Author: Campbell, Bruce

Subtle Signals

You’re watching a bluegrass band perform at a festival. They’re terrific - they hit the stage, jumped into their first tune with minimal preamble and they’re very tight. They squeeze 14 songs into their 50 minute set. Their set has a perfect flow - strong beginning, nice emotional ride through the middle, and finishing with great energy. They seemed flawless. How did they do that?

Most likely, it was intense rehearsal of the setlist. Inside the setlist (and likely for many songs that didn’t get played that day), they spent hours in intense rehearsal of the songs. They have worked out all the elements of playing a song or tune that you don’t want to be a mystery when you hit a festival stage: The kickoff and the “outro”. The proper key. The sequence of solos AND the fills. The vocal harmonies and the phrasing. Very little was left to chance. Or was it?

A really well-rehearsed, talented band wouldn’t necessarily need the entire setlist carved in stone. Whoever acts as the musical leader could have decided on the fly,based upon the crowd’s reaction, or just a hunch, decided that the next song should have a certain vibe and discreetly mutter to the band off mic what the next song was. Being well-rehearsed, they all knew the song and what key it’s in and had no trouble being ready almost immediately.

But it’s an imperfect world, and even the best bands consist of fallible humans. Why don’t they ever make mistakes? How do they always know what to do? I think they do make some mistakes, but usually they’re little ones, nearly undetectable to the fans. And unlike most of us, they don’t make the “oops!” face that you and I make, involuntarily.

And it’s fun to watch the professionals really closely while they perform - there’s a whole game within a game, going on at breakneck speed. Even with a polished act, there are subtle signals passing amongst the musicians. You can catch a musician accidentally stepping on another’s and an almost imperceptible “my bad” facial expression flash across his face.

In a jam, there’s no room, nor need for such subtlety. We yell “Banjo!” when it’s a banjo player’s break and we do the exaggerated foot raise to end the song, or the “twirly finger” when there’s one more go-around. That’s one of the first things you want to eliminate from the sight of an audience that paid to see you. With everyone paying close attention onstage, a solo can be assigned on the fly with a quick look or a slight chin nod.

Easy to say, hard to do. We’re only human. We know we should pay attention, but sometimes, we shut our eyes to enjoy the moment, or find ourselves distracted by a comely woman in the audience. Sometimes an “Alphonse and Gaston” argument (“You take it! No YOU take it!”) goes unresolved before the solo is supposed to start. Or the three part vocal stack suddenly has two tenors and a lead. Then the charade falls apart.

This is why we pay for the tickets to see the pros. They make it look easy, and we know darn well how hard it really is!

Posted:  3/19/2014

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