Some Next-Step Musicians Who Are Raising The Bar

footsteps in Trebuchet font

I’ve been having a ball over the past few months helping a (mostly) young worship team at a nearby church. I want to highlight them today because the team members are great examples of Next-Step Musicians.

When we at CaseTunes (okay, that’s really Mike and me) talk about Next-Step Musicianship, we are referring to an attitude, a drive, a perspective that is always looking to creatively improve the music we generate.

Doesn’t matter if you’re a singer or instrumentalist, a novice or a pro. Something inside you makes you unable to settle for being only as good at your music as you are now. You want to stretch. You know you can do better. You’ve got it in you, and you need to figure out how to release it.

I’m not trying to make this sound epic, although for some of us (including you), it certainly may be. Next-step musicians are always trying to raise the bar, to create music that expresses the soul a little more clearly, a little more passionately. We are constantly seeking to improve our art by getting better at what we do.

The Next-Step Music Team

So back to this worship team. They asked me to lead some rehearsals and help them get better at what they do.

It has been a tremendous experience for all of us.

Now the church is small, yet eight musicians came to the last rehearsal. That speaks well of their attitude by itself. The team has been playing every other week, though I think that is changing. They rehearse two or three times for any service they lead. And when they show up for rehearsal, they come ready to make it happen!

I have to admit, I had some reservations when I first met them. Not personally, they are really great people. But musically, they are quite the eclectic mix. Their rhythm section consists of a keyboard, a drum kit and an accordion. Two to five vocalists will lead worship from the stage.

And last week, they blew me away again with their attitude.

My Job Was To Paint

During rehearsal, I would listen, teach a little, suggest some techniques and strategies so the songs come out more cohesively and artistically. Using the instruments and vocals as the musical palette, I began to paint. A little here, a little there. And to a person, they did their best to give me what I was looking for.

I suggested to Al, who plays the accordion, to think about his role in the band – should he be like the glue holding it together, or rhythmically punctuating the chords, or sometimes playing scales and fills to keep it interesting? He’s a really fine player, and he took my suggestions and ran.

The keyboard player, a sophomore in high school (I think, so when she reads this, she can correct me if I’m wrong) has taught herself how to play chord progressions and read charts. And she has come quite far! I get to suggest different techniques for her to try, or key changes, or different approaches to rhythm. Then she buckles down and gets to work. I’ve stretched her thinking a couple of times, and she without exception rises to the occasion.

I suggested to one of the vocalists (who I had just met) that she try singing an obligato vocal part, that is, kind of a free-form echo of the melody and lyrics in between the phrases everyone else is singing. I didn’t have to ask twice. She started adding those in, and it sounded wonderful. Really nice.

The drummer is a another high school musician, and he’s got some chops. For him, it’s a matter of choosing when to blend in and when to drive it, when to lay out and when to lay it down. And he does great.

In fact, every single person on the team (and I plan to write more about them in the future, so for those of you I didn’t mention yet, you’re on my hit list) brings a combination of talent, determination and a commitment to the team that is really cool. They will continue to serve their church with more and more excellence if they keep doing what they are doing now.

And I have the privilege of working with them. What an honor. What a blast!

You Can Adopt The Next-Step Attitude

Let me encourage you today to very intentionally be a next-step musician. If you’re getting stuck, you may want to download our audio guide and infographic, “10 Reasons You Aren’t Thriving As A Musician”. We all get stuck at times in our musical journey. But a little encouragement can go a long way to get you unstuck. We hope these ideas help you!

Try each of these next steps with your own music. Each one will add value to your art and your life:
  • Always, always, always be learning new songs. Search the web for resources, for charts and videos to help you.
  • Pursue a more systematic approach and find a teacher. If you find a good one who isn’t near you, think about using Skype for lessons.
  • Play with someone else, maybe a band or a worship team at your church. It’s very rewarding, and your approach to music will change as your experiences feed your creativity.
  • Write some of your own songs. They don’t have to be #1 hit songs, they just have to be yours.
  • Take on a student, teach someone more about music. Find a musician who is not as developed yet as you are, and work with them – you’ll be surprised at how much you learn, and you’ll be investing in someone else. It’s a double win!

