Musical boxes – part 1

It’s been a pretty busy month or so for me, with lots going on across the spectrum of Stuff I Do. On the marine science front, I’ve been doing some more work on fisheries assessments – both from an assessment point of view, and as part of an advisory group for a fishery preparing to be assessed. It’s the creative front that’s been under seige, though, with a couple of weeks down in London doing some acting training and shooting a short film with Yellow Earth/ALRA and director Lab Ky Mo. And somewhere in amongst all that I’ve joined a band and we had our first gig this Wednesday.

Our Life in Boxes (website to follow) is a four-piece indie/pop/rock band fronted by Kristina Lao, singer-songwriter and all-round organisational ninja who has pulled us all together – friends old (Elli, bass & vox; Alex, drums) and new (me, keys & vox) – and made us into a going concern as a gigging band within the space of a month. Less, in fact – our first rehearsal was on 15th July. That’s insane – particularly given that, although nominally “London-based”, 3/4 of the band currently reside in Sussex and Norfolk. We had two full rehearsals before Wednesday’s gig – but everyone had put in some work on their respective parts, we were pretty tight, and the gig was enjoyable, well-attended and well-received. So that’s good! It’s been great working with the Boxers, and I’m really excited for where we could go, musically. Happy times!

I’ve been reflecting, as is my wont, on what’s required of a musician in a band – and specifically a keyboardist – compared to, for example, a classical pianist, choral singer or an orchestral player, all of which I have a fair bit of experience. These are some of my thoughts:

Keyboard versus piano

I’ve played piano since I was about six years old, and went through the ABRSM grades like many learners of that instrument. And I was basically learning music theory as I went along, so my piano training was pretty much the foundation for the rest of my musical education, particularly since I didn’t take music as an academic subject. Obviously, there are some skills that transfer directly from piano to any keyboard instrument – the general geography of the keyboard, chord structure, the mechanics of playing passages, hand-eye coordination, the ability for each hand to work independently on different rhythms. But the range of dynamics and frequency employed in classical playing is far greater – the instrument is the solo voice, and the player has the full run of 8 octaves, weighted action, three pedals etc. with which to express the music. Even in ensemble playing – piano trios and suchlike – a piano is a piano, except of course there are Steinway concert grands and battered uprights in the corner of pubs but still.

Keyboardists, on the other hand, have a different job. They’re part of the rhythm section (the piano is, after all, a percussion instrument) and have to fill out the sound and create a texture against which interesting things happen in the vocals and lead guitar. Sometimes songs are piano-driven, which is a bit more in the comfort zone of classicists, but there’s still a need not to get in the way of the other players. This means the dynamic range and frequencies you play in are restricted, for the most part – with forays into the upper register kept for lead riffs and the provision of interesting texture (generally monophonic). To an extent, this keeps the note-playing part relatively simple – but of course, you’re not *just* playing piano. There’s organ sounds, and EPs, and synth to add into the mix, all with their own techniques. And being able to switch between different zones and layers, and actually understanding wtf zones and layers and voices and EQ settings on the ‘board *are*.

This stuff is all pretty new, but in a cool way; I feel like it’s a great combination of my musical, tech-geek and gadget-whore tendencies. I’m currently borrowing a 90s keyboard of my brother’s; it got Rob through his music A-Level, but isn’t really anything close to a viable synth long term. But the thing I’m finding hardest is the lack of weighted keys and sensitivity; it really is a weird adjustment, not least because there’s that slight anticipation of a beat that isn’t needed when the keys aren’t weighted, and in fact results in being slightly early – not good when you’re trying to lock in with the drums and bass. So I’ve my eye on a stage piano, but it’s an expensive commitment to make. Also, damn heavy. Meanwhile, I’ve become hyper-aware of the keyboard lines in every song I listen to – in the same way that everyone seems to be driving that car you just bought, they’re everywhere! Lots to inspire (and live up to, gulp).

Big group versus small group

When I play the viola in my symphony orchestra, I’m a small cog in a pretty damn big mechanism. It’s ensemble playing on many levels – between me and my desk partner, us and our section, the violas within the string section as a whole, and the strings within the orchestra – not to mention the little duets and conversations between different parts within a given piece, and the interplay between the orchestra and soloists in a concerto – all curated, of course, by the conductor. It’s not essential to have a conductor, but it bloody well helps. Smaller professional outfits such as chamber orchestras do without, although arguably the leader then takes on more or less the same responsiblity. Larger orchestras could possibly function without a conductor, too – they rehearse together full time and know the pieces, tempo changes and dynamics and probably how their parts relate to others’. But there’s a reason that conductors are celebrated and essentially the “front men” of the orchestra (or choir) – all those cogs, that machine – they’re the ones operating the thing, and it only really works at its best when there’s a singular version of events, one driver.

So when there’s someone waving a baton at you, there’s a clear indication of what you’re supposed to be doing, which settles any difference of opinion between players/singers. As long as they look up, but that’s another story. Also, when there lots of you, if you make a mistake or aren’t quite bang on, it matters a little less, as the overall effect is the consensus of the group; individual errors may stand out, but aren’t often fatal (to the music; to the player? depends on conductor I imagine). This is probably more the case for string players, I grant you. Windies are all soloists (no pressure, guys).

In a small group, everyone has quite a lot of responsibility for both rhythmic and melodic aspects of the music. Mistakes can pull the whole thing apart – they at least stand out, and can distract other players. If you’re 25% of the group, as in our band, your voice in the ensemble is pretty loud. I’m not sure if that translates to performance pressure – I don’t think I felt any more anxiety on Wednesday than a regular orchestra or choir gig – but your mileage may vary. And of course, without a conductor, the front woman has to hold everything together and provide that leadership that shapes the music. Whilst singing and playing an instrument, no less. But! If you’re playing really well, it makes that much more difference to the sound. And perhaps there’s more room for spontaneity when there’s less weight to the group. Perhaps.

I suppose my overall feeling, based on a total of one gig (versus probably a hundred or so larger group gigs), is that any ensemble playing is good practice for any other sort of playing; the focus and leadership (and how it’s balanced) tends to serve the music as much as the size of the group. I imagine even acting ensemble work helps one’s awareness in a musical teamwork sort of way. In short, all musicians need to incorporate “Zip Zap Boing” into their warmup.

In part 2, I’ll write a bit about the singing side of things, the “doing more than one thing at a time” aspect, and will attempt some sort of conclusion. Maybe.

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