Sometimes you learn a new skill because you want to do something. Other times, you want to do something, start doing it, and the skill is so integral to what you are doing that it just develops out of necessity. The latter is was how I learned to understand chords on a keyboard.
My first musical instruction, aside from my church’s children’s choir, was in piano. The teacher I was with used the Suzuki method. The Suzuki books focus on “Classical” music (I use the term loosely to refer to non-modern concert music). My training focused on intervals and scales, keys and the circle of fifths. This was great, but a little inflexible. I knew what sounded good together, but not why. I could read music, but understanding how chords related to each other left me in the dark.
My first real introduction to learning chords in any usable capacity came when I joined my high school’s Worship Team during my freshman year. I was supposedly a “replacement” for their current keyboard player, who was graduating in May. At this point, I had only a very little guitar training (the short stint of lessons in “Fingernails“) plus a little done on my own time, and I was not yet familiar with chord sheets. Worship Team was structured a bit like Suzuki in that it was largely based on playing by ear — either we knew the song from having heard it during chapel for years, or someone knew it from the radio (usually not me). We would play what we heard, with the other bit being chords for guidance. The “sheet music” we had was only pages of lyrics with chords printed above the corresponding word — or somewhere vaguely close, anyway, meaning that playing by ear was necessary, not optional.
One memorable example was from a song with which I was not familiar. It had a whole page of lyrics, but for the verses, the first verse only had two letters over the first word. G C. That was it. Not even an attempt to put the chords with the right lyrics. Since the verse only alternated those two chords in the same rhythm, they just assumed everyone would know the song and figure it out. I had to listen and watch the guitarists to see when they changed chords to figure out the rhythm, since I had never heard the original song. They, of course, had zero sympathy for my confusion and utter fish-out-of-water feeling. It was a completely different experience from my earlier piano lessons, where the sheet music held all the information I needed (or so I thought).
Learning the chords themselves was an experience as well. I knew very basic chords off the top of my head, and could form the less common ones by using intervals. For example, I knew that a C major chord was made of C, E, and G. If I were asked for an F# minor chord, I would find F#, count up four keys for the middle note, then count up another three for the top, making an F# major chord. I would then drop the third by a half-step to make it minor. It was time-consuming, to say the least. By that time everyone else was a full verse ahead of me, so I learned quickly out of necessity, a.k.a. the desire not to look like an idiot to my musical peers.
This arduous process does not even consider the chords I had never heard of before. I could count out a major, a minor, an augmented, and a diminished; those were easy to understand, if not to form on the fly. It was things like “C2” and “Esus” that left me baffled. Then, of course, there were the less difficult but still unfamiliar things, like G/C and F#m7♭5. Note that, while all the team members were quite skilled musically, I was the only one with relatively extensive piano training. I was approaching keyboarding as a classically trained pianist. They approached everything as guitarists. Both approaches are musical, but they are quite different ways of thinking. For example, I would ask our lead guitarist (electric, with his own separate, huge amplifier and equivalently sized ego),
“So what is an Esus?”
He would stare at me, obviously confused and slightly annoyed at my ignorance, — how could I not know such a thing? — and finger the chord on his guitar.
“Um…this,” and he would show me the guitar fretboard.
“Yes, but what notes are in that? How do I play that on the keyboard?”
Obviously I was not going to get any help from them.
So for these unfamiliar chords, I had to teach myself my own, special way. I was teaching myself guitar a bit, so I had a giant compilation of almost every way to make any given chord. Open, barre, omitting certain strings, alternate fingerings, it had it all. So, for the new ones, I would go and find the mystery chord in my big dictionary of chords. I had figured out, on my own, that each fret was a half-step (yes, it took me a little while to figure that out), and I knew the open notes for each string in standard tuning. Using that knowledge, I would break down the chord into what note each string played, so I had the pieces of an out-of-order chord. Knowing the relative standard chord (C for C2, E for Esus, etc.) I could see what bit had changed and thereby figure out the non-inverted form. If you had any doubt that I tend to do things the hard way, it should be gone now.
Once I finally had the non-inverted chords mostly straight and could play them without literally missing a beat, I worked out inversions and the most efficient way to move from chord to chord. Not strictly necessary, but I thought it sounded better and it made me feel more skillful — not that anyone noticed. (Why, no, I am not still slightly bitter…) In any case, when my time in Worship Team ended, I was an ace at worship song chord progressions.
- The Geometry of Music (musicinyoursoul.com)
So far, this guide has three things:
#1 Know your stuff,
#2 Know your audience, and
#3 Know your venue.
Liz’s Guide to a Successful Performance
#4 Know your instrument.