So what are the next steps for you? Are you looking for ways to stretch yourself and refine your art?

You can leave your comment below, or email me at steve@casetunes.com with any questions you may have. I look forward to hearing from you!

© 2014 Steve Case

 

Getting Ready For The Fall: 5 Ways To Keep Your Life In Balance When There’s So Much To Do

First bus of the year

First bus of the year

For weeks, I have been joyfully anticipating this morning. I’m out on our front porch watching and listening as the gentle rain comes and goes. I hear occasional voices of neighbors making preparations for the day even as our house begins to come alive. The air is cool, the coffee is good.

And here it comes. The first school bus of the season.

I snap a picture as it picks up a neighbor in front of my house. Then I raise my cup in a quiet salute as it closes its door and starts down the road again. Another school year is starting. Another bus has made its way through our neighborhood. And I’m not on it! Woo-hoo!

I love this time of year.

Navigating the Busyness

Now the Fall is, for me, a fairly intense time, when I need to personally generate a lot of stuff. Over the summer (where did it go?), I’ve sharpened the tools I use, taken some time to see people (two weddings and a family reunion), finished a home project in the back yard (okay, still needs some cosmetic work, but it’s MOSTLY done), and produced a major event.

Aren’t things were supposed to slow down in the summer?

At any rate, for as haphazard as my schedule became over the past few months, it’s about to ramp up. New projects in music and at home, special events at church and my students returning from vacations will all serve to compress my time, scream for my attention, and sap my energy. I’ve been here before, and I have an idea how exhausting it will be.

I need a strategy. I need it now. And I’m not alone.

Tactics for Keeping On Track

Many of us face the ramping up of activity this time of year. Might be due to your job or your hobbies, maybe school activities, certainly the holidays. And as we see it coming, we still have a chance to shape it, to manage it well, to balance the time, effort and attention in a healthy way.

Here are some primary tactical priorities for me as I head into the Fall:

1. Intentionally looking for inspiration for my writing and composing. I’ll create a new playlist for myself that I call “composition inspiration”, then go through my library to find songs I really like but have something in them that draws me, that tickles my fancy. I also keep a list of recommended songs from friends, and now is a good time to go through that list as well.

2. Keeping track of how many hours I spend in various professional activities. When you need to budget something – time, money, exercise – writing it down really helps. At the end of the day or end of the week, you have given yourself a snapshot of how you did in that area. Then you have the ability to tweak what you’re tracking based on real data, not just your feeling.

3. Making sure time for my family, for health pursuits and for rest do not get neglected. For these, even tracking it isn’t enough. I need accountability. My family members and co-workers are really helpful in this. Gently reminding (not badgering) each other about our goals and what a healthy lifestyle looks like helps us stay focused and motivated. And together we cheer for every success, large or small.

4, Paying attention to our finances so that we avoid pitfalls and so that financial worries don’t become a distraction. Sue and I make financial decisions of any weight together, and that alone de-stresses our financial life. The biggest thing though, for me, is staying on top of the day to day bill paying, cash flow and budget. I’ve developed a system that works well for keeping track of our largely unpredictable finances, but it only works when I give it regular attention every couple of days. If I wait a week or two, I’ll have a mess to contend with. Just a little update time and we’re good.

5. Scheduling time for thinking, musing, creating. Many people are depending on me to do this, from my students to my church. And you. I find it difficult to produce anything coherent, cohesive, logical, or helpful unless I protect time on my calendar when I will be distraction-free, clear-minded, energized and usually quiet. Although Baroque music can help me write.

What tactics do you find helpful to keep your personal and professional life on target?

Please leave your comment below, or email any questions about music, musicianship, and keeping a level head when things get busy to steve@casetunes.com. I’ll do my best to offer some helpful advice!

©2014 Steve Case

How To Find The Key By Just Listening

Everything balances on I

Everything balances on the I chord

It happened again.

We were in rehearsal for our Sunday services, and our final song needed an intro. The chords on the chart correctly read: C G Em D, and I heard someone exclaim, “this is the one in C, right?”

