Sunday, July 22, 2012

Players & Musicians

Back in music school, each student declared a primary instrument. It didn't matter how many instruments you played, you still had to designate only one as your main axe. 

The designation typically led to being type-casted. People were stereotyped by instrument. Drummers had no sense of pitch, pianists no sense of rhythm, and bassists no sense of amplitude. In the case of guitarists there were sub-groupings. You had your cerebral jazzers, your spaced-out rockers, and your self-absorbed fusion players.

The group that was most isolated was the singers. A singer was someone who declared his voice as his primary instrument. By most-isolated, I mean to say that everyone else was part of a collective called "musicians." Singers were not. Nope, you had your musicians and then you had your singers.

There were several reasons for the segregation of singers. At the time, the school's ratio of guys to girls was about 40/1. The ratio of guys to girls among singers was inverted. This made singers the most popular stereotype. However this had nothing to do with singers being designated as non-musicians. That came primarily from the belief that singers never had to learn an instrument. Singing was a gift. She might learn and practice songs, but a singer never worked very hard to develop her proficiency with her instrument. At least, that's how we thought about it back then.

For me, the greatest evidence of non-musician status lay in the fact that I never encountered singers in any of the advanced classes. There were no arrangers who were singers. There were no composers who were singers. There were no theorists who were singers. There were no synth-programmers who were singers. So, I went along with the crowd. "Yeah, you've got your singers and then you've got your musicians."

That's how I thought about it then. However, more recently I came to two conclusions. First, there is a useful distinction between musicians and others in music. Second, the distinction has nothing to do with choice of instrument. A more accurate and useful distinction is that which segments players and musicians. I'd never really drawn this distinction before, but the more people I play with the more apparent the distinction becomes and the more important it becomes.

There are lots of people who play an instrument. They took lessons as kids. They learned to play notes and chords. They learned to read music. They learned how to maintain their instruments. They learned songs. They can play what they've learned and they can learn to play new things.

Some play advanced music quite well. They know lots of songs. They get great sound from their instruments. They fly through riffs. They have the latest gear. However, despite all this, they're not musicians; they're players.

What's the difference? Here are some examples. 
  1. A player knows what notes to play, but he can't tell you why those notes work, why one note would be "on" and another would be "off." He might hear that a note is off or on, but he couldn't tell you why.
  2. A player works well with well structured arrangements and sets, but gets stuck when you change things up, e.g., play a song in a different key or change the meter from 4/4 to 5/4.
  3. A player needs to know the chords ahead of time; a musician can come up with the chords on the fly.
  4. A player thinks about pitch and rhythm in absolute terms; a musician thinks of them in relative terms.
  5. A player tries something and listens to see if he got it right; a musician hears what he plays before he plays it.
  6. Players often execute amazing lines and grooves that in no way work for the song. Musicians play what works.
Those are just a few examples. 

I used to notice situations when people whom I thought to be really strong musically would get stuck . Change a key and they fumble. Play something you've never practiced and they stop playing altogether. Ask for a song arrangement and you get something that sounds great but doesn't work with the lyrics.

I'd taken it for granted that if you weren't a singer, then you'd be able to do any of the above. However, I've found it's only by exception that a player is also a musician. 

I'm not just talking about people who recently started or who've only played casually. I'm talking about great players who've performed professionally. Even among great players, there appear to be few musicians, at least in the ways that I've defined "musician."

You might be thinking, "Okay, so there's a difference in people who play an instrument and people who know other stuff about music. So what?"

Good question. If you're not someone who performs music, the distinction may not matter at all. However, if you are, then knowing whether or not someone is a player or a musician who plays helps you to calibrate your expectations about a performance. How much time do we need to rehearse? How much can we vary from the set list? Can we change keys or add another solo? Am I going to throw off everyone if I take my solo out-of-time? What can I reasonably expect her to do?

All this matters if you're heading out to a gig. It matters a lot.

Now here's the interesting part. The type of distinction I've drawn between players and musicians can be drawn within any profession. In any profession, there are people who've learned the subject, received accreditation and work professionally, but have no passion for what they do. They don't continually dig deeper into the subject matter. They don't expand their scope of understanding. They follow the script and put in their time.

There are teachers who put in the time and follow the script and there are educators who do whatever it takes for students to learn. The latter welcomes the challenge of someone who doesn't fit the educational mold; the former sees that student as a problem. Not all teachers are educators. 

There are doctors who know a lot about symptoms and what to prescribe, but their knowledge is capped. There are doctors who read all the time seeking to stay abreast of what's going on in their areas of expertise and also looking into other areas of healing.

No matter who you deal with, you've got players and you've got musicians. If the results of the interaction are important to you, then it probably matters to you which is which. However, you may never have thought much about it.

Happy Sunday,
Teflon

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