The Band Ear

So there’s something in me that wants to serve in Wildfire—to be someone who teaches the new members of the band. Of course, right now may not be the time for that as it was already the last week of Wildfire a Thursday ago. But really, most of the good members already graduated and probably will not go next year anymore, leaving me and Andrew as the new sunbaes (of instruments). Since it’s going to be only the two of us now who is quite experienced (and by experienced, I mean playing in Youth Service), I am desperate to act as a sunbae if an opportunity comes my way. It’s funny because I asked him if he was going to be on the band next year and he said yes. Then he proceeded to tell me his plans of wanting to improve the band (which was btw our first ever conversation in the duration of knowing each other for years). Looks like Andrew and I similarly thought of the same thing.

I’m pretty sure there will be new recruits next year and honestly, I’m quite afraid of maybe some or many unpolished band ears, but I’ll be looking forward to teaching them what I know if necessary. I have this desire to improve Wildfire’s band because I believe we have to do our best to play good music for the Lord. I have this attitude that we can’t just march in the Lord’s kingdom without using the best of our abilities to God whom has given this talent to us. And I just don’t want anyone to go on stage just because they want the world to know they have talents they can show off (because I have honestly done that and it took me a while to realize that it was a very wrong mindset). I want the new band members to serve God wholeheartedly first, not themselves or the church.

Now let’s start.

This Wildfire year, I’ve actually played the most variety of instruments. You could say I was kinda like the Jerome Fontamillas of the band. My main instrument is the keyboards, but I’ve also played the others on stage. I’ve played lead/rhythm guitar and the cajon. Two weeks ago, I also played the bass guitar. So I know a thing or two about how to work the main instruments our band usually have.

The piano keyboard is my greatest strength, I have to say. I know a whole lot about how to work chords in different ways and create ad-libs on a keyboard without much effort. I also know how to carefully choose synths based on the feel of the song. My biggest confidence lies in the keys because I’ve been fond of them the longest. My chemistry with a keyboard is pretty good. I’m not an expert and neither can I play notes, but that isn’t necessary for a band.

I had been a bit rusty on the cajon on my first times playing it, but after Ethan, a sunbae, scolded me (or just shouted) at me for being too weak, I slightly improved. After he taught me a few things, I strove to improve myself and I did become better. I even added a few simple styles to improve my build-ups. I’m not much of an expert on the cajon since I don’t have one at home. I’m sure if I had one, I’d be better obviously, but for now, that instrument is not something I’m interested in buying for now. I’ve already tasted it and have sharpened myself on it a bit. I learned what I needed from it.

With the acoustic guitar, I’ve slightly lost confidence. Since my sister had excelled quite a lot on playing it, every time I practice it, I get intimidated by her. That’s why I haven’t been picking it up, but honestly, I do want to improve myself in playing the guitar. The only problem is the two acoustic guitars that we have are always tuned up to some different tuning that my sister did for her finger style songs. But I don’t play that bad! I may have to polish my strumming again because I’ve honestly lost touch of how it should be strummed properly with the right force in some areas. Don’t get me wrong, though. I still know how rhythm works. I don’t think about when to strum up or when to strum down like some people. Oh well, at least I still know the chords. If I just distance myself from my sister, maybe I’ll have the confidence to pick it up again and practice on it. I mean after all, if it was once natural to me, it shouldn’t be that hard to try again.

As for the bass guitar, I have only been playing for a month. Obviously, I’m far from being called an expert. But honestly, who needs expert jazz bass players in a church band? All you need in a youth band is someone who can play something simple. I’ve been playing quite a lot in the past month. Before school started, I played with it almost for the whole day every day and I’m honestly not that bad. I’m not stiff with it and I know how to make something simple sound like I’ve been playing for one or two years already. Haha, I can’t really brag much but yeah, I’m not bad.

