To Mars, The Red Planet: Perfect For The Blues

mars approachHopefully you are enjoying the sensation of musical weightlessness after this past week of improvising! No written notes to hem you in, rather the opportunity to play almost anything you want, whenever you want. Within a few necessary guidelines (like keeping your spacesuit on), you are free to improvise, to create, to express yourself. You never have to play the same thing twice, if you don’t want to.

And now you want to reach higher, try out some other tools in your arsenal.

The next place to explore, the most logical next step on our odyssey is:

Mars.

The red planet. The god of war. The best movement of Gustav Holst’s “The Planets” and the home of Marvin the Martian.

Mars. The planet of strife, of clashing, and of dissonance. This is absolutely the best next place for us to go. Continue reading “To Mars, The Red Planet: Perfect For The Blues”

Exploring The Music Theory Solar System

Earth to the moonWe talked recently about creating a song out of three basic chords. How simple can you create harmony and still have a functional tonal center?

Let me take you in another direction this week. How can we envision and pigeon-hole every progression that ever was or will be? What kind of structure would we need to wrap our minds around all the possibilities?

We’ve talked about rings of growth representing more and more tonal material, but they are pretty static. We need an analogy that’s more dynamic, more inspiring.

Feels like we’re shooting for the stars. Hey – that’s it! We’ll look at exploring music theory as an ever-expanding set of skills and concepts which we will call the Music Theory Solar System.

Our first goal in exploring this Music Theory Solar System (stay with me) will be to actually escape the earth’s gravitational pull by playing some simple songs with just a few chords. Then we’ll start to improvise lead lines as we explore the moon (I know, sounds a little like PBS. Patience.)

Escaping Earth’s Gravity

Now if we’re going to explore the universe, we’ve got to master some fundamentals. If we don’t, our efforts have no chance of success. None. So we start small and simple.

For this metaphor, I’ll assume you have an instrument (which could be your voice). I will also assume you know how to play to some degree. After all, the Wright brothers knew a little something about mechanical engineering, gravity and physics before they flew, too.

So our first direct effort toward exploring the Music Theory Solar System is to escape the earth’s gravitational field. For the guitar player, this will mean playing a few chords and changing from one to another without dropping a beat.

It means playing clear tones with the tips of your fingers. It means knowing what a major scale is and how to build it.

And it means learning bar chords.

Being able to play a series of chords, that is, a “chord progression” is absolutely foundational. The simplest chord progression to build upon is a I IV V progression. For a more in-depth discussion of this type of chord pattern, check out When You’ve Only Got 3 Chords To Use…, and try a few songs from the list you find there. These are not all I IV V, but most are. And they will be great songs to build on.

These chords will allow you to play simple folk, country, and rock & roll styles. I’m sure there are others. But these three chords are where we start.

So if you’ve got those first techniques learned and you’re playing some I IV V songs (even if you still make mistakes), we can proceed. Next stop: the Moon.

To The Moon

To make it to the moon in this analogy is to add simple melodies over the I IV V progressions you know. To do that, you’ll need to learn a simple scale pattern as a basis for improvising (making it up as you go along). The simplest scale pattern to use? The major pentatonic mode.

One of the early fundamentals is to know how to build major scales (each major scale is a series of 8 tones in a whole-whole-half-whole-whole-whole-half step pattern). We assign numbers to the scale tones so that we are now talking about a major scale as 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8.

The major pentatonic mode is really a partial scale. Pentatonic means “5-tone”, and the tones we’ll use are the 1st, 2nd, 3rd, 5th and 6th. A mode is simply an altered scale.

Now to improvise on a I IV V song, the best place to start is thinking about the major pentatonic mode that complements each of the chords. We’ll use the key of C as an example. The I chord is C major, the IV chord is F major, and the V chord is G major.

When the I chord happens, improvise using the 1 2 3 5 6 1 of I (C), that is, C D E G A C.

When the IV chord happens, we’ll use the 1 2 3 5 6 1 of IV. IV is F major, so the mode will turn out to be F G A C D F.

And when we hear the V chord, G major, we’ll improvise using the 1 2 3 5 6 1 of V, which is G A B D E G.

Record yourself playing a single chord, let’s say C, for 2 minutes. Or if you’ve got recording software, program the chord in and loop it to repeat. Then, listening to that chord, find the notes in the C major pentatonic mode on your instrument, and make it up as you go along. As long as you stay on those 5 letter names, you can’t play a wrong note!

