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Posts in Creative
4 KEYS to playing without scores
 
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“I grew up reading notes on the stave! How do you improvise? How do you know what chords to play?”

 

Sound familiar? Over the years, I’ve encountered many classical pianists and musicians who ask similar questions. I then realised that there often is a real question of how to make the jump between playing what you see on a score and being able to improvise freely.

 

I can relate to this struggle. I grew up taking formal piano lessons, working tirelessly through the grades of the formal examination systems.

 

I’ve always enjoyed music, having grown up in a musical family. However, it was only when I joined the worship ministry in my home church when I was 13 that I discovered this whole new facet of music and improvisation that brought me much freedom and growth.

 

It was when I experienced the power of music to express thoughts and emotions beyond words and when I experienced the Lord’s presence powerfully during times of worship that my love and passion for music grew.

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I began to experiment with chords and learned to play songs by ear, and soon grew to love improvisation! I could spend hours at the piano, playing, experimenting, and learning new songs, replaying the tracks in the CDs repeatedly and copy them exactly. As I grew in freedom to create and express what I could not in words and as I began to create new tunes to the Lord, my relationship with Him grew together with my musical abilities.

 

Some people think that you either improvise and play by ear OR sight read music very well – I would say that’s a myth! I know many brilliant classical players who are just as brilliant even in jazz improvisation!

 

Music is a language. This means that the ability to listen, speak, read, and write music are like that in any other language.

 

Ideally, we want to be able to do equally well in all these aspects as musicians. You should not feel handicapped when attempting to improvise because of your strong classical background. Instead, you would be more equipped because of the strong understanding of music you already possess.

 

How do you begin creating freely when you’ve been taught from such a young age to simply follow what’s on the page? I can imagine the trepidation because trying to play something that isn’t on the page has been ingrained as “wrong”.

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May I suggest that the first place to begin? Dare to try.

 

The process of improvisation often challenges you to simply make a sound and create something first without prior judgement. It takes time and practice for one to get used to translating the God-given tunes and harmonies in your heart and mind to actual sound. If you are completely new, begin with playing a familiar tune that you have memorised with no written notes provided and slowly get used to doing so. Before you panic and think that this is all too abstract, here are some practical tips to help you on your journey.

 

1)     Play any piece of music with a greater harmonic and melodic understanding.

Gotcha! Most of us are guilty of taking a piece of written music and playing through it without really getting a composer’s ‘bird’s eye view’ of how the piece was written and structured, both harmonically and melodically.

 

Pick a piece you are already familiar with. Study the chords and the harmonies that support the melodies! Once you understand those, take it apart and attempt to play it in another key.

 

For example, take apart the simple “Fur Elise” by Beethoven – could you find the chords and then transpose it and play it in E minor instead of A minor simply by knowing the chord numbers? (e.g. i, V, iv) The more songs you analyse, the more you will see patterns and apply it to your own playing!

 

2)     Listen & Copy!

As a baby first encounters language by listening and then imitating, we can also learn the musical language by listening widely and attempting to recreate.

 

Listen to a piece of music, then attempt to replicate and play what you hear without the guidance of scores. Try to play it as closely and accurately as the original.

 

Begin with simpler pieces first - Pop songs or worship songs are a good start as they often have simpler chord structures!

 

Some quick tips:

  • Chart the bars with the relevant time signature

  • Identify the bass notes

  • Identify chord qualities, chords, and cadences

  • Identify melodies and riffs

  • Play back what you have learnt and compare it with the original

  • Attempt to play it in different keys, keeping true to the voicings, grooves, etc.

  • Learn to apply similar chord progressions, voicings, and styles to your playing

 

3)     Re-organise

You may be used to playing the melody with your right hand (RH), and arpeggiated and moving harmonies with your left (LH). Try placing majority of the chord on the RH instead while keeping the LH simple with mainly the bass note or with the 5th.

 

When playing as an accompanist, refrain from playing the melody line throughout. Practise forming chords with good voicing and voice-leading with the RH and LH while being aware of the melody.

 

4)     Dare to create

Take your instrument – (even your voice!) and create something new. Add chords to it. Or reharmonise a familiar hymn with different chords! It may not sound like the best composition at the start, but similarly, becoming eloquent in a language requires you to practice stringing phrases, then sentences, then an entire speech or poem together.

 

Ultimately, view music as a whole, while keeping in mind its ultimate goal of expressing things often intangible and communicating with others. I believe God created music for communication and for us to simply enjoy its beauty.  

