Some Ruminations on Playing with Other Musicians
posted in practice on february 20th, 2008
More and more these days I’ve been sitting in on dance classes accompanied by my colleague Markus Kolb—and it reminds me of the importance of really listening to the people you play with (and sometimes—if they don’t mind—even recording them). Even if you think you’re "better" than them (which is certainly not the case between Markus and me!) it still pays to keep an ear tuned in others’ direction: you may or may not learn anything new about technical prowess, but this is just one small (and notoriously overrated) facet of good flamenco playing. Discovering something insightful in the way a person interprets a palo or a piece is always possible—in any case, a closed mind (and ears) could well lead you to miss a lot of prime learning opportunities.
I think this hit home for me while I was noodling around with a friend of mine, JP Shields, who is an accomplished classical guitarist (and, on an unrelated note, has a dazzling collection of functional and stylish footwear). We had just finished an interview (soon to be appearing on the main Ravenna Flamenco site) and, as one is wont to do, had picked up some guitars for a bit of music. We traded songs for a while and I finally played him a snippet of a Sabicas piece I had been working on. He was immediately curious about my tremolo. It wasn’t the basic time difference between classical and flamenco tremolos (i.e. 4 stroke versus 5 stroke), however, but rather the spacing of my notes that intrigued him. We scrutinized the passage a bit and found, finally, that what I had been doing, if one were to transcribe it, would look more like pick-up notes before the bass tone instead of an even distribution of five equally spaced notes. Instead of cruising along at a steady pace, my tremolo notes tumble into the base, then pause just a hair before starting up again. I can, of course, play the notes evenly, but I don’t: it doesn’t sound right—it doesn’t fit the piece. Yet I was oblivious to the fact until JP pointed it out.
Now JP is far and away the superior guitarist between the two of us—and there’s no false modesty here; this is a simple fact. But he didn’t approach his listening (to my playing) as if he already knew what I was going to do. Granted, an experienced teacher may well be able to describe the particular difference we finally figured out, but my point is that sometimes the things that "sound right" are things we do without thinking, are a matter not of "right or wrong," but of interpretation. And that’s where listening comes in—good listening may be the only way to pick those things up.
The point of all of this, I suppose, is that I’m coming to appreciate a new way of approaching listening and emulation. I’m pretty shameless these days about trying to duplicate just about anything that sounds interesting that comes from the fingerboards of my colleagues. The way I look at it, if something catches my ear, there is undoubtedly a learning opportunity. Granted, I will eventually look for a way to incorporate whatever it is I’ve picked up into my own "aire," but as I’m still very much figuring out what that aire is, this still leaves all sorts of open doors. In any case, being sensitive to these sorts of subtleties—no matter what one’s playing situation is—strikes me as a fine way to build a richer, more varied musical archive.
Now if only I could figure out where JP gets his shoes.