant or any other scale-derived chording. Others are more complex with implied ancillary harmonies, a popular example being (in C major) a D dominant seventh (with an F#, the major chord) leading into the G dominant seventh (dominant of C) this is called the V7/V chord as it is the dominant of the dominant.

Use Your Hands

Okay, after all this we get to the meat and potatoes. You're at rehearsal and learning a new song. Someone says "The tune is a one, four, five in Bflat." What this tells you is that the tonic is Bflat, the subdominant (four chord) is Eflat and the dominant seventh is F7 (the V7). Often in a song using this progression, the composer will add a bridge that will more than likely start on the subdominant or four chord. Let's say the singer wishes to go to the bridge earlier than you've rehearsed it. If he or she hold up four fingers to the band, everyone should realize that on the next go-round, you'll be going to the bridge and you should all be playing Eflat.

On stage, my singer will often give no more indication of a change in the set list than a finger gesture. Obviously this only works with tunes that she starts. If she holds up one finger, I know the key is C major. Similarly, if she holds up five fingers, it's in G major. Four = F major. Major and Minor are not an issue. She won't use a four-fingered salute for a tune in F minor. That's all worked out beforehand. What about A Major? A thumb and a pinky work well.

How about turn-arounds, endings, repeated choruses, etc.? The vocalist should determine these directions. The front person is, after all, the front person. How should he or she indicate these things? It's up to you as an ensemble to decide what does and doesn't work as far as hand signals. Here are some I have found work in my ensemble.

Repeat the Chorus/Verse: the singer makes a circular motion with the hand. It indicates to us to go around once again, repeat.

Back to the top/first verse: the singer points to her head.

Solo: the singer points at the instrument to solo--we usually give the soloist an entire chorus, verse or bridge depending on where we place the solo in the song at rehearsal. If she wants one of us to go for a second verse, chorus or bridge, she uses the repeat motion described above.

Acapella: Sometimes the singer wants a portion of the verse or chorus without instrumental accompaniment. She'll hold a fist out to the side, having made a squeeze motion with that hand.

Repeat/go to a Specific Verse: Let's say the singer wishes to go to the second verse, she'll hold out two fingers.

Build it!: We've just come through a quiet section and the singer wants the band to build in intensity behind her. A fist pumped down at the stage indicates this to us.

Let's Take it Home! The Ending: The singer points at the stage with one finger. We have already worked out the endings to the tunes at rehearsal, so we know how the tune is supposed to end. If she wants to drag out the ending a bit for artistic/emotional effect, she'll use her 'repeat' signal to indicate this.

These are hand signals that work for my ensemble. You will undoubtedly wish to experiment and come up with your own. That is your prerogative and you should be comfortable with the signals. It doesn't matter what they are, as long as you all agree on their meanings.

 

 

 


Part Five: Professional? How do you do it?
Behaving at the Gig

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  LOW END  By Harry George Pellegrin.  The first in the Gary Morrissey series of mysteries.  Dealing with modern subject matter in the classic style of the 1940's Mystery Noire masters--think Raymond Chandler in New York in the 1980's...  LOW END is the story of a drug addict who is murdered after he believes he has found evidence of a major government conspiracy.  Is it only drug-induced paranoia?  Might be, except his paranoia could be considered justified: he was murdered, after all.  Friend Gary Morrissey takes it upon himself to find out just what happened and lands himself in the crosshairs.
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Classic Guitar Method  Composed, written, transcribed, edited and arranged by Harry G. Pellegrin: Now in one volume, much of what the novice classical guitarist will need to know to lead him or her to the recital stage. From proper instrument care and maintenance to the necessary technical skills, musical mind-set, and the standard repertoire—all exposed and explored with enough detail and insight that the student will wish to keep this book handy years to come as a ready reference source.
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DEEP END: The Wreck of the Eddie Fitz  By Harry George Pellegrin. A mystery novel. Involving a semi-professional musician and a Kreyol death cult, DEEP END takes the reader from the bottom of Long Island Sound to the steamy streets and Blues clubs of New Orleans. Alternative spirituality does battle with the common working man.  Published by PAB Entertainment Group in association with LULU.com.
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The Tourist Column

Deep End is the exciting sequel to the first Gary Morrissey novel Low End. Spanning the gap between Haiti, New York and New Orleans, Deep End is an exciting tale of smuggling, rock n' roll, love and murder.

 
 


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