Getting Back to Basics in a Band

Bassist and Drummer

Q: I’d like some advice on a sensitive issue. I find myself working with a band whose musical ambitions seem quite often to outstrip their technical abilities. While it is always a good thing to stretch yourself, I can’t help but feel that a grasp of some the fundamentals might be something worth considering. How do I broach this subject without seeming like an arrogant git? Is there any advice you can give me on playing with a drummer whose capabilities do seem quite limited?

A: I would first ask yourself if you feel confident that everyone (individually and as a whole) has the potential for growth. Of course, we all have the potential for growth, but do they also have the motivation to work hard enough to obtain it? A lot of folks just want to have fun and make some music, and that’s totally cool. But if you want to invest time and energy into helping people improve, you have to make sure that they really want to improve AND want it enough to do the not-so-fun stuff.

If you personally feel that the band, and all (or most) of the players, are worth putting some energy and time into, then I would treat it as an opportunity to develop as a group.

The trick might be framing the conversation properly. Instead of, “YOU aren’t up to playing this music, you need to work on X, Y and Z”, you may need to frame it in a group context. “I feel like we need to focus on locking in X, Y and Z in order to to really do this thing justice. Let’s vamp the verse groove and really focus on the lock before moving on,” for example.

Many people don’t like being singled out in a democratic setting (not a classroom but, a band where all members are supposed to be equal). So you may have to be somewhat diplomatic in your approach. If you turn to the drummer and say, “Dude… you’re slowing down like crazy!”, the drummer might put up his defenses and resist but if you say, “I think we’re slowing down like crazy during that tricky section in the bridge. Let’s slow it down and find the lock, and then build it up to speed.” Everyone will be more likely to agree and do the work.

It can be tricky, and personalities can be challenging to navigate. I also know nothing about the group, people involved in the music you are playing, but generally speaking, the more diplomatic you are in your approach, the better the results. I play in a lot of bands where the band leader is the weakest link (pretty common, actually). In that situation, it’s likely that they know that they are the weakest link because they’re hiring their favorite players in town to play their music. Because of this, I’m extra careful not to single them out when something isn’t “happening,” if I can avoid it. Rather, I’ll just say something like, “that transition from the bridge feels awkward, let’s slow it down and try again” or “maybe we should add a few beats or a even a few bars of groove before coming back in with the melody after that tricky section” – giving them time to adjust and play the melody more smoothly if they were having trouble making a transition.

In other words, keep the focus on making good musical choices as a group, whether or not those choices might be necessary because of someone’s deficiency.

I have been lucky enough to teach at a series of jazz camps sporadically throughout the year, which has helped my group teaching chops, so I’ll often draw from those experiences and try to make suggestions that will help the group play and understand a piece as well as working with individual musicians to isolate problems areas for any given instrumentalist. The key there is working with them, not talking at them, and only telling them what they are doing wrong. Rather, make suggestions and play along with them. Do what you need to do as a group to make it all come together.

If any instrumentalist has an obvious deficiency, work with them to address that thing in particular. For example, if the drummer can’t control or isn’t aware of his/her tempo, set up a click track and play the songs, different sections, or just groove… in time! Help them discover what it feels like to lock into the grid and lay it down properly as a unit. If the guitarist can’t play that line, sit down with them (you can even say that you want to learn it, too), slow it down and loop it together. Play it slowly and increase the tempo, bit by bit. It’ll be a good exercise for you and they’ll lock in their part in the process. There is always a way.

It’d be nice and efficient if you could just point to someone and say, “stop slowing down” or “figure out a better fingering for that line so you can play it cleanly,” but most people’s egos can’t handle that. Do your best to work with people and frame it in a “we need to work on this as a unit” without singling people out too much. Chances are, they all know who’s dropping the ball, but it’ll keep people from feeling threatened or getting defensive and will often yield much better results.

Have a question for Damian Erskine? Send it to [email protected]. Check out Damian’s instructional books, Right Hand Drive and The Improviser’s Path.

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