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Worshipping with Social Media
 
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In the 2018 United States House of Representatives primary elections in New York District 14, a 29-year-old woman from The Bronx left the world stunned when she challenged ten-term incumbent Congressman Joe Crowley for the seat – and won by an astounding 15 percentage points. At that point, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez was being outspent by 18:1 and her political campaign was focused on door-to-door campaigning as well as a heavy presence on Facebook.

Against all odds, she went on to beat Republican nominee Anthony Pappas at the general elections with 78% of the vote and became the youngest woman to be elected to the United States Congress. In an interview with The Intercept, she was quoted as such: “You can’t really beat big money with more money. You have to beat them with a totally different game.” That game, as political commentators and analysts came to understand, is social media.

With 4.7 million Twitter followers and 3.7 million Instagram followers, it’s clear that “The Social Media Titan” of New York played the game well in both the personal and professional arena, engaging audiences through her vulnerable and relatable content, something that all other candidates failed to do. I could easily cite a dozen other examples of how great social media engagement leads to success, but I don’t think that anyone needs convincing that social media is the pre-eminent driver in today’s society in the way that it interacts with its members - democratising communication world-wide. This leads us to the more important question: How do Christians live a life of worship through social media?

Though its power is undeniable, the prospect of using it in a way that glorifies God and furthers His kingdom might be daunting. There’s no question that social media has a bad reputation for being cold, addictive, and for self-glorification. I relate to this because I always favour a one-to-one conversation over a cup of coffee compared to seemingly shallow exchanges on social media.

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But we must understand that social media is not the be all and end all, but the gateway that leads us to that one-to-one conversation over a cup of coffee.

This is your new outreach ministry. The thing is, you don’t have to be a superstar or influencer to make impact. Over the years, I’ve had the privilege of making meaningful connections over social media that have led to genuine friendships and yes, opportunities to share the gospel and share lives. It’s about getting people through the door where they can then feel genuine warmth, isn’t it?

Like it or not, social media falls under the big branch of communications, and to communicate what the church stands for – the core message of the gospel, amongst others – while being theologically accurate at the same time is a torque that Christians will always have to wrestle with. Which leads me to the next point:

 

Don’t be slaves to social media. Be stewards.

Yes, stewards. The church needs gifted communicators who can relate biblical Christian faith to contemporary life. In Mark 16:15, Jesus calls his disciples to go into the world and preach the gospel to every creature. Isn’t it cool that we can now reach 'every creature' with an image, an Instagram story, a shared link?

 We all know that with great power comes great responsibility and of course, there is the tendency to fall into the trappings of social media addiction and get caught up in comparison. My advice is to understand how your social media usage affects you and to place healthy boundaries for yourself. Most importantly, lift it up to God and ask Him to help you communicate in a way that glorifies him.

 

Be wise about what you post on social media; some things are best left to face-to-face conversations.

In an age where everyone has an opinion on everything and are poised to pounce on anyone who disagrees, one must be vigilant on what to say and when. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve looked at a comments section on a Facebook or Instagram post about politics, theology, or anything else and been disappointed by the response it has elicited from Christians – often rude, condescending, and holier-than-thou. 

Don’t be reduced to keyboard warriors that engage in a militant manner because it does not do justice to the Lord. You will not win the world over through combative communication. Instead, we should be discerning on the occasion and platform to speak – online or offline – and to trust that God will help us communicate with clarity and authority each time. And lastly:

 

Be authentic in the content you create.

Now more than ever, the world is responding to authenticity. It’s how Ocasio-Cortez unseated seemingly unmovable candidates and it’s how you’ll reach out to your family member, your friend, your community. Like moths to a flame, we can’t help but be drawn to authenticity because it’s something that our souls have yearned for since the beginning of time.

Put simply, your online personality should reflect your offline personality. My prayer is that every Christian would understand that there is no actual divide between the secular and the sacred, and that every piece of content you put out – whether it’s an image of nature, a poem, a dance video, or a 140-character statement – can glorify God if it carries the values that He holds dear: Beauty. Honour. Vulnerability.

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Drums // Muso × Sound Engineer
 

By Caleb Kay x Caleb Chan

It’s no secret that you only sound as good as your engineer makes you sound, but good sound is really a team effort; the end-goal is to set the team up for a win. Both musos and engineers really want the same thing – to create an atmosphere for people to encounter God – and learning to see from each other’s perspectives will allow us to work towards crafting that atmosphere better, together!