Do the same for F, then for G.

The next step is to combine chords and create progressions. Loop 2 measures of C going into 2 measures of F, then improvise to each chord, making sure to change your mode exactly when the chord changes. Now combine C and G in the same manner, and improvise using the C and the G major pentatonic modes.

Finally, put all 3 chords together in some repeatable pattern. Like one of those 3-chord songs. Making sure you are always playing the mode that matches the chord you’re hearing, improvise your way through the song. Have fun, explore, jam out!

And when you look over your shoulder, don’t be surprised to see Earth in the distance.

Have you escaped the Earth’s gravity and learned to improvise yet? What aspect of it do you find the most fun?

Please leave your comment below, or email any questions you have about improvisation, music theory or Next-Step Musicianship to [email protected].

© 2015 Steve Case

Here Comes The New Year … So What?

Me and Mike
Me and Mike

Oh no. Here it is, New Year’s Eve. The end of 2014, and the time when it seems everyone is writing about the past year’s top whatevers and new goals or expectations for the new one.

“So what will they write about on CaseTunes?” you wonder.

What I Could Say To You

Now I could write again about managing your time more effectively this coming year. Make sure you get that practice time in. Don’t waste so much time doing unimportant things. You always find time for the things that are important to you. Yeah, yeah.

I could write about taking your art seriously, seeking out an instructor or a mentor. Not procrastinating, not giving into inertia as you sit on the couch. Disciplining yourself through blood, sweat and tears to do whatever it takes. To take the next step, to develop, to grow. Okay, nothing really new here.

I could write about how great the past year was (and in many ways, it was), listing the high points and benchmarks. But you can do that yourself.

So how can we, at CaseTunes, possibly be of service to you here at year’s end?

By reminding you of the big picture.

Your Unique Work

You are here for a reason. There is work for you to do that only you can do. There is music to be made the rest of us are waiting for.

Do you have a project that’s almost there? Don’t wait for it to be perfect, get it pretty decent, then ship it.

Are you waiting for inspiration? Don’t just wait, go get it. Dig for it. Listen to some different artists or shows, read some new books, go to an open mic night and meet some other musicians to collaborate with.

Are you waiting for someone else to join your project and do the hard stuff, the parts you aren’t competent with yet? Two choices: learn it or hire it. But don’t wait, do it!

Even as I write these reminders to you, you’ve got to know I am preaching to myself. My biggest hurdle in any project is usually my own insecurity, followed by procrastination that quickly morphs into inertia.

But this coming year (starting tomorrow) it is our hope and plan to “ship” several projects that have been in the works, from books to courses. Groundwork has been laid, details have been fleshed out. Now is the time to make things happen! I’ll let you know about each one as it becomes available. Thanks for being in our corner!

In 2015

Fun with our stage on Christmas Eve
Fun with our stage on Christmas Eve

Opportunities are on the horizon to do some amazing things. My wish for you is that you will understand how

important it is for you to make music and share it. Express your heart through your music. Play and sing with passion and excellence, over and over again. When you’re in the zone, in your unique sweet spot, making music work for you, you’ll find great joy and fulfillment. And you will bless others with your gift.

So get to it! We’re all waiting for you!

Please feel free to comment below, or email any questions about music, finishing your project, or next-step musicianship to [email protected].

© 2014 Steve Case

Keeping Track of New Ideas May Require New Ideas

Is there one bright idea standing out in your box of ideas?
Is there one bright idea standing out in your box of ideas?

If you are even slightly a creative type, you have already come face to face with the challenge of keeping track of new ideas.

The new approach that dawned on you when you were out for a walk, but had left the building by the time you returned.

The plot line or song lyric that made perfect sense while you were trying to get to sleep, then had evaporated in the morning.

The fresh color combination, the on-target illustration, the untried design – all of these were crystal clear in your mind’s eye, but somehow slipped away by the time you needed them.

I know the feeling, you have my sympathy!

New ideas will hit me at almost any time, day or night. I may have been musing on some problem, or writing a new song. Something in my travels will strike me as a great idea for a blog post or an ebook, and I’ll need to write it down before I forget it. Because forget it, I most certainly will.

I’ve tried many systems over the years. All of them are good, but they don’t all work for me. I’ve had to experiment to find what does work for me.