Uh-oh, I thought. We may have a problem.

The song is in G. But they didn’t know that.

Now our songs often do start on the I chord, that is, the chord with the same name as the key. It’s built from the 1st, or the root, of the major scale. But songs don’t have to start there. The key center might be anywhere in the pattern.

And knowing what key the song is in is pretty important for our music team members to know.

Determining the Key

So how can you tell what key a song is in? If you can’t read music and you don’t know what a key signature is (and the key signature is a signpost, not a reason or a definition, by the way), what should you do? How can you just listen to a song and figure it out?

Well, the short answer is, you just have to know what to listen for. And it will take some practice. But you can learn to do it!

Here’s how it works.

The Key Center

Every song in our culture revolves around a key center. Well, most songs. There are some pieces of music that are atonal, meaning they don’t follow quite the same harmonic rules as just about all the rest. Let me pull a number out of the air: I would guess these make up less than 1% of the music we hear.

Right now I’m not talking about atonal music, but rather the everyday kind of music you’ll encounter everywhere you go: songs you’ll hear on the radio, TV commercials and themes, symphonic pieces, blues, jazz, top 40, country. Each song has a very specific harmonic structure, and the structure is based around the key center.

The key center is the chord that brings everything into balance. The melody and all the other chords are to varying degrees removed from this chord. They will each sound like something else needs to happen next, like they are waiting for something.  But the key center is the fulcrum, the nucleus that everything else revolves around.  It is, as I mentioned, the chord built from the 1st of the major scale, so we’ll call it the I chord (roman numerals mean chords, not single tones).

The Only Chord That Makes The Song Sound Finished

You’ll hear the I chord as being the only chord you could potentially end the song on and have it sound finished and complete. Try it with some of the recordings you own. Start playing a song, then when you think you’ve found the I chord, hit pause. Does the song sound like it should end on that chord? Try it again and again until you’re pretty sure you’ve found it.

balancing scaled 1This works for songs in major keys and minor keys, fast songs and slow songs, rock songs, country songs, polkas and reggae. Even rap for the most part. There will be a chord that everything seems to revolve around, the other chords moving out from it then back toward it. But when you play that chord, the I chord, things come into stable repose.

The placement of the chords within the rhythmic framework of the song will also affect your perception of the key center, though not the actual function of it. For example, the downbeat of a song is naturally the strongest point in time as you play any progression. You very easily, almost automatically, want that spot to be filled by the I chord. So when the song for my team didn’t start on I, it was a confusing moment for one of the team members.

Okay, I guess we’ve got some theory to cover in our next rehearsal!

So the song might start on the I chord, or it might not. The composer may choose to end the song on the I chord, or she may not. But the fact that the I chord is the key center does not rely on its position in the song. It gains its strength from its position in the scale.

There are mechanical reasons for this, of course. We’ll cover the mechanics in another post soon. For now, let’s just say that the I chord is simply the only chord you can end the song on and have it sound finished. Try the exercise above, then let me know how you did!

Can you pick out the I chord when you’re listening to your favorite songs or artists, or even when you hear the Muzak at the mall?

Please leave your comment below, or email any questions about music, musicianship and practical music theory to me at steve@casetunes.com.

I’d also like to invite you to sign up and receive our emails by scrolling to the top right corner of this page and giving us your first name and email address. We’ll deliver our weekly posts about about basic musicianship, worship leading, and next-step musicianship right to your inbox. We will not share your information with anyone else.

© 2014 Steve Case

Sometimes We’ve Just Got To Sing

at the farmOn the way home from our family reunion a few weeks ago, I was reminded once again how important music is to each of us, how integral it is to life, and how so much color is added to our lives by it.

We sang a few songs at the reunion, from Loggins & Messina and James Taylor to Chris Tomlin and Keith Green. Really fun. But when we left at the end of the day, the music wasn’t over just yet.

We had been driving back to our motel for just about two hours. The family farm is in northern Michigan, but we were staying near Sue’s brother’s house, so it was a hike. My grandson Emery rode in the back seat while she and I navigated up front.

