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Chris Smith: Words & Music

Instruction: Ensemble feel

(Chris Smith)
[NB: this originated as a response to a query on the Yahoo cittern list]

>Here's my question. I play in a 5-piece band. One of our weaknesses is that we
seldom manage
>to start a reel or a jig at the exact same moment with the same tempo and
swing. What tips and
>trick can you give for counting, aloud or with secret signs, that help to
synchronise us for
>every type of Irish traditional dance tunes?

In my observation, time and feel are the most important aspects of making trad
music sound right. Intonation, facile technique, millions of tunes, etc: all are secondary to having the right feel. This is also a very subtle and individual thing, and many of the seminal players had very idiosyncratic and distinctive
rhythmic feels.

Thony, you mention that the problem is to "start a reel or a jig at the exact same moment with the same tempo and swing." Can we infer from this that, once the whole 5-piece band is into the set, you reach agreement about tempo and swing? In other words, you can play together, but it takes a few seconds (which, granted, can feel verrrryyy lllloonnnggg) for tempo and swing to line up?

If so, try the following:

When you learn a new tune as a band, learn it all from the same source: live player, recording, etc. Or, assign the learning of a given new tune to a single band member, who in turn teaches the tune to all other members. This improves the odds that you will all be hearing the same feel in your heads. Obviously, if you're each learning a tune from a different audio source--or, even worse,
learning it from the dots--it'll be almost impossible for all 5 players to "hear" the tune in the same way.

Given that you're doing the above (making sure that you're all in agreement about what you're "hearing" in your inner ear), try the following exercises:

* As others have suggested, run a metronome through a PA or other amplifier, loud enough so that everyone can hear it while playing. Set the tempo, let it run, and then have each person practice
(a) entering one at a time, layering parts on top of each other, until all are playing the tune, while listening to hear if one or another person seems to be dragging or (more likely) rushing;
(b) entering alone, then stopping, and hearing how each individual person is
entering the tune;

* Run the metronome, and, as a group, "count down" to the tune's entrance; that is:
(metronome: click - click - click - click)
"One" - click - click - click
"Two" - click - click - click
"One" - click - "Two" - click
"One" - "Two" - "Three" - click

and SING the opening phrase

* Run the metronome, count down as a group as above, and

PLAY the opening phrase

Suggestion: leave the final beat (the last click before the tune starts) EMPTY:
do not count "Four". You want to work, as a group, toward a situation in which
one person counts:
"One" - "Two" -
"One Two Three" [Four]

and everyone hears, *in the mind's ear*, the silent fourth beat accurately and identically.

Practice these sort of count-down entrances repeatedly, on a loop. That is,

* Run the metronome, count down as a group as above:
"One" - "Two" -
"One Two Three" [Four]
Play 2 bars of the tune and then STOP

leave the metronome running, and count down as a group again:

"One" - "Two" -
"One Two Three" [Four]
Play 2 bars of the tune

Do this repeatedly, maybe 6-8 times counting down into the opening the tune,
playing the opening two bars, leaving the metronome running, counting down into
the opening 2 bars again, and so on.

The idea of the above is to
(1) Make sure everyone is hearing the setting, phrasing, feel of the tune the
same way in their heads (this should also help you identify if 1 or more player
is having time problems);
(2) Practice counting down together as a group; this will help you learn to hear
together and to understand each others' conceptions
(3) Practice counting down and starting the tune, repeatedly on a loop, so that
the *most familiar part of the tune* is the count-down and the opening two bars.

One of the problems we can have as an ensemble is that, once we're into the tune
and playing together, we're no longer working on the problematic counting and
opening bars. So we isolate just that count down and make very sure that we're
*always* playing that identically and together.

These kinds of exercises can sound very boring, simplistic, or redundant in
description--but in the rehearsal room, they can be very gratifying. Because
although counting, breathing, or starting together are very simple skills, the
overall musicality of your group sound will be vastly enhanced with even a
little bit of regular group practice on these very fundamental elements. It's
why snare drummers work on rudiments or runners warm up before marathons.