For example, if I am writing a song in my head and get to a point where I need to put it into a tangible form, I’ve got a few choices at my disposal:

  1. I can write it down in music notation, complete with staff, measures, notes and lyrics. This, by the way, is by far the most accurate way to write it down. Music notation is an elegant language developed over more than four centuries by musicians who wanted to do exactly what I’m talking about. Yet, if I don’t have staff paper or computer software, I’ll need to start from scratch, drawing 5 long, parallel lines close to each other to create the staff. Takes practice, and I’ve done it often. It is difficult, however, if the paper I have is not full size. (I know the Gettysburg Address was written on a napkin, but he wasn’t composing music, which I believe is a much more difficult proposition.)
  2. I can record it with the voice recorder on my smartphone. Just needs to be transcribed later.
  3. I can write it using my own symbols and numbers to which I assign specific values and meanings. This has probably been the most helpful to me, come to think of it. I’ll use arabic numerals (1,2,3,4, etc.) for scale tones and roman numerals (I,ii, iii, IV, etc.) to represent chords. I’ll use a long horizontal line with a slash at each end with a number over it to represent a group of measures (looks like a multi-measure rest), along with greater than or less than signs (< >) to indicate relative volumes.

And if it’s not music we’re talking about, just keeping a notepad handy can solve the problem. Grab a stack of smallish notepads from your local drugstore and put one in your car, by your bed, in your coat pocket, in your kitchen, by your computer, by your TV… you get the idea. And make sure you also have a pen or pencil in each location.

So once we’ve got the new idea “committed to paper”, so to speak, what do we do with them? You can stick it in your pocket, as long as you have a deliberate time when you will retrieve it. I charge my smartphone at night, so when I plug it in, I also make sure I go through my pockets for anything else that might be important. Skipping this step will result in finding your song idea at the bottom of the washing machine, an inert lump of shrunken wood pulp.

Rick Warren, pastor of Saddleback Church, has his “black box”. During the day, whenever a new idea strikes him, he’ll grab any scrap of paper and write it down, then stick it into his “black box”. At regular intervals (weekly, monthly, yearly) he will go through all of the notes he has collected and file them away topically, ready to use for sermon illustrations. I like this idea, it’s really easy on the front end. But the filing it away takes both discipline and a topical framework within which to put the notes.

I’ve found three software tools that have been working really well for me: Shazam, iTunes, and Evernote

When I listen to songs in the car, I will often run across tunes that inspire me and that I don’t want to forget. A couple of taps on my Shazam app, and the program has identified the song, adding it to a growing list of songs I’ve researched. Then, when I’m at my computer (and not driving!), I’ll pull up the list it saved for me, get on iTunes and inexpensively buy the songs. The last step is to put the downloaded songs into an iTunes playlist that reminds me to come back to it. I use “composing inspiration”, or “gems”, or “Christmas” as playlist names, for example.

For pretty much everything else, I use Evernote on my computers and on my phone. I can type in a note, clip it off the web, send emails to it, even voice-record notes and take photos, all saved as “notes” within the program. To each note, I quickly add a tag, like “lyrics”, ToDo Today”, or “home projects”. Any label you find helpful is fine. Later, you can search for all the notes with a particular tag with no further sorting or filing.

Hope these help you stay on top of the ocean of ideas churning through your brain!

What do you do with new ideas? Have you found a system that works for you?

Please leave your comment below, or email any questions about music, music theory and next-step musianship to [email protected].

© 2014 Steve Case

Inspiration for Christmas

Piano_Guys

I want to share with you some artists who never fail to inspire me. The Piano Guys regularly post their songs on YouTube, have several albums out, and tour widely. Take a few minutes to enjoy their take on We Three Kings, then poke around on their site.

 

The arrangements are unique, as are the settings for their piano/cello duo. Beautifully done, they not only share their significant musical skill, but they have fun! Makes me want to play with them!

I’ll be back with more thoughts on Next-Step Musicianship next week.  In the meantime, if you have any questions about music, theory or next-step musicianship, please leave your comment below, or email me at [email protected].

© 2014 Steve Case

The Gift Behind The Talent

 

I originally posted this in May.  But with Black Friday just a few days away and so much effort being put into gift-buying, I’m thinking this might be a good time to look once again at the gifts we already have – the gifts that can’t be bought, just cultivated.

Have a Happy Thanksgiving, everyone!

Potting a plant

[RE-POST] This past week, I wanted to re-pot a plant. It was not doing well, I had not done a very good job of taking care of it.

So I asked my wife, Sue, if she would help me with it.

