Author: Campbell, Bruce

Space: The (Almost) Final Frontier
The heart of Bluegrass was beating last night at the Freight and Salvage in Berkeley. It was the second of two special nights, showcasing bands who participated in the ?Take the Stage? program. Created by Nell Robinson Music, the program takes ?closet musicians? and groups them into bands. Last night?s program featured performers from the advanced track ? fresh a coaching program from Laurie Lewis.

There were two bands last night (?Bout Time!, and Redwing) along with a duet act, Dan Mills and Wendy Molin. All the artists gave stirring performances. I had never heard ?Bout Time before, so I asked them how the coaching helped their sound. Banjoist Pete Hallesy said ?Laurie really helped us firm up the harmonies we were using. We have some songs that have always elicited good responses from audiences, but she really showed us how to work those out to sound even better.?

The folks in Redwing had similar accounts. I know Redwing personally, so I could see and hear the differences that Ms. Lewis? coaching made for them. It truly made a very good band even better. ?Basically, Laurie helped us tighten up the beginnings, endings and arrangements?, said Redwing?s mandolinist ?Red Rick? Horlick. ?She had good suggestions for keeping things fresh and interesting, and keeping everything in its space, to let everything breathe?

That last statement is really telling. ?Everything in its space?. This simple concept can give a musician a tremendous boost in effectiveness in an ensemble. Let?s face it ? when you?re first learning to play, you just want to hit the right notes. That?s hard enough. Then you want to keep time, and be able to play consistently through a song, and play in tune. Generally, a few years of earnest effort will result in achieving these goals. So then you jam, and maybe you form a band. And you wonder ?Why doesn?t this sound like the pros? I?m not playing any wrong notes..?

The devil is in the details. If you have 5 instruments in an ensemble, the temptation is to have them all playing, all at once, along with singing. Assuming you?re all in tune and in time, it won?t sound bad, but it won?t sound professional, either. It will lack drive, precision and lightness, and the beautiful tones from the instruments (and your voices) will be lost in the mush. Your ears will have to strain to hear the harmonies. Fills and solos won?t jump out. You?ll have to learn to give each instrument and each voice room to breathe.

Like most things in music, this comes easy to some folks, and not so easy to other folks. If you?re part of the second group (like me), fear not, because there are a number of programs to help you learn to play as a cohesive unit. There?s Take the Stage (see out of the Freight and Salvage. John Blasquez has a jam workshop (see ? I have seen this class make a big difference firsthand. Anybody out there that knows of other classes like this, please let us know.

This kind of instruction can really help musicians turn the corner in their level of play and their enjoyment in playing with a group.
Of course, this doesn?t mean you can?t just have fun in cacophonous jams. It?s great fun to be part of such a joyous noise. But if you want to try to get even more out of playing, and explore the more elegant aspects, seek to learn the technique of letting every instrument in a group have a unique space. You?ll be amazed!
Posted:  11/19/2008

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