I’ve noticed that traditional musicians are not very good at playing together.
They are excellent at creating musical communities, sharing good times together, trading beloved tunes with one another, and all playing roughly the same tune at the same time.
But they are rarely listening to one another or responding to what other musicians are doing in the moment.
What I’m talking about is the ability to play together so tightly that you can anticipate where another person is going to lean on a note or alter the rhythm or melody. To be so aware of your playing companions that you know what that sharp breath in means or that raised eyebrow. To be able to FEEL when someone wants to play the tune another time around or cut it short.
It’s a skill that is never talked about but that you see the top tier of traditional musicians using all the time. It’s what makes their playing together so exciting and polished.
In the world of classical music, where most musicians will end up playing in bands or orchestras, students are trained from the beginning to follow a leader closely. In the case of an ensemble, quartet or trio, the musicians must learn to follow each other, with various members taking the lead as the music demands. Often this ability is actually visible to an audience. If you search Youtube videos of quartets or trios, you will often see the players moving their bodies in the same way and even taking deep breaths together. They are FEELING the music as one. They are working together to create something greater than a collection of individual musicians.
When I enter a room of traditional musicians I can tell whether the members are listening to each other. Even if their heads are down or their eyes closed, you can see when one member catches a nice turn of phrase by another member. They might briefly open their eyes or smile or even try to play the same turn the next time around.
One player might lean on a note and look around expectantly to see who smiles and catches on to join him or her on the next go around.
Or maybe they just turn their body towards the musician they are trying to communicate with.
There are plenty of videos of amazing players who you can see listening like this. Kevin Crawford usually gives a shout when he likes what someone else is doing. John Carty will laugh. Kevin Burke dips his fiddle and leans in toward the other player who is doing something he likes.
The next time you are at a gathering of musicians, take a moment to notice which musicians are listening and which are merely playing tunes while others play. See if you can do some active listening while you yourself are playing. Give a smile or a wink to someone you hear doing something clever or sweet. Or try to lean on a note or two and nonverbally invite others to join you the next time.
It’s the stuff great sessions are made from. So go play!