Now it’s not really that complicated a process. Thing is, I know that if I do it, the poor plant has a chance of surviving. But Sue is great at this stuff, you should see our backyard gardens!

When she does it, the plant will thrive.

Sue is gifted at many things. She is quite a fine musician, an accomplished decorator, a wonderful cook, just to name a few.

And some time ago, she discovered that planting and cultivating flowers was something she enjoyed.

She has gotten quite good at it, and it’s amazing to me! The colors that burst forth all around the outside of our house in the spring are wonderful. And though the colors change, things keep blooming all through the spring, summer and fall! She is talented at gardening.

But what she is really gifted at is making her surroundings beautiful.

Now to her, it just makes sense. She does whatever is necessary to provide the right conditions, the right soil, the right space, the right color combinations, and so on. To me, it is a wonderful mystery!

But that’s how it feels when we do things that align with our talents. To us, our actions don’t seem like a big deal, there’s no mystery, it just makes sense. And it makes us happy.

The Gift That Drives The Musician

For a musician to know if they are talented or not usually depends on other people. If listeners keep hanging around so that you’ll play one more song, that’s a good sign. And if they listen to a few bars and politely excuse themselves from the room, that’s a different sign!

As they work at their craft, musicians will get better. The music will become more cohesive and colorful, with fewer jarring moments than when they started.

Talent doesn’t have much to do with making music at first. But as time and efforts progress, talent is what takes the mechanical and makes it beautiful.

And then the real gift just might shine through. The gift behind the talent that mystically answers why the musician plays might show up. Because the gifted musician not only plays because she can, but she plays so that people might hear and be blessed by the experience.

Sounds pretty altruistic, doesn’t it? What about the musician’s ego? Don’t they play to inflate their sense of self-worth?

Sometimes. But at the heart of it, if a musician’s goal is to create something beautiful, or significant, or worthy, there has to be someone one the other side of it that appreciates its beauty, its significance, its worthiness. The goal of the musician is to bless someone with their art.

Gifts I Am Thankful For

As for me, I am good with music. I love the medium, I really enjoy playing around with song structure, melodies and harmonies, grooves I haven’t tried before. Even writing lyrics. I work at my craft, learning and honing, writing and practicing.

But what drives me to keep creating, in addition to my own need for self-expression, is the joy of getting other people involved in hearing and playing it. Watching their reactions to my music is fun (usually); but having others learn my songs and play or sing them for an audience – what a trip!

And although my pride is involved, if I am to be totally honest with you, the thing I love to do is to encourage people to find joy in life by using their God-given gifts.

One of my favorite things to do is find people with a little ability and a timid heart and bolster their courage as well as build their skills. Then I step back and watch them fly! Time and time again, I’ve watched this happen, and it brings me joy every time.

Sue loves to plant things and watch them grow. That’s what I love to do with people. Get them out of the familiar, limiting confines of whatever pot they’ve been living in, pour in some fresh dirt, supply the water and fresh air – then watch them turn their face up to the sun and thrive.

What Gift Lies Behind Your Talent?

Gift within a gift

You may know already what you’re good at, where your talent lies. But the real gift is being able to use your talent in the service of others. There is great joy in it on both ends! If you haven’t thought about it much, or if you need some ideas on how to benefit others with your talents, here are some thoughts to get you started:

  • Examine your skills – what are you good at and what have you learned to be good at? Can you imagine it as a skill you would employ with someone or for someone?
  • Examine your interests – what medium do you like to work with? Numbers? Music? Conversation? Wood or metal? Are you a talented cook? Do you love to build things? Who would benefit from your knowledge and expertise in this area?
  • What have you had success at in the past? How have others been touched by your efforts? What good things happened when you operated out of your strengths, doing what you have been hard-wired to do?
  • What do others say you are gifted at? And how might you use your talents in new ways? Ask family and friends, they’ll tell you. Make sure you ask people who will tell you the unvarnished truth, however.

How have you found joy in using your gifts to benefit others, in music or something else? I’d love to hear your thoughts on this! Please leave a comment below, or email any questions to [email protected].

And if you find these blogs are helpful to you, we can deliver them right to your email inbox. Go to the top right corner of this page and fill in your email address, and you’ll never miss another post! And you have my promise that I will never share your email address with anyone.

