Author: Campbell, Bruce

The Telegraph is Still Useful

A friend of mine, a teacher, was giving his class their list of vocabulary words recently, and one of the words was “telegram”. The students didn’t know what that was, and my friend was hard pressed to explain it.

Now, this is not surprising – I have personally never received nor sent a telegram. I only know about them because I’m a history and movie buff. My main real-life experience with telegraph is as a metaphor for a subtle warning, and that’s my subject for today’s Welcome Message.

I first heard the term in football. If a quarterback stared in the direction in which he intended to throw the ball, the defensive players would key in on that and react – the quarterback was said to be “telegraphing” his plans, usually subconsciously. Similarly, in baseball (there’s that bluegrass/baseball connection again!), if a pitcher stands ina certain way or holds his hands a certain way for certain pitches, he is said to be telegraphing his pitches, and smart opposing batters will take advantage of this.

Playing music is often full of subtle clues, too, isn’t it? Have you had friends who aren’t musicians marvel at how jammers can often play songs together without necessarily knowing the song well? How are the changes telegraphed? Are you even consciously aware of it?

One of the most common musical precursors to a chord change is to change a chord to a 7th just prior to changing to the 4th chord in the key. It’s so common you may not have bothered to articulate it verbally like that, but chances are, you’ve heard it, and when you’re in a jam, everyone will key in on that clue and be able to make that chord change at the proper time, like fish in a school.

One of the bands I play in does some fairly free-form stuff, so when a song changes from one part to the next is anything but set in stone. Instead, we all listen to the solos for clues, and look for eye contact to verify we’re all on the same page. Standing in the back playing bass, I have the same sonic clues, but the eye contact thing doesn’t include me, usually. I will see heads swiveling, and that helps, but what I key in on, is the muscles in the rhythm players’ arms. They tense up slightly as they prepare to move their arms and fingers for a change.

On the other side of the coin are the overt signals. You’ve seen these – the ever popular raised leg to signal the end of a song, or a little twirl in the air with a finger or a headstock to indicate a turnaround. Well rehearsed bands will tend to avoid obvious signals, but when they go into the studio and find themselves in isolation booths, then they find out how much they rely on the magical musical telegraph system!
Posted:  9/5/2012

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