We embark on a dialogue between our Resident Drums Mentor, Caleb Kay, and our Resident Sound Mentor, Caleb Chan, to gain insight on the different approaches drummers and sound engineers take with regards to this instrument.

How is your working relationship?

Kay: There’s been such a natural grace on our working relationship, maybe something to do with having the same name?

Chan: It definitely helps to have the same name. (Imagine if everyone on the band had the same name, the level of unity will be incredible!) We share quite a similar sense of humour, play the same mobile games, support the same football club, love the same God, so I guess we get along pretty well.

What’s one thing that has had a huge impact on getting a better sound?

Chan: Unsurprisingly, communication and being willing to communicate goes a long way.

Kay: It’s something we do before either of us get behind the drums or sound console: explaining what drum sound I’m trying to achieve, and also hearing from Chan on how that fits within the bigger picture of his mix. That gives us both the same target to hit.

Chan: It’s common for musicians to come into a session/rehearsal prepared and ready to play their roles and parts, but not have an awareness of how their sounds play a role in the bigger picture.

What’s worse is when you try to bring up certain things that could help, and they get offended as they feel you have overstepped your jurisdiction and entered their ‘space’.

When Kay and I started working together more, we would talk about what drum sound we were going for, how to achieve it, what could be improved - all in context with how everything fits back into the vision of the leaders and AG. But that calls for a certain openness, and not getting easily offended when something doesn’t work.

Kay: There are some specific traits to the drum sound we attempt to go for at AG: a deep, low-pitched snare; warm toms with a subdued attack, and warm, mellow cymbals. My equipment choice and drum tuning facilitates this, but the rest is in the hands of Chan, so we have to communicate to ensure that this envisioned sound is seen through from source to speakers.

That’s great to hear (ha ha) and it’s so true that communication and trust go a long way towards sounding better. But what about some techniques you’ve both employed?

Kay: Firstly, good sound starts with a good source.

Chan: Good source is good sauce.

Kay: You can’t expect the sound engineer to manufacture sound/tone that doesn’t exist at the source. Have a good understanding of tuning and muting your drums to achieve a wide range of tones, and use cymbals that produce the tone you desire.

Chan: With most (actually all) instruments and singers, getting it right at the source is so critical to better sound.

I’ll add that mics and mic-ing play a huge part as well. What kind of sound are you going for? There are tons of drum microphones available and different mics respond differently and have different characteristics. Similarly, with mic positioning, every inch closer or further, and every angle change, alters the sound dramatically.

Kay’s understanding of drum mic-ing really helps as well! I don’t have to be running to and fro if I want something adjusted, I just need to let him know and he’ll sort it out.

Kay: Yeah, it’s so underrated but goes a long way for drummers to try and understand how to mic your drums – a basic understanding of how mic positioning and placement affects how your drums sound. You’ll help yourself and the sound engineer out a huge deal getting to grips with these techniques.

Chan: Oh, and… REVERB! I always find that drums require a lot more processing than other instruments to sound great. But nice reverbs – used tastefully – make your drums sound massive!

As a drummer / sound engineer, what's the one thing you wished the other camp knew?  

Chan: I’ll share this in relation with drummers as a whole, and not particularly Kay. One big tip for drummers: Learn to mix yourself.

I don’t mean going to the sound board or having an iPad mixer by your side. I mean balancing the velocity with which you strike the various components on your kit.

I’ve encountered drummers who smash their hats way harder than the rest of the kit, or don’t hit their snares loud enough to cut through, or hit their crashes really loudly; all these mean an imbalance in how the kit is coming through the various mics.

Learn to get good balance on your own, even before your sound is picked up – remember drum mics are very close to each other – and amplified by the system. Again, good source is good sauce.

Kay: For me, it can be frustrating when you work hard towards a certain kind of tone, but the engineer just treats your instrument generically, or, because of limited technique or ability, defaults to only one kind of tone.

Chan is one of my favourite sound engineers because he listens widely and is very up-to-date on the current sound of worship music, from Bethel Music to Hillsong to Elevation Worship.

He tries to borrow ideas – attempting to reverse-engineer the Bethel Music snare drum sound, for instance – and in doing this, pushes himself to become better as an engineer. At the same time, he learns how to better reproduce a certain kind of tone that the drummer might be working towards, becoming more versatile!

Any closing words for our readers?

Kay: Just want to encourage all the sound engineers out there: you are more than a face hiding at the back behind the sound console; you are such a vital part of the worship team.

