March 20, 2016
Now more than a year into my ninth decade I wasn’t expecting any particular epiphanies, but this past week I had a truly stunning experience that has opened my eyes to something that perhaps should have been obvious about playing in a band or session. Upon reflection it seems my mind may have been prepared for this new understanding by an article written by Brian Walker in the San Francisco Folk Music Club’s newsletter, the “folknik”, on the amplification of “acoustic instruments”. [See www.sffmc.org. Click on “folknik on line”, and go to page 8 of the March/April issue 2016.]
This being March, the celtic music calendar has been packed with events relating to St. Patrick’s Day, including several gigs for the ceili band De Mairt Ceol, (means Tuesday Music) with whom I have been playing piano for about three years in and around Phoenix. During our regular Tuesday evening practice sessions in Tom and Mary’s living room in Scottsdale, for which sessions the band is named, I’ve worked out my own style of what Peter Barnes, contra-dance piano wizard, calls “vamping”, with chord progressions and a “walking bass” line. It is relevant to this story that I don’t actually commit my accompaniments to memory, and so rarely play them the same way twice. It’s really more of a process of listening to the melody instruments and following them so closely with my chords that the listener is tricked into thinking that I actually know what I’m doing. In that “process” sense it is similar to jazz.
I think this is similar what the really good guitar accompanists are doing in a pub session of Irish music, and in fact learned many of the chord changes by taking my guitar to the pub and watching the finger positions of the really good guitar players like Mary R and Rick B. But I play a nylon-strung classic guitar with standard tuning, and use finger-style picking, which isn’t really compatible with Irish music, so gradually, and with everyone’s encouragement, I introduced my keyboard into our local pub sessions.
It’s always a delicate problem with the keyboard when the session assembles. There are of course some very tradition-bound sessions in which a piano would not be welcome, though it is a mainstay in a ceili (Irish dance party) band because of the need for a good foundation beat for the dancers to follow. And any session player must be willing to consider the feelings of the other players and never be too intrusive. But when our pub session moved from the pub’s performance stage to a quiet alcove during my summer absence, I returned to find that there was really no room to set up my keyboard stand and, what was more, no electrical outlet whatever in the new area. I solved the former problem by getting to the pub a half-hour early and finding a spot on a table in the alcove for my keyboard. The latter problem required that I purchase another keyboard that would run on batteries.
During the transition, I had learned by experimentation that playing fifteen feet away from the group (where there was an electrical outlet) didn’t work well, and that if I happened to sit next to a very loud banjo I had trouble following the music, but the precise neurological reason why these things were so did not reveal itself to me until my epiphany this past week.
It happened we had two musical events back-to-back: one on Wednesday night and the next on Thursday afternoon, on the basis of which all was revealed to me.
Sheila is a local fiddle-player and I think a bit of an impresario, who runs sessions on the other side of Phoenix that I had never happened to attend. But an e-mail announced that she was having a big, “super session”, including several special guests in town for this weekend’s Highland Games. I watched a YouTube of one set of guests, 3 or 4 cellos and 2 or 3 fiddles, and immediately promised myself I’d attend.
When I arrived 30 minutes early at the Fiddler’s Dream Coffee House, a, keyboard in the back of the VW wagon, I parked as close as I could and went in to scout out the lay of the land. First thing I saw when I walked through the door was a Yamaha electric piano on the stage, (Photo below: top center against the blue wall, me hunched over it in a light gray shirt). Sheila was already there, as was the manager of the venue, and both gave me permission to play the house piano, saving me the trouble of setting mine up.
Photo from the Fiddler’s Dream website.
No one there knew me or had heard me play, but graciously said I was welcome to join in, Sheila wisely adding, “We’ll see how it goes.”
Later, musicians filled the room, about 20×40 feet long, in which there were three tiers of comfortable, straight-backed chairs arranged in a loose oval. The mix of instruments included the three cellos, perhaps a dozen fiddles, a couple of banjos and mandolins, guitars, bodhrans, mandocellos, an accordion and maybe a flute and a whistle. No uilleann pipes that evening.