I may sound like a know-it-all right now to have the courage to say all these things, but I think I know enough to create a great-sounding band. After all, music and band is a topic that can actually make me talk. A lot of things can’t make me speak a full length sentence, but this one can totally make me go on for a while. I mean look, I’m already talking about it right now. Anyway, I’m not an expert in band management but I’ve played enough with a band (and with myself) to know how a band should function and how a plugged or unplugged session of a certain song should sound.

   

So here comes the band lessons. Again, I’ll say I’m not an expert, but I’ll write down what I know and what I’ve observed. I’ll focus mainly on a church band because that’s really all I know.

There are only three groups of instruments in a church band and if one group isn’t present, there will definitely be something lacking. These three main groups are vocals, rhythm, and background.

First off, in the vocal group, there is usually that one member who leads the crowd to get up, sing, sit down, clap, pray, or even make the crowd laugh. That member is called the lead singer. In most occasions, a lead singer has a guitar with him or her and is also usually a part of the rhythm group.

A lead singer gets all the attention especially if he or she is also the leader of the band. All of the musicians will anticipate the lead singer’s moves according to his or her signals or way of playing because sometimes, extending a part of a song is something he or she would suddenly feel like doing. So naturally, if your lead singer / leader is not good at singing or leading, that might be a problem.

The background singers are optional but they can add a big difference to a song. They have their own blending world and chemistry. If they are not sync, if they cannot read each other’s minds, the blending of their voices can be quite chaotic.

Let’s just say I don’t have much knowledge in that area for I’m a timid cat when it comes to my voice. I can’t teach anyone how to sing because I can’t sing myself. I do know how to catch someone who is out of tune or just isn’t giving off the right feeling, but really, I can’t be a sunbae to anyone for that area. Maybe Nina (the other Nina that isn’t my sister) would do that for me.

Second, there is the rhythm group containing the rhythm guitar and the percussion instruments. Sometimes, a piano could act as a substitute for the rhythm guitar but the rhythm usually falls on the guitarist and the drummer. A bass guitar can also become a rhythm instrument but only if the song is built around the bass guitar, or if the rhythm guitarist just isn’t doing very well as a rhythm guitarist.

The one who uses a rhythm instrument should most importantly have an installed metronome in their brain. There shouldn’t be counting out loud while you play. There shouldn’t be any calculating of beats out loud like “1, 2, 3, 4. 1, 2, 3, 4.” Since the rhythm usually leads the whole group with its beat, it is important to have a natural flow of what the tempo the song will start on, where a song should build up or down, and when it should end. You should also know what style of beat you are playing the song on because the way you play it can critically change everyone’s style who’s going to go along with your flow. And since everyone is going to go along with your flow, you should be consistent on how you work your flow. You have to be steady and consistent with what you started on unless it’s completely necessary to change it at some point of the song. You don’t want everyone to suddenly panic because they don’t know what the hell kind of beat, tempo, or style you are suddenly playing the song on. You can’t go from a steady 8-beat to an R&B beat. It just won’t work out if you’re mind is not set on one thing.

So naturally, if you suck at rhythm, everyone else will be tied to a rope unable to do their best because you, the one who should be leading, will confuse all of them.

I’ve had my share of being a lead rhythm guitarist and it is honestly a bit stressful. Everyone will lean on you and you will feel all the weight of each member of the band. That’s why you have to know what you’re doing in order not to burden the band.

The percussion on the other hand, can emphasize a certain beat but it won’t be too stressful because the percussion itself also needs to know what the rhythm guitarist is doing. The two should be agreeing on the same rhythm at all times.

Last but not least are the backgrounds containing of a bass guitarist, keyboardist/pianist, the lead guitar, and other optional extra instruments like the violin. They are what you call empty space fillers. Usually, when there is only a rhythm guitarist and a vocalist, it would feel a little dry. But simply adding in a bass guitarist can add so much because you’re filling in an awkward silence that exist around the song. They create great depth to a song’s atmosphere.

 

Not many take notice of the bass, but the difference is evident when you know how to listen to music properly. With the right skill, you wouldn’t even need a lead guitarist or a keyboardist. But of course, when the lead guitarist and keyboardist comes along, they are also filling a lot more of those empty spaces. These instruments can make a band feel whole.