Listen widely, be in-the-know of how drums (or any instrument for that matter) sound in current worship music, and learn how to reproduce that tone, always seeking to grow in your ear and your ability!

Chan: And drummers, you are in a position to influence the atmosphere of worship in a very audible and obvious way.

Be sensitive to what the Spirit is doing and learn to flow with Him on your instrument, more than just playing through a song!

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Bass: 3 things you can play besides root notes
 
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BASS. If you’re reading this, you probably have a passion for it, and/or the instruments that produce those frequencies. And for that, I shall dub thee a ‘Low-end Lover’!

This article addresses the felt need shared amongst many a low-end lovers who play in church: ‘Can I do anything beyond playing the correct root notes in time?’ Yes, and I will share some simple approaches you may use to ace up your bass and provide not just a conducive atmosphere for worship, but also through your playing reflect the excellence, beauty, and creativity of the original Creator of groove, harmony, and melody Himself.

But first, what is your role as a bass player?

The Role of the Bass

A general school of thought is that the bass helps to maintain the framework of the music, within which the rest of the band can be free to explore. ‘Framework? Say what?’ Abstract, I know.

The framework is made up of rhythmic and harmonic boundaries - in other words, the groove and the chords of a piece of music, among other elements. Think of a framed-up painting - most artists would not purposely paint outside of the frame and onto the walls. Keeping the paint within the frame - that’s a huge part of the bass’ role. It’s about keeping the groove and chords clear.

Failing to do this would cause the music to sound messy or dissonant, both of which I presume are not #ministrygoals for you. (If they are, why are you reading this?)

So how do you fulfil this? Simple - ensure that you do not deviate too much from the prearranged grooves and chord progressions (a.k.a. chord changes) in a song. If the progression was G-C-G-C in a straight rock groove, don’t play G-Bm-Em-C Bossa-novishly!

Now, on to the juicier, tastier stuff - the 3 things (out of many) you can play on your bass during your church set besides root notes. -Rubs hands-

(One caveat though: Depending on your background, you may need Google ready!) 

Passing Notes

This principle involves moving from one chord to another via a route of in-between, related notes, to outline the chord changes (related to ‘walking bass’). For example, ask: How can I ‘travel’ from G to C in a less-than-direct way?

So from G to C, you could use the notes A and/or B (in-betweens) as part of your route; or even traveling down from notes E to D to C.

Using passing notes creates a sense of movement, which adds energy - great for faster, more upbeat songs.

Inversions

Each chord is made up of a combination of notes, called chord tones. For example, a G major triad (chord or three tones) is made up of the root (G), 3rd (B), and 5th (D). A chord inversion is when the chord tones are rearranged, such that the bass (or lowest) note is no longer the root note, but the 3rd or 5th.

During a G Major chord, most bass players would play the root - in this case, the G note. That’s a good thing, please do that. However, if you want to provide a lift, some tension, or a different tonal ‘colour’ (think of music notes and chords as a collection of strokes and colours on canvas, within that frame we talked about earlier) to engage listeners, you can play B or D during that G Major chord.

Apply this principle to other chords - find out what the chord tones of a chord are, and occasionally add variation by playing a chord tone other than the root. Try it out! Each inversion of each chord provides a very different feel. Get familiar with how each feels, so you’ll know when to use which.

Of course, use this tastefully - don’t play an inversion for every chord! This risks distracting - or worse, confusing - the listener, which causes us to ‘lose’ the congregation.

Chords

“Chords? On a bass?? Is you mad?!” Nope, not right now at least. I would be if you didn’t read on, though! (: Chords on a bass can offer not just added colour, but also provide additional harmonic support for especially sparse portions or stripped-down setups, such as: 1 keyboard, 1 cajon, 1 bass, 0-1 acoustic guitar.

I’m not asking you to play an entire triad. Try and stick to just two notes when playing chords on bass, and do not play them too closely together. All this is to avoid them sounding like your football boots look after a match in the rain - muddy.

For example, during a soft C-D-Em progression, try these shapes for simple root/third chords:

  • C: E string, 8th fret (C) + G string 9th fret (E, its major third)

  • D: E string, 10th fret (D) + G string 11th fret (F#, its major third)

  • Em: E string, 12th fret (E) + G string 12th fret (G, its minor third)

 Conclusion

There are tonnes of other ways you can use and incorporate the above tips into your playing. Experiment at home, figure out what you like, expand your musical vocabulary, and add them into your arsenal. So whenever you need it, you’re ready to whip it out and take the song to another level!

