Solo thinking part 3

Playing A Solo Instrument In A Band – Practical Basics

After all that introspection, here are ten practical tips. I’m going to talk mostly about improvisation, since I’m assuming this is the area people have most questions about. What I have to say is pretty obvious, but sometimes the obvious things get overlooked, so here goes:

1: The better you can play, the better you can improvise.

Or, as my less encouraging first draft put it: You can’t improvise well if you can’t play well.
You can be a good player who is terrible at improvisation, and still be useful – playing the tune, or playing written parts, or even just playing occasional long notes.
But if you an amazing improviser and a terrible player, then everything you do will sound nasty, and will be in danger of distracting the congregation from the important work of singing truth to each other.

It sounds terribly mundane, but… practise. Work on being able to play in tune. Work on being able to produce a nice sound. The better command you have of your instrument, the more you can do with it.

2: To make sense, you need to know the language.

If the idea of working on your technique sounds mundane, then try this on for size: scales. You need to know your scales. And your keys. You need to know that, in the key of F, it’s not usually a good idea to play B naturals. You need to know some music theory – what each note of the scale sounds like, what role it plays, what the common chord progressions are. Some of this stuff may come instinctively, but there’s nothing unspiritual about sitting down and learning it the academic way.

If this sounds like hard work, there is great news: most Christian music is easy! It uses a small subset of the available chords, generally sticks to well-trod harmonic paths, and rarely strays into difficult keys.

Start by learning the key of D, and you will already be set for a whole host of songs.
As for chords, most music is built around I, IV, V and VI. (That’s D, G, A and B minor, in the key of D.)
There are certain very common chord progressions which, once you’ve got used to listening out for them, you will hear everywhere, for instance I VI IV V.
Learn what the chord symbols mean too – it’s very useful to be able to look at a chord sheet and know what’s going on. If you can see “Gm7” written and instantly know that it means “G, Bb, D and F” then the battle is mostly won.

3: Being able to play the piano is really, really helpful.

Not essential, but really really helpful. If you can play chords on the piano, you have a head start – you can see what notes are in the chord, how the notes move when the chords change. You can listen to each note and hear the role it is playing, and what happens to the chord when you add or remove notes. It is much, much easier to do this on a piano than on an instrument which can only play one note at a time.
You don’t need to be a good pianist – you just need to be able to identify the notes of a chord, so that you can listen to them.

Which brings me to point 4:

4: You must listen!

Hopefully you are used to listening to yourself play – it’s an essential part of point number 1, learning to make a good sound. In order to improvise, you must listen to everything else too. Just as you can’t make a valid contribution to a conversation without listening to what everyone else is saying, so you can’t make a valid contribution to the music without listening to it. Can you hear what notes are in the chord? Can you assess the note you are playing? One vital question to get good at answering: does the note I’m playing fit the chord I’m hearing? If you can answer this question quickly, then you are already 95% of the way to being a useful improviser, as the next point will hopefully show:

5: You are never far from a “right” note

Here’s how it works (it’s really not rocket science):

Does the note I’m playing fit the chord I’m hearing?
Yes: carry on playing it.
No: move to a different note.

Think about it mathematically: in simple tonal music (and most Christian music is very simple), there are only seven different notes to worry about. In the key of D, for instance, that’s D, E, F#, G, A, B, and C#.
A chord, in its simplest form, will use three of those notes. Let’s say the band are playing the chord of G. That’s G, B and D. If you choose notes completely at random, you’ve got a 42% chance of hitting one which works. That’s not too scary. Let’s say you were unlucky. Because the notes of the chord are spread across the octave, the good news is that you are guaranteed to be next door to a note which does work. If you had landed on an A or a C#, then it doesn’t even matter if you go up or down – you’ll end up on a chord note.

If you move notes in a calm, deliberate way, you’ll end up with something that sounds intentional and melodic.