© 2014 Steve Case

Charting A Song: How To Write What You Hear

Two of my favorite cookbooks: How To Grill by Steven Raichlen (2001), and The Better Homes and Gardens Cookbook, 12th edition.
Two of my favorite cookbooks: How To Grill by Steven Raichlen (2001), and The Better Homes and Gardens Cookbook, 12th edition.

With Thanksgiving around the corner, it’s time for us to be thinking about what we’ll prepare for the feast. The list of favorite dishes has grown over the years, and some are now not just expected, they are highly anticipated (sometimes with threats involved if we don’t make them…) Though they will be made from different ingredients in different kitchens with different types of expertise applied, they all have their place of honor on our Thanksgiving table.

So here’s my analogy for this week: figuring out how to play a song is like sitting down to the feast. Where do I begin? Is there anything new here I don’t want to miss? And will there be enough food to go around? (This last one is never a problem at our house.)

Starting Your Song Chart

To chart the song you want to learn, that is, to write it down as you listen, start by drawing a forward slash for each beat you hear. Group them in however many beats you hear in a repeating fashion. Are you hearing 3 beats in each measure, or 4, or maybe 6? Write 4 measures this way for each line of the song, then leave another space between the big sections of the song.

And by the way, if you’ve never tried charting a song, let me encourage you to go for it. You’ll experience new understanding and enjoyment of songs you’ve heard, with new appreciation for the artistry behind them. With practice, you’ll get better and better at it. It will take some focused time, but yes, you can learn how to do it!

Components in 4s

The components of a song, particularly a pop song, are predictable. Rare are the exceptions. Now a composer can create whatever she wants, she has that freedom. But if she wants her song to be heard and embraced by her audience, she will have to stay within normal boundaries most of the time. We expect it.

Each song has (are you ready?) a beginning, a middle, and an end (not rocket science). And we feel the most natural connection with a song when its smallest components are based on the number 4. 2s, 3s and 6s are frequently used as well, but 4 is the default. Historically, 4 beats in each measure is even referred to as “common time”. 4 beats to a measure, 4 sub-divisions to each beat (sixteenth notes), 4 measures per sung phrase, 4 phrases in a verse.

We like 4. So as we start to listen critically to a song, that is what we’ll expect. Try tapping your foot on each beat in the song, and see if it doesn’t reflect the number 4 in some way.

Though the sections within the song will each be built in 4s, the composer might play with timing somewhat. Just for variety, a measure with only 2 beats might be inserted somewhere to make lyrics or the melody flow better. Or, in order to keep energy ramping up, the start of one section may actually overlap with the last measure or two of the previous section. Like the end of a chorus going into an instrumental, for example. As the vocalist is singing the last word of the chorus, the instrumental begins, ignoring the fact that the chorus still had two measures to go. Makes you feel like the instrumental couldn’t wait to get started.

The Beginning

The song’s intro that provides the first impression, maybe a preview of what will follow. Here we’ll find the key, the tempo, and the mood. Soon, as the lyrics begin in the first verse, we get a peek under the hood at the content of the song. The groove, if it is not already in motion, starts here.

The verse may present the problem to be solved or the circumstance to be celebrated or grieved. It introduces the characters in the play and the direction the vocalist wants to go in the song. Might be a story, an intense emotion, or a situation.

The first line of the verse should draw the listener into the second line, the second into the third, and so on. Short or long, at the end of the verse, the listener is intrigued. Not committed yet, but curious.

The Middle

A segment less often included but quite effective might be placed right after the verse. It has been labeled in recent years, the “Pre-Chorus”. It’s job is to build more tension and more expectation that will be brought to fruition in the Chorus itself. Usually this will be just a couple of phrases, leaving you hanging.

Finally, after all this preparation, we get to the Chorus. The song title is probably in here, along with the hook (the phrase you just have to sing along with). It will answer the question or flesh out what was hinted at earlier. Now it is very clear why the composer wrote this song. The Chorus will typically sound bigger and fuller, with additional instruments and vocals, even an orchestra to add to the layers of sound.

After you’ve listened through the Verse and the Chorus, what you’ll hear next is probably another verse. It will be similar to the first verse, but now with more emotion, more detail, more angst. That takes us into the next Pre-Chorus and Chorus, followed by an instrumental section that helps the listener to emotionally breathe. A Bridge, which is really another verse, might follow that, with its own variations in the chord pattern and lyric cadence. It leads us right into… you guessed it… another Chorus or two.