There you have it! Three simple, straightforward, and immediately applicable handles you can adopt and use in your church set. I’m excited for how you guys will benefit from this!

Keep it groovy, low-end lover.

 
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Writing Songs for the Nation
 

Zephaniah 3:17 tells us that the Lord quiets us with His love and rejoices over us with singing. When we lean into Him and listen closely, we can catch echoes and reverberations of His infinite love for us individually - do we believe that God’s heart beats in the same way for the Nations of the World, too?

Most of us appreciate that in some broad way, God is Omnipresent and Sovereign over all the nations. But does He really have anything to say about what happens daily on a national level? Does He really care?

The (National) Anthem in God’s Heart

In Deuteronomy 31, God tells Moses to write a song for the nation of Israel, and to teach it to them so that it may be passed down from generation to generation:

“…write this song and teach it to the people of Israel. Put it in their mouths, that… it may be a witness for me against the people of Israel.”

As the story goes, the people of Israel had already forgotten how the Lord had rescued them from slavery, provided for and protected them as they journeyed towards the Promised Land. God wanted a song written so that it would bear testimony against them of their unfaithfulness towards Him as He anticipated their going astray - “This song will be there with them as a witness as to who they are and what went wrong”.

It may initially seem harsh - the song functions like a witness testifying against them in God’s Court. It hardly seems like the kind of tune that any modern day songwriter would be ‘inspired’ to write. If we look closer, however, we will find that the song was merely a medium and a way for God to reveal His heart towards the entire Nation. He cared about what He was seeing. He perceived whatever was taking place daily in the Nation and He had something to say about it. In Deuteronomy, God chose Moses to listen and to write the song on His (God’s) heart. What if He’s choosing us to do the same today? Are we tuning in to listen?

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Co-writing Nation Songs with the Lord

The commission of Moses in Deuteronomy isn’t just for the songwriters – it is for all the children of God. As Jesus told us:

“All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.”

As children and lovers of God, our commission is to make disciples of all Nations. Songs are a powerful tool for discipleship - taking place on an individual level, but also on a national scale as in Deuteronomy.

Songwriters have a special role in this endeavour because we are armed and equipped with a very specific skill-set: crafting lyrical and melodic hooks to retain attention, understanding the power of a song idea that will renew minds, appreciating the structure of songs and how best to order words with melody, so that we can truly take our songs to the paradigm that God is on. As we do so, our songs become a platform on which God reveals His heart to an entire Nation, even to disciple them.

In this process, we learn to become His faithful scribes (Psalm 45:1) - people who listen to Him, know His heart and express it faithfully. We become co-writers with God to pen the song on His heart. We listen in closely, asking Him as often as we perceive the happenings around us in the Nation: “Lord, what do You see? What do You think? How do You feel about this?” Imagine the impact we could bring to the communities around us and the Nations of the World if we care about what He truly cares about, and if we speak what He would say: “Lord, what are you thinking of when you look into our Churches, the marketplace and on the streets? Father, how Your heart cry out when we see the way we strive in this Nation for what doesn’t fully satisfy us? Lord, what is on Your heart right now for this Nation? How are You moving, and how do You desire to 'heal our land'?"

Make no mistake - God does have something to say. The question is: do we want to know? Will we seek His heart in prayer and keenly study His word to discern His voice and find out? When we do, we must come ready to scribe and pen down what we hear from Him. In that place, we will find that He always faithfully responds and reveals His heart if only we seek Him.

Every Nation has its own spiritual climate and journey - one which God Himself in continually writing. I am reminded of that powerful Singapore National Day Parade (NDP) song which goes:

“There was a time when people said
That Singapore won't make it, but we did
There was a time when troubles seemed too much
For us to take, but we did
We built a nation, strong and free, reaching out together
For peace and harmony

Singapore our homeland, it's here that we belong
All of us united, one people marching on
We've come so far together, our common destiny
Singapore forever, a nation strong and free”

Just think about the incredible influence that a song like this can have in mobilising an entire Nation into greater purpose, if only we were to re-imagine it for present times and begin to pen our God-song with intimacy and sensitivity to His Spirit.

Ultimately, writing songs for the Nation isn’t just about song-writing itself – it is about having such an intimate walk with the Lord that we begin to feel what He feels, think how He thinks, and have on our hearts whatever He has on His for the Nations of the World.

 
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