The Two T's

Think about the last time you rode in the passenger seat of a car. You may remember the destination, but what do you remember about the drive? If it was like most rides, you probably don't remember much. That's because nothing distracting happened. Every driver you encountered that day was at least following the two most basic rules of driving: stay on the right hand side of the road (or the left, depending on where you live) and stop at all the stop signs. Get these right, and your drive will usually go smoothly. Get them wrong and everyone notices - and the entire journey may be ruined.

In some ways a live musical performance is like a car ride. The musicians are driving, and the audience is in the passenger seat. The performance is a journey, and though the journey should be memorable, it shouldn’t be full of distractions that detract from the destination. Fortunately, most musical wrecks can be avoided by following the two most important “rules” of live performance. I like to call them the “Two T’s”: tuning and timing.

Nothing – no amount of practice, technique, or fancy equipment - can overcome an out-of-tune instrument. Every note, chord, phrase, and strum will elicit cringes from audience and band-mates alike. Like a single drop of black ink in a bucket of white paint, it contaminates every part of a performance and cannot be removed.

Learning to tune your instrument is as important as learning to play it, and takes just as much practice. While electronic tuners are convenient, learning to use your ears is vital. You should be able to hear when your instrument is in or out of tune with itself and with other instruments. On loud stages use an electronic tuner. Get in the habit of tuning carefully before every performance, and intermittently between songs….and always use the device's “silent tune” mode.

I know what you’re thinking: poor tuning can be overcome with modern pitch-correction technology. In response, I give you this video of Billy Joel singing the Star Spangled Banner through a pitch correction device. (Be aware: I love Billy Joel. This is not meant to be an indictment of him or his abilities, but rather a demonstration of the shortcomings of pitch correction technology.) Pitch correction also cannot tune individual notes within a chord, say from an out-of-tune guitar. Even if the technology were perfect, the best practice is always to tune properly in the first place.

Rhythm is the heartbeat of any musical performance. It is the foundation on which every other part of a performance is built. Flub a few notes but maintain the rhythm and no one will notice. Break the rhythm - stop that heartbeat – and every audience member’s head will immediately turn to see what went wrong.

We’ve all seen youngsters at a piano recital who stop to work through a mistake. It can be uncomfortable. The good news is that they still have time to do what we all should have done: practice with a metronome. Doing so not only gives you a good sense of time, but teaches you the most important of all musical performance skills - to play through a mistake without breaking the rhythm. To further develop this skill, do what our young pianists do: perform.

*Photo by twenty ninth of december's photostream


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