My wish for you is that you always have the finest available instruments. However, reality dictates that you will probably have less-than-stellar instruments or equipment at some point. At worst, you may even find yourself in the position of trying to make the best of a truly broken instrument. Whether you are using state-of-the-art equipment or your uncle’s beat-up ukulele, every instrument has quirks and weaknesses that can catch the unwary performer off guard and ruin a performance.
For example, is your instrument sensitive to the weather? Guitars can warp enough to pull off the bridge if they get too dry, and a flute can split and develop a hole in the mouthpiece if it is left in a car and freezes. (Why no, those are not first-hand examples of my past unintentional instrument abuse…) What about other instrumental limitations: are there notes that just don’t resonate as well as others, and therefore do not carry as far? Notes that tend sharp? If your instrument is your voice, where is your strongest range? Can you sing for hours, or is your stamina such that you need a break? In case you do have a poor-quality or broken-down instrument, does it have notes that are out-of-tune and sound horrible? Certain buttons with wildly different action from the rest? Keys that do not sound at all? Is your instrument old, fragile, or particularly valuable?
Consider your other equipment as well. What do you need to make everything work: a 1/4″ cable to interface with a guitar, headphone adapters for a cassette player, a mic specifically for your upright bass? What about for a power supply: a spare outlet or spare batteries? Do you have quality equipment, or the budget spread? My school’s Worship Team (of the cable-wrapping story) had an overused, dying soundboard, cheap microphones, and abused cables. Whenever we had problems, our teacher/sponsor would pray over the equipment and cast Satan out as her method of fixing things. More than a few of us students figured that buying some new, quality equipment and treating it well would go much further in keeping Satan from sabotaging our equipment than our weekly emergency prayers.
If you are acting in a theatrical performance, must you make do with substitute props and a hefty dose of imagination? Is something likely to break at the wrong moment? I have been in many a low-budget production where the props and set dressings were either shoddy replacements for what the script specified, or were just written out of the script and absent entirely.
One show, which I attended in support of my friends, was put on by my college’s theater club. This is an amateur group of performers, all enthusiastic, many quite experienced in high school and college productions, but certainly not professional-quality actors. Even though we were a sizable club, we were an arts club at an engineering school — we were second-class citizens at best. The club was allotted a minimal budget, which meant we could only afford to rent a classroom with a “stage” consisting of a tiled area at the front of a classroom instead of being able to afford (and fill) the auditorium with a real stage and stadium seating. We had less than one day to set out our props, costumes, and sets for the performance. Sets get often reused, along with costumes, props, and actors (usually wearing the same costumes). This particular show, 6 Rms Rv Vu, was beset by a number of problems the night I saw it. The actors had trouble remembering lines, which flustered them, which meant they forgot more lines. It was generally painful to watch as a fellow performer — I knew how rough it must have been for them up on that stage. And then, to make things more interesting, there was the set.
A short plot description, for those not familiar with this show (most of you, probably): two people, who have never met before, are both visiting an apartment that is up for rent. They are looking around in the evening when the door handle falls off the door, trapping them inside. In the heat of the moment, they begin an affair. The door handle falling off is therefore a key moment in the show, and in fact is the precipitating event for everything that follows. Let me rephrase: the door handle falling off at the right moment, and only at the right moment, is vitally important. It should not fall off at any other time except when the plot dictates: the story demands a deliberately “broken,” variable prop. This is problematic — trying to get something to break, but only when you need to, it is incredibly tricky.
For the characters in the show, that door handle had to be magic. That was the only explanation for it falling out and being completely unfixable one moment (when the characters needed to be trapped), but falling out and magically working when stuck in the hole later, (when the plot demanded that the door actually work.) Willing suspension of disbelief starts to suffer a bit when the “rules” within the constructed world change when it’s convenient.
Do your best with what you have. While a good performer can make poor quality sets, props, instruments, etc. work well enough, things tend to go much more smoothly with better tools. If quality is not an option, though, be ready for something to break at an inopportune moment. Better yet, know how to respond when it does.
Your tools can limit or enhance your show: use them well.
#5 Know yourself.
Everybody’s different. We all have different strengths, musical preferences, skills, and things we enjoy. A successful performance will be easier to accomplish if you go in prepared with a little self-knowledge.
Know your weaknesses. If you stink at slow songs, don’t do very many. Poor polkas? Don’t play them. If your only training is in reggae guitar, don’t busk classical violin. On the other hand, know your strengths. Figure out which pieces are guaranteed crowd-pleasers. If you have one amazing, flashy, spectacular act, use it to impress the socks off your audience when you need. This one overlaps a little with #1, know your stuff, but it is not just about having the skills, but more about knowing where those skills lie.