In practice, especially if you have a guitarist playing, the chords will probably contain more than three notes anyway. The current church style of guitar playing means that this chord of G will probably have an A in it as well (it’s just something guitarists do, there’s no point worrying about it). And most extra notes won’t sound too awful. Adding the fourth is usually okay; adding the second is quite nice; adding the seventh can be good too. The one to avoid is the sixth – (eg playing a B in a chord of D major) – this changes the function of the chord (effectively making it minor, instead of major) and can sound a bit naff and cheesy.

Note: You MUST know your keys! All this stuff only applies if you are playing notes from the right key. If you start playing notes that don’t belong in the scale, then all bets are off.

6: You don’t need to air your dirty laundry in public

You can practise all this stuff in private. Stick on a CD and play along. You don’t need music – figure out what key the song is in by playing notes and working out what fits. See if you can play the tune on your instrument. Then have fun. Being able to play along despite not having the music is a very useful skill to cultivate – especially if you are a transposing instrument, when the music will rarely be in a helpful key for you.

You need to make sure you can hear the CD above your own playing – you might want to use headphones if you don’t want your neighbours to set fire to your bins. Be as adventurous as you like in private, because…

7: You can be completely unadventurous in public and still be useful

As I said earlier in this series, the church rarely really needs a solo instrument. They are a luxury item, and, as such, the main job is to add colour and variety. Well, you can add colour just by playing long notes. And you can instantly add variety by stopping. Or starting. Don’t play in verse one. Do play in verse two. Instant variety.

A few well-chosen long notes will do a lot to add colour. Don’t worry that you aren’t playing enough. There’s no quota of notes to fulfil. A good player can say more with one note than with hundreds.

8: Get a repertoire of simple tricks

If you are confident with your scales and arpeggios, then you have an easy way to liven things up. A rising scale is a great way to build tension – remember point 5 – you are never far from a right note. Start your scale, and whenever the note doesn’t fit, move up to one that does. You can climb an octave stealthily over the course of a verse, or plod up defiantly over a phrase or two, or scamper up nimbly in a few bars, or a combination – start stealthily, and then rush up to the tonic for the climax. It’s cheesy, but I love a good upwards scale swoosh. (Make sure the words demand one, though – remember it’s all about serving the words!)

I mentioned long notes already – this can be really effective for quiet verses, especially on the violin. Pick a note – the tonic or the fifth usually – and just hold it, somewhere high (not tinnitus high, but somewhere well above the range of the tune). You can hold the fifth through most chord sequences (that’s what guitarists tend to do, anyway). If you have good bow/breath control, you can say a lot with a single held note – holding the tension, gradually crescendoing, then breaking free for the chorus.

Imitation is also a useful trick – a lot of songs lend themselves to this. Look for songs that have pauses between the phrases, and use that pause to repeat the phrase. Use it sparingly though, as it can quickly get predictable, distracting or annoying.

Playing the tune in thirds or sixths works well some of the time – but it is shifting ground… either the third or the sixth will almost certainly work, but you may need to swap between them. It can be very nice for short phrases.
Suspensions can also be very nice for adding a little pain. Playing a C# in the chord of B minor, for instance, and then resolving it down to the B. Fruity.

9: Choose when to play, and when not to play

This is just a general rule of thumb for musical arrangement: when the tune is busy, stay simple. When the tune is simple, get busy. Keep things balanced. Or try a verse of not playing when the congregation are singing at all – just interject in between phrases. Don’t be ashamed of silence.

10: Be more afraid of showing how good you are than of showing how bad you are

If you are feeling daunted, nervous, inadequate… good! Humility is crucial to our Christian walk. If you are going into this thinking “I’m great at improvising – I’ve got some cool tricks, I’ll really wow them today”, then we have a problem. Remember that the church probably needs toilet cleaners more than it needs violinists, or clarinettists. Especially clarinettists. Get as good as you need to be in order to serve the congregation, and thank God for the mistakes which keep us humble.

Well, that’s about all I have. Hopefully this has been more encouraging than discouraging. If you’ve never tried playing because you’ve always assumed you can’t improvise, then give it a go, in private, and see. Grab a beer and make some noise. Have fun with it, and maybe it will become something you can use to serve your congregation.

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