The End

The last Chorus might get louder at the end, or it might calm down, returning us once again to the reality of our lives. A short instrumental may follow, wrapping up the song. Or it might leave you hanging. The cheap way (in my humble opinion) to end a song is to fade the recording out. Maybe they want to give the impression the party will just go on and on. Or maybe the artist and producer just couldn’t agree on an ending.

Filling In The Blanks

Now that you’ve got all the beats and measures plotted out, it’s time to go back and fill in the chords. Some of my earlier posts on how to figure out the key, on naming intervals, and on how emotion can be crafted within the song may be helpful. Again, with practice and time you can get pretty good at this. And it is my hope that you do!

What has your experience been when you’ve tried to chart a song? Please leave your comment below, or email any questions about song charting, rhythm, music theory and next-step musicianship to [email protected]. And if you’d like to keep up to date with CaseTunes, sign up to receive updates and weekly posts in your email inbox!

© 2014 Steve Case

What’s In Your Closet?

shirt in my closetHere’s a subject I admit I know little about. And yet it affects my ability to lead worship every single time I step onstage. Every Saturday night, you’ll find me once again poking my head into my closet, wondering what to wear for Sunday morning. I’ve learned over the years if I really get stuck (doesn’t happen as often as it used to), I can ask Sue.

“So what do you think, sweetie, does this go with that?”

“Oh, no.”

“How about this one?”

“Probably okay.”

“Well, what about this one?”

“Let me help you, dear.”

Other than jeans, I don’t buy my own clothes anymore. Sue has done a wonderful job stocking my closet with clothes that usually keep me out of trouble.

Dress For The Gig

Before you walk onstage, whatever the venue, you really should have given some attention to how you look. Street clothes are okay if you’re trying to present an “every man” image but they can also communicate apathy. Like you just don’t care about who you’re playing for.

The eye is naturally drawn to both the best-dressed and worst-dressed people in the room. If you’re leading worship and someone else on the team has raised the fashion bar, people in the room may experience tension over who they should focus on. I’m not one to get really worried about it, but I do believe it’s true. Take it up a notch just to be safe. But only one notch.

Dress For The People

Dave, a friend of mine, is a traditional church kind of guy. Enjoys singing hymns, wears his suit and tie every Sunday. When I asked him why at one point, he said dressing more formally was a sign of respect for the people he would see at church. And respecting the people was one of the ways he would show respect to God.

I agree.

Now, I don’t wear a suit and tie unless its a wedding or a funeral. And (fortunately) we hold pretty informal Sunday services at our church. But I still want to respect those I’m around. So I’ll pay attention to how people dress for our services, then I’ll take it up just a little.

Negotiables For Worship Leading

Jeans or khakis? Street clothes or business casual? Collar or no collar? Plaid, stripes, patterns, colors – these all matter because our clothing choices may set up unintentional reflex responses from service attenders.

I used to be oblivious to this, until Mark, an artist friend, informed me.

“How does this look?” I would ask, inviting his response to my choice of shirt and sweater. I think the shirt had a small checked pattern and the sweater had a stripe or two.

“It’s okay with me,” he would say. “But it will drive my wife a little insane.” Not in a good way, either.

Apparently what I wore had been the topic of conversation in their house on at least one previous occasion. Not really the outcome I’m working toward in the services. I have since paid more attention to how I look, and when in doubt, I’ll ask those more knowledgeable than I.

Non-negotiables For Worship Leading

There are some standards of dress that we as worship leaders do need to adhere to. These are about modesty and propriety. I realize that even these standards leave some room for interpretation. We don’t want clothing choices that distract, and that includes, of course too much skin.

Don’t let tops get too low nor skirts too high. The tighter your clothes fit, the more uncomfortable you’ll make some folks. And yet, if they are too baggy, it looks like you don’t care. We don’t want holes where there shouldn’t be holes, and we don’t want to see what’s underneath.

There, I’ve said it. Here come the emails…

And as an acknowledgment of how life is unfair, women will need to think about dressing up one level above the guys. When they wear the same thing, my wife tells me the women look like they have taken less care than the men. This is totally a perception thing, but it will most certainly affect worship leading.

The Heart Of The Matter

Now that I’ve come across way more like my parents than I ever thought I would, let me just say this: at the heart of these decisions is the desire to help people know they are cared for, and their opinion matters. I’m not walking onstage to prove anything or boost my ego. I want to worship God, and He told me to love people. If how I dress onstage impacts them for better or worse, I need to pay attention.

Have you found that what you wear influences the way you are perceived? You can leave your comment below, or email any questions you have about dressing for the gig or next-step musicianship to [email protected].