Emery had finished watching whatever DVD from his collection, then he had a short conversation with Sue about the magazine she was reading. After that, he was quiet for a few moments. Then, he started to sing.

Now he’s just a little guy, and I really have no idea what the song was. Not a clue. Couldn’t tell what the lyrics were. And the melody, while purposeful, was not quite recognizable. Yet he sang with joy, control, and artistry.

I was really proud!

our stageWhether we’re singing in a group or by ourselves, whether we’re singing ancient pop tunes (like in the 80’s? are those ancient now?) or praise songs, we are musical beings. And as I understand it, the fact that humans must sing is a universal truth.

It might be a song I heard a long time ago. Might be harmonizing to a tune on the radio. Let me tell you, I can sound pretty darned impressive in my car.

When I sing, I express my heart, my experiences, my optimism and my hurts, in a way that goes beyond mere communication. My soul peeks out through the melodies and lyrics. My life feels more colorful when I can sing.

When I don’t sing for a long time, I think I go a little stir crazy. And at 5 years old, my grandson gets it.

Is it just us, or does singing help your soul breathe, too?

I’d love to hear from you! Please leave your comment below, or email any questions you may have about singing, musicianship, or how to use music theory to steve@casetunes.com.

© 2014 Steve Case

7 Steps To Successfully Reinvent Cover Tunes

From my grandmother's Edisonphone to smartphones

From my grandmother’s Edisonphone to smartphones

So we’re in rehearsal for our weekend services, working on a song pretty new to me and the team. The original artist did a great job with it, but we just can’t seem to nail it down. The groove is elusive, the tempo’s not right, so far the song is not too healthy. Will we be able to get it on its feet, or will it never make it out of the lab?

I do some quick mental gymnastics and come up with a plan. “Okay, let’s have the keyboard do this, and the guitar can do that, then if we all get softer here and gradually louder into here, it should work. Ready? Let’s try it.”

Immediately one of my musicians, who knows the song well, speaks up. “But that’s now how it is on the recording…”

And he is right. It isn’t even close.

So what do we do now?

If you are in a band or on a worship team, I’m quite sure this question has popped up. The fact is, we have a mental recording of the song playing in our heads that sounds great. Inspiring. Motivating. Awesome. The right way to play the song.

Then we go to play it ourselves, and it’s not even in the same neighborhood as the original.

The Recording Is Ground Zero

Our first impression of a song stays with us for a long time. We like it or we hate it, or it is simply background noise and we don’t care. But however we first heard it – whoever the artist was, whatever their arrangement, and whether it was live or in the studio – that first impression becomes the gold standard for us, for that song.

But rather than throw in the towel, decide to give up on our dreams of becoming great musicians and stick with our pizza delivery job, there are some options. Good ones.

7 Steps To Re-Arrange The Song

1. Assess the character of the song

Know where you’re starting, whether the song is serious, humorous, in your face or reflective. Then decide if you want to give it the same mood or try something new.

2. Identify musical hooks

There will be a melody line, an unusual chord, a really catchy rhythm or a lyric that you won’t be able to get out of your head. That would be the hook, and it will give the song much of its memorable quality.

3. Let go of your compulsion to play the song “the right way”.

This has to be a conscious choice. The fact is, every time you play a song, you are playing some sort of arrangement of it, that is, you are using somewhat different instruments and voices to replay the song, now in your own setting. Even when you try to stay as true to the original as you can, it won’t be the exactly same as the recording.

4. Assess your own abilities and those of your band.

Where are your strengths? (No matter how different they may be.) Maybe your guitarist isn’t lightning fast but you’ve got a banjo player who can hold his own. If it’s just you and your guitar, what style are you really good at?

5. Rearrange the song to reflect your strengths.

Make sure the hook is still heard, unless you want to make the song sound completely new and different. If it’s still not working, try a more dramatic change. How do you think it would sound if (insert your favorite artist here) were to play and sing it?

