“we need help”
– text I got from one of two student bands last Saturday amidst an acoustic session. They were working on arranging “Iron Man” for a performance at the end of the day. It turns out they weren’t in too bad of shape – especially compared to the electric band downstairs…
The Mission: Collaborate in groups to learn, arrange and perform their choice of three classic rock songs to an audience of their fellow students, twice: once in an outdoor acoustic setting and again, with the same band and new song, in an electric practice-studio setting. They were given forty minutes in each.
Acoustic instruments available:
Electric instruments available:
- drum machine
- two electric guitars
- effects pedals
- bass guitar.
I, as a mentor, wondered in and out of both groups to monitor progress and time, quietly listen and answer questions – but never playing with them either in practice or performance. Each band had my cell number in case they needed me for anything. I only got one text from a band who wanted feedback about how to arrange a rotation of solos.
Common issues & questions:
- How to learn, arrange and play an entire multi-part song in forty-five minutes
- What roles each member would assume
1. Both bands utilized a rotation of improvised solos as a structural element. Some used verbal cues to get from one solo to another, others laid out a structure in advance, i.e. “solo over this part four times then switch.“
2. Intuitively, individuals assumed identical or similar roles when arranging parts on their instrument and more or less played the same thing as the person next to them. One topic that continues to arise during these jams is that of playing with Individuality.
The songs chosen by the bands, coincidentally, were identical by both bands both times: “Iron Man” & “Crazy Train.” Not surprisingly, the song not chosen, “Smoke on the Water,” is one that I least frequently encounter with students in our private study.
I pointed out frequent highlights and low-lights about the band’s groove and stability, both in the acoustic setting where there is less sonic room to hide, and in the electric bands where the unanimous agreement of ‘It’s hard to hear everybody cause it’s so loud‘ was remedied quite easily: after attempts to determine who’s instrument was too loud they decided ‘Maybe we should all turn down a little bit.‘ That worked.
It was interesting to see two very accomplished piano players feel constricted with the absence of written music. They progressed into deeper exploration of the instrument after questioning and encouragement. While their choice of tone from the keyboard’s tone bank surprised me at times, they worked their own way into the group and filled in a unique musical space.
It was fun to see leadership roles emerge amongst middle-school students who had, in some cases, never met before. Because the nine students were split randomly, normal social dynamics were set aside offering, perhaps, a more co-operative and inclusive setting. I wonder if friends had been allowed to pick each other there would have been more off-topic activity.
“Well he’s got awesome hair so he’s cool with me.” – One student, about meeting another for the first time.
- Time-management was a key element in preparing both performances and I found it funny but not shocking to hear the electric band admit at the end of their final performance how that performance had actually been their first entire run-through from beginning to end!
- The use of solos to add parts and show off creative individuality by both bands was also somewhat expected, as skills related to improvisation and lead playing are a big part of our private study based on the music they admire and listen to on their own.
- The absence of written notation in favor of simple demonstration was also to be expected from such an informal setting. That collaborative behavior makes up the majority of how many popular rock musicians and bands teach each other naturally and matches my own peer-to-peer learning of my youth.
- High expectations and idealistic conceptions concerning a song’s replication quickly adapted to time, skill and resource availability. The simplification of their chosen song’s parts and arrangement reflected not a ‘dumbing-down’ but a mature self-awareness and cooperation for a common rocking out.