© 2014 Steve Case

Are You Performing With Passion? What We Can Learn From Taylor Swift

Let me say right up front I’ve never met Taylor Swift. I don’t know a lot of her songs. I don’t know much about what kind of person she is. I don’t know what she’ll be like five years from now.

But I am often inspired when I see her perform.

When she walks onstage, she’s ready to rock and roll (or whatever the country and/or pop equivalent is). She wears her emotions on her sleeve, she attacks the stage with purpose, energy and skill. Though she uses her appearance to her advantage, that’s really not what keeps me watching. It’s her attitude, along with her expertise. It’s her passion for the music and for the crowd.

And – I’m just guessing here – I think she has a blast.

What Draws Us In?

We are invited into each performance by several components, all working together to invite us into the experience: the look, the skill, and the passion.

The look is most often the first aspect of a performance that catches our attention. It includes everything we see from the performer(s) to the landscape, architecture, and lighting that surrounds us. It’s true whether it’s on a screen, in a theater, or outside at a summer concert. It has to all fit together. And though many of you are way more visually oriented than I am, the look influences the whole experience, either enhancing or distracting. It starts with the atmosphere of the venue, is enhanced by the lighting and staging, but then is focused on the performer. I’m not judging here, just recognizing the reality that the way the performer dresses and carries him/herself is crucial to first impressions.

The skill of the performer will be the next thing we’ll notice. At first, there is a period of validation – can this artist deliver? When we’re satisfied they can, the next thing we want to know is whether or not they can hold our attention. I joke about having A.D.D., but I think most of us these days are increasingly attention-span-challenged. Are they performing with excellence, are they exceeding our expectations? Then, when we’re convinced they are, we wonder if they will show us something new and fresh. We want to be surprised and delighted.

The passion of the performer, when we’re comfortable with the look and the skill, is what I believe keeps us engaged. Their passion doesn’t just entertain us. It helps us believe. Passion in the performance lifts us up, transcending the mundane and the mechanical. It gives us a glimpse into life on another level, where beauty and excellence are vibrant and alive. We want to live in that place, and the passion we witness in a performance makes us feel like we really can.

Steps To A Passion-Filled Performance

We who perform, though all artists, are all over the map when it comes to our ability to emote onstage, demonstrating our passion. As for me, a guy who has to work at showing emotion when I perform, I admire those who seem to be so good at it. I’m better at it than I used to be (I think). But it takes some deliberate steps for me every time.

  1. Know well what you’re going to sing, play and say. Rehearse the mechanics of your performance to the point of being absolutely comfortable with each facet. Drill the rhythms, pay attention to being in tune. If you are planning to comment between songs, write out what you want to say. Even if you don’t stick to your script, the exercise of writing it out will help you focus on what your message really is.
  2. Look the part. Dress for the gig (more on this in a future post). When you are confident in how you look, you can feel free to focus on the performance. If you are performing for an older crowd, dress up, they will expect it. If your audience is younger, consider the venue and how they will be dressed. Then go just a step up. And never dress in a way that distracts, from too sexy to too sloppy, from clownish to indifferent. Make sure your look fits the experience you are trying to provide for your audience.
  3. Expand your movements. If you feel like you’re moving enough onstage, you’re probably not. This includes, by the way, the look on your face. Are you communicating your passion you’re feeling through your facial expression? You may need a friend’s input for this one.
  4. Let your passion lead you. When you have prepared the music, the atmosphere and your movements the best you can, the next step is to exercise the courage to put your heart out there. It takes courage because you are vulnerable and exposed. But that’s the best way to get an audience to follow you, by showing them how you feel and leading them to the same place. And when you are done, you can be confident you’ve left it all on the stage, you’ve done your job and inspired many through your passion.

Are your performances filled with passion? Please leave your comment below, or email me with any questions about music, performing, and next-step musicianship at [email protected].
© 2014 Steve Case

10 Ways To Use Silence In Your Songs

My brother-in-law, Steve Shelander, shot these night sky photos. He is quite the astronomer!
The silence of space inspires my imagination. My astronomer brother-in-law, Steve Shelander, shot these night sky photos. These galaxies are in the constellation Hercules, a scant 470 million light years distant. More or less.

It sounds counter-intuitive, but silence is quite possibly the most important part of our songs.

Silence? Not playing the right notes at the right time?

Yup.