6. Take a chance and change the genre.

The next even more dramatic change would be to cross genres, or stylistic families of songs. For example, if the song started out as a rock power ballad, try it as an unplugged acoustic ballad. If it started out as an uptempo country rock song, how would it sound as a big-band swing tune, or maybe a Bob Marley brand of reggae?

7. Sell it.

Whether you go with an approximation of the original or something entirely out of the blue, you’ve got to let the listener know you believe in your song. Play it like your way is the only right way for the song to sound. Commit yourself to it. Groove with it. It is now your song.

Reality and My Guitar

When I started playing pop songs, I quickly realized that no matter what I did, my one acoustic guitar would never sound like the the Doobie Brothers or Earth, Wind and Fire (back in the day, these were the quintessential experts on the radio, among others). But I did have 6 strings, 10 fingers, 1 voice, and some creativity.

Realizing I didn’t have to strum all the strings at once, or that I could beat on my guitar for a little percussion, adding a hard strum on 2 and 4 to replace the snare drum, moving the bass note of the chord around in lieu of a bass player… and on and on. It didn’t sound like the recording, but that didn’t matter anymore. I could do a decent, entertaining version of the song using the tools I had.

And once I let go of “should I play it like the record?”, I had way more fun.

Do you ever feel like you’re tied to how the recording sounds? Try some of the steps above and let me know how they work for you!

Please leave your comment below, or email any questions you have about musicianship, music theory or worship teams to steve@casetunes.com.

© 2014 Steve Case

How To Play Fills – When You’re Not The Drummer (The Art Of The Fill, pt 2)

Mike on the kit

Drums are the most in-your-face instrument for playing fills, and everyone expects the drummer to telegraph what’s coming up next in the song. But the best arrangements build on their foundation, using every other instrument to drive the song forward in their own ways. Each instrument can add its own brand of fills.

Ramping Up

If verses are well-traveled roads and choruses are interstates, then musical fills are the on and off ramps.

Let’s say I’m speeding along (figuratively, of course) toward my destination and suddenly realize my turn is the one I’m about to go by. I slam on the brakes while glancing at the rear-view mirror, crank the wheel and squeal around onto the new road. As the honking from the surprised drivers around me fades from my ears, I start to breathe again and loosen my death grip on the steering wheel.

I have made it through the transition from one road to the next.

But without warning other drivers around me, it could have been my last turn. At least in that car.

If only there had been an off-ramp.

Use The Rhythm Section

Fills prepare us for what musical thing comes next. We might ramp the energy up or down, or maybe even sideways as we move into a new style of playing.

Fills can (and should) be played on every instrument in the rhythm section, at least. So I’m talking about guitars, keys, bass, drums and percussion.

In the following example, you’ll hear a different instrument do a fill as we near the end of each 4-measure phrase. I did this kind of fast and it needs some tweaking, but see if you can tell where each fill begins.

 

What About Everybody Else?

Monophonic instruments (fancy way of saying they play one note at a time) can lead the ear using fills as well, embellishing melodies with extra notes or improvising around the tune with more energy as the new section gets closer. And yes, vocalists can fill, too.

Melodic fills are helpful when layered on top of the rhythm section, to add more tension as we head up the on-ramp toward say, the chorus. They really can’t carry the groove of the song without the other instruments. But they certainly can add color and energy when in tandem with the rhythm section.

Here is the same progression with a lead line that contributes to the forward motion of the song.

 

You don’t have to play something really complicated in order to do a fill. Remember, it’s a ramping up or down of the energy level. Simpler is probably better most of the time. Use rhythms that feel a little off balance, the tension will grow the longer you keep it up, and when you hit the new section of the song, go right into the new groove. Ramp up toward a chorus by gradually getting louder, then at the end of the chorus, soften it down or thin it out again. Increase or decrease the brightness of the sound, raise and lower the octave you’re playing in. Choose the direction of the fill and alter the energy level thinking about where you’re about to be.

Ready to add some really great fills in your own songs? Add more intention to your fills every 4 or 8 measures, then let me know how it sounds!

You can leave your comment below, or email me with any questions about rhythm sections, music theory or general musicianship at steve@casetunes.com.

© 2014 Steve Case