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Posts in Technical
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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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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The Metronome: Blessing Or Curse?

by Caleb Kay

The metronome (sometimes referred to as a ‘click’)  is an often-disused piece of equipment in worship teams, and sentiments toward it run the gamut from mere disregard to extreme disdain.

Ten years ago, I was asked to play the drums with a click, because the opening song of a special service needed to be in sync with a video. I struggled and gave lots of excuses reasons why it couldn't be done. I'm sure some will be familiar to readers:

  • It's so rigid!
  • It's distracting or hard to follow.
  • I can't worship with it (and don't you know that's the most important?).

But over the last ten years, I've grown to learn how to play with it, and even how to appreciate the significance of its role in worship music. As with everything in life, there's a learning curve, but I've grown to enjoy it, and have discovered three benefits to using it in a band setting.

1. It's an objective foundation.

Ever had that experience where your band rehearses a song and at the end, someone goes, "Hmm that felt draggy," and someone else says, "No, it was too fast"? How easily swayed we can sometimes be!

The advantage of having a metronome is that you can always set it to the speed of the original song that the team is referencing. If the worship leader wants adjustments, tweak it from there.

We don't have to rigidly follow the original without budging, but at least having the click makes it objective, and not subject to feelings – unlike how I might play anywhere from 2 to 5 BPM slower after a heavy dinner.

2. It's a foundation that frees.

In my early years of using the click in a worship band setting, I found it so hard to play freely because I was so focused on following its timing. But there was a day when we went into spontaneous worship, and in our debrief after the set, all the musicians remarked that the click had "disappeared"!

It was really still playing, but what actually happened was that, as we all got better at following the click, it ‘disappeared’ because we were playing precisely in time. It takes practice, but eventually, your internal clock gets better at playing at a constant tempo.

It might seem counterintuitive, but having the click eventually liberates your team to express yourselves; because you're less focused on keeping time with each other, the metronome becomes a solid foundation for your band to express more creatively - together!

(A question that might come up: "Don't the band and all the singers need to be able to hear the click? What if not everyone hears it?" In such cases, the metronome can still be used as a guide for what tempo to start the song in, at the very least. It should also be used in personal practice time, when you're working out your own instrument or vocal parts at home.)

3. Craft and heart go hand in hand.

"It doesn't matter if I can't play or sing in time; what's most important is my heart! I simply can't worship with the click so take it away!"

I think that this may be the cry of every worship musician at some point of our journey (myself included), but we must understand that as musicians on platforms leading others in worship, our craft is just as much a part of our worship as our hearts' postures. They are not mutually exclusive. As a congregation member, it is easier to follow the leadership of a worship band that plays in time, rather than one that doesn’t.

So keep stewarding that heart of worship, because it starts from a heart that loves Jesus. But get better at your craft, too, because that expression is the overflow of what's within, and to grow in it is to better serve the communities we lead in worship.

It takes humility to honestly assess ourselves – perhaps our craft has not caught up with our heart – and take steps to ensure both are growing in tandem.

I hope this article inspires you to not only consider using the metronome in your teams, but also hone yourselves to become better musicians. I can safely say I’ve seen the hard-earned fruit when teams collectively work towards improving their craft, specifically in the area of timekeeping. Strive towards greater excellence - because Jesus is worthy of that!

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AG is excited to share that we are kicking off a pilot Drums Stream for our 2019 cohort, and it is now open for applications. If you'd like to apply or find out more, do email info@awakengeneration.sg!

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3 Keys To Better Church Sound

by Caleb Chan

This wasn’t an easy article to come up with. When I was asked by the team to write this, I felt it was tough to narrow everything down into pointers that were concise, yet informative and applicable.

Here are some things (technical and practical) to think about as you plan for growth for yourself or your ministry team!

Clarity

This should be a no-brainer! One of the most important factors in a good mix is clarity. Our congregation needs to be able to clearly hear what is spoken, sung, and played on stage. We have to ensure that anything communicated is done so with as few hindrances as possible!

Surprisingly, I still find that many churches face the issue of muffled or boomy vocals, especially during sermons (and quite a number of them seem to have accepted this as the norm).

Sound Tip! Remove what you don’t want! If your sound is muffled, there are frequencies responsible for that. So before you go ahead and boost the high frequencies hoping to bring out the clarity, remove the lower frequencies that are muffling your sound!

Balance

When you cook or bake, the ingredients used are usually measured out in order to achieve a certain combination - or balance - of flavours. Too much of one flavour can throw off an entire dish.

Similarly, when we talk about mixing in sound, balance is vital. Too much of an instrument or too little of the song leader throws the mix out of balance.

I talk about 2 types of balances whenever I teach/train: Volume Balance and Frequency Balance.

Volume balance does not mean every instrument and singer is set to the same volume. Good volume balance is ensuring that what needs to be heard can be heard.

For example: The songleader needs to be most prominently heard in a mix (even if the electric guitarist is playing an amazing, face-melting riff).

Frequency balance is about creating balance along the entire frequency spectrum; Low-Mid-High. Again, this may differ from church to church, and even between services within a church.

For example: A youth service may require (or perhaps, ‘desire’) more heart-pumping low frequencies, but this wouldn’t work in a more conservative or traditional service.

Sound Tip! Music has dynamics and is always ‘moving’; it takes listeners on a journey. Therefore, your balance should always be ‘moving’ with the band. If you like to just set initial levels and leave them, I highly encourage and challenge you to take it a step further - start moving the faders together with your band!

Awareness

Awareness is not something commonly talked about, especially in the context of sound. However, it is something that really sets good sound operators apart!

Even if you’re able to EQ a mic to sound amazing, but unable to un-mute it in time for when the Pastor picks it up and speaks into it, you already risk causing a distraction, even if just a tiny one.

Another common scenario is when the band or a musician on stage has an issue and is frantically trying to get our attention. But our eyes are buried deep in the mixer, or worse - we’re not even there!

As sound crew, it’s key that we do our utmost to ensure the service runs smoothly and seamlessly in the area of sound. Yes, sounding good is important, but so is ensuring mics and instruments are muted and un-muted at the right time.

Some areas to prepare:

  • When will the service anchor / Pastor come up on stage (either to open the service or takeover from the band)?
  • Which mic will the pastor be using (especially if your church has multiple wireless mics)?
  • Will any of your musicians be connecting/disconnecting their instruments?
  • Is there going to be a video played that requires audio?

Sound Tip! Yes, there may be lots to keep a lookout for, on top of having to focus on mixing, and yes, there may be unforeseen and sudden appearances on stage that may catch you unawares. If these are some of your concerns, work in pairs! Have more than one pair of eyes (and sometimes ears). There are many roles besides mixing, such as passing the right mics to the right people, or having someone position themselves near the stage, ready to assist the band. Some things to think about!


Click here for more information and to apply to our Sound Stream, where students will immerse themselves in a practical course focused on developing their technical ability and training their ears to achieve an effective sound unique to their church. Students can expect to grow in their understanding of how the effective use of a technical area like sound can greatly affect, build, and enhance the atmosphere of worship.

Click here for more information on our Sound Training Packages, specifically catered for churches who want to invest in the training of their Sound & Audio Teams for their worship services. Our Sound Consultant will train and mentor your sound teams to grow in their technical and practical knowledge of creating ideal environments for the worship context.

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