Tuesday night was a rehearsal for a recording session with Fiona Thom. I was on bass, Nelson on guitar and percussion and Les Makin on piano. From the bass seat it felt like this:
- stage one is characterised by scrabbling. You are listening to the singer, but only fitfully as your attention is divided four ways: the singer, the chord sheets, what you are actually playing with your hands on your instrument and whatever intimations of the creative impulse are appearing before you ‘I could do this’ ‘It reminds of me of xxx, maybe a line like that would suit’ ‘That mistake I just made sounds like it could go somewhere better’. There is little personal control or direction at this stage – you feel tossed in these four directions like an air passenger in a storm.
- stage two is that of juggling. The music has entered your body to a degree; you have decided on most of your part and can reproduce it with some reliability. During those spells, which may last up to thirty seconds, you have your first opportunity to listen to what the other instruments are doing. But then you drop a ball and your attention is sent scurrying to the chord sheet or to the guitarist’s hands – where are we? The biggest risk at this stage is embroidery – you think you’ve got a good line so you’ll just add this or that variation or add this or that ‘bright idea’. The sad fact is that most of these don’t work because you don’t yet know the song or your part, you only think you do until the next collapse.
- stage three is ‘I look up’. By now you have learned to a greater degree (a) how the song progresses (b) what is an acceptable part for you to play and (c) some restraint on the variations and experiments of stages one and two. So you have more of a chance to listen to the other players without losing your own part. This is the division of attention, practised consciously. What do you find? Quite often you find the unexpected. Your bass part doesn’t quite fit with the percussion part. The piano is doing the same as you. Now you can make adjustments, but whether the adjustments work is down to what stage the other musicians are at. If they’re still at stage one, the risks are great and the song will not acquire any repeatability or consistency. If they, or the majority at least, are at stage three, then this is where arrangement really begins and it’s a great pleasure to be part of.
There’s a difference also, I think, between the experience of the singer/guitarist/sponsor and the backing musicians. I’m more used to being in this role and the distractions are different – you already know the song, so you’re not scrabbling to learn it. If you’re conscious you can be listening carefully to the other from the first run-through. But it’s easy to get sucked into listening only to your own performance (imagining your ideal backing band); this is the vice of singer-songwriters, whose greatest love on earth is their own voice. The skills here are not necessarily those of the arranger but those of tact and diplomacy – you heard something nice the piano player did in v1, and also a gruesome plonk from the bass player, which he repeated in each chorus. Can you remember that to the end of the song, and explain it in such as way that these prima donnas can accept and modify their behaviour? If they’re at stage three, probably. At stage one, probably not.
It’s an adventure …