Not using dynamics, tempo, and all the other artistic tools on our workbench? Silence? Really?

Correct.

We may think silence is a bad thing, like when a musician forgets what comes next, furrows his or her brow and stops playing. We know they’ve blown it big time.

Or we may look at silence as the holy grail our parents tried to get us to adopt. (”Be QUIET!” -remember those wonderful moments from your childhood?)

But the intentional use of silence in our music is good. In fact, it is necessary. And cool.

Reportedly, the world-renowned concert pianist Artur Schnabel, once made the statement (quoted in many places): “The notes I handle no better than many pianists. But the pauses between the notes, ah, that is where the art resides.”

(I found this again on brainyquote.com, but I’ve heard about the quote for many, many years. Not sure when he said it, but it nevertheless has the ring of truth in it! Great quote.)

Types of Silence

We should start with an understanding that silence is not always exactly, well, silent. There are several kinds of silence. And each has its place in our arsenal. So what kinds of silence are we talking about?

M51 is one of Steve's favorites. It's called a "globular cluster", also within the constellation Hercules.
M51 is one of Steve’s favorites. It’s called a “globular cluster” within the constellation Hercules.

I think of silence in three primary categories:

  • Rhythmic silence happens when a player doesn’t play for a moment but the music is still going on. This is always useful, whether you’re counting rests in the music or playing short, detached notes (staccato, spiccato, pizzicato).
  • Natural silence happens when you’re sitting in the doctor’s waiting room and the background music has stopped, or when you’re sitting in the audience when the lights dim, and you’re waiting for the Concert Master to walk out onto the stage. (Maybe when a tree falls in the forest with no one around to hear it. Jury’s still out on that one…)
  • Utter silence is to be found in the vacuum of outer space. It takes some work for us to really experience utter silence here.

The Ten Ways

And so, thinking about silence in these three ways, here are ten ways to take advantage of intentional silence in your own songs.

  1. Punctuating rhythms. Rests, particularly shorter ones, are inherently part of rhythm. They are to be found within phrases as well as at the end of phrases and should be counted just as deliberately as the notes themselves.
  2. Longer silences between phrases you play will help your music breathe. Just as sung lyrics may invite you to take a breath at the end of each line, leaving space between your instrumental phrases really helps you to shape and group your phrases. It also helps the listener to stay with you.
  3. Breathe between movements. When you finish a major section of the larger work, let silence help you take a breath, don’t rush it. Then start fresh into the next movement or section.
  4. Use silence as a surprise, like building up to a chorus and unexpectedly silencing everything on beat 4 before you crash into the downbeat of the chorus. Really fun, makes the band sound tight!
  5. Build anticipation through a longer period of silence. Particularly in a ballad or slower song, if you hold onto a moment of silence for just a little longer than expected, it can really add to the drama of the song.
  6. Use momentary silence to regroup after a long held chord. When you hold a chord or sing a long syllable as the music comes to a halt, take just a quick moment to be silent before you restart. Might only be a literal second. But an artfully placed moment of silence will make your song sound unhurried and relatable.
  7. Silence is your starting point before you play. The air is, to varying degrees, silent just before you begin. Even if you’re playing in a club, the disorganized sound of conversations and incidental noises in the room are the counterpoint to what you’re about to play. Use it to prepare yourself, expect the listener to be preparing themselves, anticipating something great. (Then it’s up to you to not let them down. Just sayin’.)
  8. Repeating periods of silence can add to a general pulsation of the music that feels like an unstoppable forward movement, like you’re in your kayak on the river, gradually getting closer to the rapids. As silences get shorter and shorter in a repeated fashion, the tension will build.
  9. Utter silence for a beat or a measure can make the listener feel like they are in a vacuum, with a complete absence of sound. It is unnatural and disconcerting. Utter silence can make you feel deprived, like something normal is missing. You long for the next sound to take away the discomfort. I’ve heard this used effectively on pop recordings, but it’s never used for very long. It can be a painful moment, followed by relief when the music comes back in.
  10. Explore silence as an experiment. John Cage always seems to enter the conversation about silence because he famously performed a piece in 1952 that he entitled, 4’33” (”Four Minutes, Thirty-Three Seconds”). No instruments were to play, the whole point was to discover the ambient sounds in the room. Silence, in his view (and mine) is not really silent.

How do you use silence in your own music? Please leave your comment below, or email any questions about music, music theory, and next-step musicianship to [email protected].

© 2014 Steve Case