What you like can be just as important. Do you love jazz trumpet? You’ll probably do better to make that your focus than to perform mostly marches. The styles, pieces, and acts you enjoy will be more fun to practice, and (if you’re anything like me) they will therefore be practiced more. A performer’s enthusiasm and enjoyment get telegraphed to the audience in every mannerism, if you are being genuine. The more comfortable and happier you are, the better your audience will perceive you as being. While your best pieces may not always be your favorites (and vice versa), knowing both gives you flexibility in who you try to please with your shows.
Are you more comfortable in one setting or another? Would you rather play in a crowded concert hall or in a nursing home? Is busking NYC your style, or are you more at home in New Orleans? Would you rather be the house band for a dive bar (complete with drunks), or play shows for the local children’s picnic? Again, your discomfort will usually show through in your performance to some degree, so knowing what environment you enjoy (and which one you’ll be in, à la #3) goes a long way toward a smooth performance.
Be able to honestly evaluate yourself, your skills, and your preferences. As it was written in the temple of Apollo at Delphi, Know thyself.
Come back next week for the exciting conclusion!
I have a job hosting at a restaurant. One of the morning hosting duties is to vacuum the floor with the giant backpack vacuum, nicknamed “the Ghostbusters vacuum,” since it looks a bit like a Ghostbusters proton pack. This vacuum cleans the entire floor of the restaurant morning and night, every day; it gets a lot of use. Its operators are bored, sleepy, angry employees who just want to go home, so it takes more than its share of abuse.
This vacuum is unlike a standard home vacuum in that, instead of supplying its own long cord, it has a plug that attaches to a standard extension cord — you can use whatever length cord you like, and replace it as needed. The extension cord itself…well, it is amazing that the silly vacuum works at all. The cord gets plugged in an outlet, stretched, yanked out of the wall as the host tries to unhook it from a table, and just falls out of some outlets when it feels ignored. It catches on chairs, on tables, on the corners of walls, on itself. If it is possible for something to go wrong, it happens. When the hosts are all done vacuuming for the evening, (or morning, as it may be,) the cord is neatly rolled up, wrapped with the Velcro cord tie, and stored in an out-of-the-way corner of the kitchen.
Just kidding! The cord usually gets “wrapped” haphazardly, thrown in a corner on top of the vacuum, and usually deteriorates into a spaghetti-like mass of chaos within seconds so that the next person to pick it up gets to play “Untangle the Extension Cord!” while still trying to vacuum the floor.
The sheer number of times I have played this game has taught me one thing:
I am the only person there who knows how to wrap a cord.
Talk about transferable skills; I learned how to wrap cords in Worship Team.
Worship Team was the class for the musicians and tech team that ran Wednesday chapels. (I attended a Christian school for thirteen years.) So many stories from that class… But this one is about cords. I can still remember one particular event when I was trying to help tear down equipment after chapel. I had picked up an unplugged XLR cable (a microphone cable for those not familiar with cable classification) and started to wrap it around my hand and upper arm, so it was under tension. One of the veteran WT guys sprinted across the room, yelling “NO NO NO STOP! DROP THE CABLE!” Talk about an overreaction. I was incorrect, but that seemed a bit excessive. (Our equipment was crappy enough that I really doubt it made much of a difference.) After he calmed down enough to stop yelling at me for my ignorance, he showed me the right way to wrap a cable, though I did not so much as touch another cable for a few weeks. (I was not about to risk that sort of treatment again.) As this sort of event happened repeatedly, albeit in a much less dramatic fashion, it became apparent that almost no one knew the best way to wrap an instrument cord. Cable Wrapping 101 thus became a regular feature for new WT members. A few years later, I encountered it again during my Music Technology class in college, where, again, almost no one knew before it was presented there.
I have come to see this as one of the more transferable and relevant skills to come out of those classes. If I were bolder — and not fully convinced, justifiably, that my audience would blow me off — I would teach this skill to all my fellow hosts so we could have an easier time vacuuming while not fighting with the extension cord. Of course, no one but me cares about such things, so I never will. However, I will teach you, since you are already on my blog and presumably might care just a little more.
I wish that I had a decent (read “functional”) video camera and microphone to make my own video to show you, but I do not. Instead, I shall point you toward, “How to Wrap a Video Cable Properly!”
The over-under method, or figure eight method, demonstrated here is the best one for video cables, instrument and XLR cables, etc. to keep them in good working order. It is probably not strictly necessary for extension cords, but I have found it to work well for most longish cords, better than other methods.
So grab a cable and give it a try! Wrap the cord, throw it to watch it play out smoothly (if you did it right), and then wrap it again.
Cable abuse stops with you!