Before I go on, I should mention that the second experience the following afternoon, the one which made sense of Wednesday evening, was quite a different setup:
In the large dance hall at the Irish Cultural Center (ICC), a three-foot-high stage was set up lengthwise along one side of the hall, and the members of our small band, nine or ten of us that day, were strung out along it, melody instruments (whistles, fiddles, pipes to the middle and south end with the dance caller and her mike, and another fiddle and guitar at the north end. On that day there was also a house piano for me to use, but it was on floor level just past the north end of the stage. The musicians on stage had curved themselves into a gentle C so as to hear one another better, (which should have been a clue for me) and I was below and behind the guitar player, and behind the main speaker. An important clue as to what followed is that the sound system at the ICC has only main speakers, and no monitors through which the individual musicians can hear the band.
From my piano bench on the stage Wednesday night, on the other hand, I was sitting higher than the other musicians, who were, all but a few, more or less facing me, and the acoustics of the room were such that I could hear all of them perfectly. Even when only one player was doing a tune the others didn’t know, they listened in respectful silence and I was able to track the tune and figure out the key and the chord progression and join in quietly on the piano, trying for just the right amount, neither too little nor too much, of accompaniment. The intended effect was to enrich the fiddle, mandolin or accordion melody without distracting any attention from it.
When the ensemble dove headlong into a series of pieces well known to all, I could still hear perfectly and was able to add a just loud-enough piano exactly on the beat. It was so easy to get the basic chords that it was a snap to add some walking bass and carry a rhythmic beat with occasional percussive accents and syncopation just for drive and fun. To me it was feeling easy, natural and automatic and I felt great. We played non-stop for almost four hours. It must have felt right to the other musicians, too, because when Sheila asked for a round of applause first for the special guests, then kindly adding, “and for the piano player” at the end of the evening, I received what my guitar-playing pal Rick called, “an ovation”. Anyhow, they seemed to have enjoyed the piano. God knows I did!
All I know is that I was profoundly grateful to have been allowed to play with a roomful of world-class musicians and the evening felt Goldilocks “just right”.
Thursday at the St. Patty’s ceili dance party, the sound-check went fine, but the moment the first dance began I knew something was very wrong. The caller’s voice necessarily boomed out over the main speakers and the dancers feet began to clatter as their chattering voices added to the din. Of course that’s all part of the fun of playing for dancers, but in this case the noise drowned out the melody instruments fifteen feet down the stage and I could only catch snatches of the tune and the beat. Which meant my chords had to be tentative. My brain was working so hard to access and fill in the missing notes from my memory, and trying to detect and identify the beat, that it was all I could do to play basic chords. I couldn’t even hear Mary’s guitar rhythm because in order to hear the melody instruments herself, she had her back to me.
Basically, I spent an hour and a half trying to avoid playing out of the rhythm, or wrong or clashing chords, and with by brain occupied with trying to fill in the melodies I had no brain cells left over to create walking bass runs or chord progressions. The piano may not actually have been bad, but it was clearly sketchy and lame.
It was a painful lesson but a powerful one, to compare how lousy it felt to play the dance, with how great it felt to play the previous evening with no sound system but with perfect position, and great acoustics in the hall.
It is a huge relief to me to know that the difference between a lame performance on my part and a much better one is merely a matter of whether I can hear the rest of the players well. It indicates the problem is fixable. It explains why I have been so dissatisfied with some Sunday sessions, while loving our Tuesday practice ones. It is so worth the effort to be assertive enough to arrange to be where I can properly hear the ensemble play before a performance or session launches. That is clearly not the time to be shy or self-effacing.
I’m sharing this story with you all because I’ve noticed how many of my fellow musicians have graying or white hair, and are playing while wearing hearing aids. Just as my loss of 50-60 decibels of hearing at the high end of the speech range keeps me from participating fully in crowded verbal conversations, it also turns out that I have to be extra careful to set things up so that I can hear every note of the musical conversation, in order to get good marks in the category: “Plays Well With Others.”