Richard Middleton
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"Playing New Musical Roles"
by Richard Middleton

First published in Victory Review, September 2002.

I get to play a lot of different roles as a performing songwriter and sideman/session player. One day I'm accompanying myself in a solo concert, the next day I'm playing lead guitar on another songwriter's album project, and that night I'm playing keyboards in a jazz/funk group at a club. I find that these roles and situations complement each other, giving me a deeper and broader perspective on music, and making me a more versatile player and teacher.

One of the best ways that you can acquire new skills and expand your artistic range is to explore some of these different musical roles yourself. By trying on different musical "hats," you can challenge old habits, gain insight into what other musicians are doing, deepen your musical awareness, forge a few new neural connections — and have a lot of fun doing it.

One of the simplest ways to break new ground is to try playing another instrument, especially one that plays a different musical role in an ensemble from the one you're used to. For example, if you play guitar, consider exploring the bass. The tuning and fretboard theory are the same as the guitar, but the role the bass plays in a group is very different. You have to shift your perspective, let go of your usual approach as a guitarist, and try "thinking in bass." If you have a friend who plays bass, ask them to share some of their insights into what makes the bass a unique "voice" within a group.

A particularly challenging (and fun) instrument to "try on" in this way is the drum set. If you have a friend who plays the drums, see if she/he will show you a few things about how simple drum beats are played. You've heard them your whole life, but when you sit down and try to produce them, the timing, coordination, and control that's required can make for a real mind-body workout.

It's easiest to do this kind of instrument-swapping in a band rehearsal or jam session, when there are lots of different instruments available. Rotate everyone around so they're playing an unfamiliar instrument, and try playing together. See if you can "shape-shift" and assume the role of your new instrument within the group. You can also learn about other instruments and styles by taking a lesson or class, or joining a community ensemble. The Puget Sound area offers myriad opportunities to learn about everything from African drumming to Gregorian chant.

Of course, you need not change instruments to change roles. If you usually sing lead, try backing up someone else. Switching to the supporting role can be a liberating and ear-opening experience. You begin to hear new pathways through the music, new zones or layers in the chords that you never heard before, and explore all the rich, subtle colors that different vocal harmonies can provide.

If you play guitar, there are a number of different roles you can play, each giving you a different perspective on the music. If you usually play rhythm, try playing lead — be that "second voice" in the music, threading through the spaces in the singer's part, stepping forward sometimes to solo, then stepping back into the fabric of the song. Similarly, if you usually play lead, try playing rhythm — lay down a simple, solid part that provides a foundation on which the other instruments can build.

It pays to listen this way, too. Listen to one of your favorite recordings of a group, and deliberately focus on what one of the backing players is doing. For example, on a bluegrass recording you might listen to the mandolin player. Listen to where the mandolin part "sits" in the music: its rhythm, its dynamics, how high or low in pitch it is during different sections, when it's being melodic and when it's being harmonic, and how it mirrors or contrasts with other instruments. Afro-Cuban music is a great candidate for this kind of listening, too. Listen to each percussion part — the congas, the cowbell, the timbales, the shaker, the claves — and how the parts fit together like the gears of a fine watch. Each part is simple and repetitive, yet all combine to create something dazzlingly complex and exciting.

See if you can bring some of this sensibility into your own playing. Try to hear new possibilities for how your role in the music contributes to the whole. Try putting yourself in musical situations that reframe what you're doing: if you usually perform alone or in very small groups, try playing in a much larger group — or vice versa.

The Puget Sound area also offers many opportunities to work with artists in other disciplines, such as dance, theater, and film. In my work with choreographers and theater directors, I have been able to explore dimensions of music and sound I never would have experienced otherwise. I've created full-fledged scores for Broadway-style musicals, themes and underscore (background) and sound effects for plays, music and sound collage for dance, and participated in some fascinating experimental inter-disciplinary collaborations. All of these experiences have made me a better musician and artist, and I encourage you to keep your antenna out for similar opportunities in your community. There might be a school that needs a musical director for their play, or a choreographer developing a new piece, or an independent filmmaker who needs music for a short film.

Even if you don't compose the music for a theater production, just being one of the musicians in the pit can be very worthwhile. The rigors of learning or reading unfamiliar music, following the conductor and/or singer, and playing to the action onstage provide valuable experience, honing your skills and giving you yet another perspective on music-making.

Although it may not always be obvious why or how, all of these experiences with other musical roles will make you perform better on your "home turf." You will hear more, know more, have more "range of motion," and be more sensitive to the roles and needs of other musicians. You will write better songs, play better shows, record better albums, and have a better time doing it. Enjoy!

Copyright 2002 by Richard Middleton.
All rights reserved.

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Richard Middleton is a songwriter, musician, teacher, and writer based in Seattle. He is the author of "Reading Rhythm" (Countersine 2018).