 

Now, each member has their own style of playing their instrument. After all, we are all independent musicians before we join a band! We cannot expect everyone to learn the way we have. We cannot expect everyone to play as we do. We also cannot expect everyone to magically be on the same level of skill (especially in a new youth church band). So usually, when a new member comes along, especially in the rhythm group, and his/her style is not the usual style the band is into, arrangements of songs would sometimes be quite confusing. But when the same band members play with each other for a long time, they become one. They get so used to each others styles that they can blend in well with how they play. They do not become independent anymore. Band members who stick together form a body that is easy to coordinate with because they get used to each other.


They sync really quickly.

   

Now how does a person exactly become a harmonious band member? Well, as my sister and I like to call it, you need the band ear. The band ear is the ability to listen and cooperate with the other musicians well. The band ear is the ability to improvise with the instrument you have. The band ear is the ability to go with the flow. The band ear is the ability to feel the song instead of merely playing it.

You cannot be in the band without the band ear–the go with the flow skill. This can be developed by playing your instrument while listening to the song, or of course play in a band for a long time. To go with the flow basically means, when somebody starts playing or singing, you can start going along with whatever he or she is singing with your own instrument (or voice). You could play skillfully when you practice alone, but if you cannot change what you’ve practiced when it’s necessary on the day you practice with the others, you’ll burden them. You could play skillfully by the rules and exactly how you hear it in the original recording, but if you cannot play or improvise without it, if your band members move in another octave or pitch, that might be a problem for you. You could play skillfully or read notes and chords really well, but if you don’t know how to “feel” the song, you might sound dull.

Feeling the song merely means to know what kind of mood the song is in. You can’t just suddenly sing (or play) like nothing is wrong with the world when the song should sound like everything is wrong with the world. You have to carry out the emotion well whether it’s sad or happy, filled with power, or maybe even in-love. For example, in an intro of a sad song like “I Love You” by TaeYeon, the singer usually sings in a solemn, yet soft and low voice in the beginning. In that moment, the mood is set and it gives the audience the impression that it is a serious song about a love that has ended. By the time it get’s to the end, it becomes stressful and powerful and her voice trembles as if she’s about to cry because she stressing the lyrics saying she loves him and wants him back yet it’s too late. The lyrics and the emotion of her voice logically goes well together. The lyrics are sad so she had to be sad as well.

So basically, an easy tip to do this is to adapt the song’s emotion as if it was your own. You have to understand what you are playing or singing. If you get this ability, it won’t be hard for you to know when to to get louder, softer, stronger, or maybe even rougher. If you get this ability, you won’t even have to stress planning on when to build up or keep quiet in a song! I know a lot of musicians who just know the tones but they don’t sound as good as they should be because they don’t carry out any emotion. They are just singing. They are just playing the instrument. They’re forgetting to add the main ingredient that can make everything sound better. People who play or sing like robots honestly takes some of them a while to understand this idea. Some improve when this idea is better explained to them. Though it may not be completely necessary if you’re not an official band making recordings, knowing how to carry out emotion into a song is a huge factor of a good musician. I mean this isn’t even considered as a “band ear” ability only. I believe this ability that should apply to all musicians.

Oh and another quick tip, never play the melody of a song if you are playing an instrument in the band.

You have the vocals for that.

I don’t know if there are more points I could make here. I’ll write about this again if I find new discoveries but as for now, this is pretty much all I know.

 

Anyway, let’s catch up to my life. What has been happening? Well, Wildfire for this year finished and now completely marks the middle days of 2015. Time is flying by fast, guys. Oh, and I actually had a chance to get a taste of teaching a new band member most of the things I wrote here. Teaching someone and seeing them improve well feels really great.

Oh, and on June 6 right before I was about to start school, my iPod just deleted all 4000+ songs and 20+ playlists that I have worked most of my time on. Isn’t that just great?

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