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Secrets of Playing Great in a Group Setting: Listen, Acknowledge and Respond

Ensemble
Photo by Esten Hurtle

Be it on the bandstand, the concert stage, or the corner of a bad club, most musicians yearn for great musical communication in an ensemble. Great musical communication between players leads to great ensemble playing. If you have experienced it once, you will want it again.

To have the shot at this, we need to:

  1. Play our part, with complete competence
  2. Listen to what the musicians around us are playing
  3. Acknowledge and Respond (Often musically, sometimes non-musically)
  4. Have fellow musicians who are also doing 1-3! This allows for singularity of purpose, musical conversation, and great ensemble playing

Step 1

“Playing our part” may seem pretty obvious, and it should be. However, this goes beyond simply being able to play the notes under favorable circumstances.
Elements of style, appropriate musical gestures, modes of playing in specific genres, etc. all come in to play, but it largely means proficiency with the instrument and music.

You don’t have to be a virtuoso to be a great communicator, but you do have to know your instrument, and the music you are playing, well enough to multi-task. Your conscious mind needs to be free to focus on things outside of yourself. If you have to concentrate on your technique to play a particular passage, or to remember what the next chord is, you can’t really open the door to musical communication.

Step 2

“Listening to our fellow musicians” may also seem obvious, but you might be surprised how many of us aren’t doing a very good job of it. If you want to improve your personal ensemble playing, the first thing you should do is listen intensely to what every musician around you is doing while you play. If you can’t hear it, how can you respond?

Listen to how your playing is fitting in, or not fitting in, with what others are playing. Really hear every note that comes out of their instruments, as well as your own. Hear what you like and what you don’t. When you really start to listening to everything going on, you may view things in a new light.

Step 3

“Acknowledging and Responding” is the crux of the matter, of course. This can mean many things, but often begins with eye contact (for those of us who are sighted) and facial expressions, and results in changes to our playing.

In a classical situation, eye contact between players (or players and a conductor) lets everyone know they are “on the same page,” especially at significant moments. A facial expression can let someone know they need to “move it!” or that they should play softer, for example.

In addition to breeding confidence in everyone involved, eye contact and facial expressions help ensure everyone is cohesive in tempi, dynamics, articulation etc. The first step to ensuring singularity of purpose in the moment is often eye contact and facial expressions.

When there is improvisation involved, a facial expression might be how we let a fellow musician know we understand, and appreciate, what they are doing. For example, we might respond to soloist’s musical joke with a facial expression. Smiling may be appreciated. It may not change the notes we are playing, but it will let the other musician know someone is listening, understanding, and that we liked what they did. This is a good thing. After all, when you know someone is really listening, that they “get it” and they “dig it,” it breeds confidence and encourages you to do even more.

Ultimately, of course, we want to respond musically. This means adjusting what we are playing in response to what someone else is playing. In an improvisatory setting, this involves changing the actual notes we are playing. Maybe the drummer plays an accent or fill, and we compliment it in our bass line. Maybe they change the beat, and we go with them. Maybe someone takes a different set of chord changes on the third time through the tune, and so do we. Maybe it’s pedal point time. The possibilities are myriad.

When everyone in the ensemble is achieving the first three steps, we can find ourselves in a great circle of musical communication. This works especially well if everyone has similar musical ideals. You don’t want to get too “jazzy” on a country gig…or maybe you do! (It depends on whom you are playing with, I suppose) When everyone has similar musical ideals, however, and they are communicating, we can find ourselves constantly going back and forth between statement and response with great effect.

Perhaps we play something that the soloist picks up on, which causes us to respond by changing our bassline, which causes the soloist to respond by going somewhere new, which causes us to respond by changing our bassline…..now we are talking.

Just like in verbal conversation, sometimes you find people who think just like you and you hit it off immediately, while other people require you spend some time with them before things start to flow. Either way, if they are trying to communicate, then try to communicate yourself and see how deep you can take it. When it’s there, it’s rewarding.

If you have a gig where you and one other musician are really communicating, you will want to play with them again. If everyone on the gig is doing it, you’ll want to do it every night. Go forth and find that gig.