From pitch and dynamics to how to play well with others, the lessons you learn from school orchestra are the perfect prep for pro gigging.
In 1986, Robert Fulghum published a book of short essays entitled All I Really Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten. The book became a hit, then was widely criticized as a trite, saccharine oversimplification. That may be the case, but the truth is, if everybody followed these 11 kindergarten rules, the world would be a better place.
Play well with others. Listen when others speak. Don’t interrupt. Share everything. Play fair. Don’t hit people. Put things back where you found them. Clean up your own mess. Don’t take things that aren’t yours. Say you’re sorry when you hurt somebody. Wash your hands before you eat.
While that’s an excellent start, I needed a few more lessons before I was ready for the world. Luckily, the Montana public school system gave me basically all the tools I needed to be a professional musician by the end of ninth grade.
Grades 1 through 3 were pretty blurry. But in the first week of fourth grade, things got interesting when the traveling orchestra instructor did a demonstration in the school cafetorium and I signed up for violin.
In the school orchestra, I learned how to zone in on pitch, how dynamics change feel, how to adjust tone with my hands, and, most importantly, I learned that music is a conversation between instruments, so you have to listen and follow. I also learned that space is music too. And, although I almost never need it today, I learned how to slowly and poorly read music. If you understand the basics of your instrument and go into a gig listening, taking cues, finding your spot, and watching your intonation, you’ll be fine anywhere. Orchestra taught me all of this.
“If you understand the basics of your instrument and go into a gig listening, taking cues, finding your spot, and watching your intonation, you’ll be fine anywhere.”
I was the worst kind of orchestra student; I played terribly and felt ashamed of being part of the nerd herd. I was a self-loathing nerd trying to pass for normal. I desperately wanted to quit but stayed from fourth grade through ninth, because as poorly as I played, being able to be part of a string section, or better yet, a full orchestra, was a deeply moving experience. Also, my parents laid out $120 on my used violin and wanted a return on their investment. By the end of ninth grade, guitar won the battle when I started jamming with friends and dropped the school orchestra for a garage band. But I’m glad I was able to build on that classical base.
Most guitar players start by learning the basic “how” by memorizing scale patterns, riffs, and chords. The last bit of the puzzle is to determine when you play. Learn the blistering run, but if you’re shoehorning those blistering runs where they don’t belong, you won’t accomplish your goal. Some players never really get that, because they get focused on the “how” and never learn “when.” The cool thing about orchestra is, you’re part of something bigger than yourself, working together, ideally in harmony. What a beautiful, spiritual life lesson.
The other great lesson I learned came from my ninth grade speech and drama class. I’ve referenced this before, but dammit, it’s worth repeating. One day, a professional actor came to our class and asked for volunteers. I walked to the front of the class and the actor said, “Okay, pretend you are all monkeys.” We all became monkeys, doing the simian, knuckle-dragging bounce, and loudly “ooh ah ah”-ing as we jumped around.
The actor then said, “Pretend you’re swimming.” We all happily, animatedly swam around. “Now, just be yourself.”
I don’t know what the other kids did, but I quietly freaked out as I stared at the floor, horribly uncomfortable as kids giggled. It only went on for a minute or two, but it felt like an eternity of anxiety.
The actor said, “It’s really hard to be yourself when you’re standing in front of people watching you. You feel like they are judging you, and sometimes, they are. But if you get in character and become that thing you want to portray, you can do anything without judgment. It’s just fun.”
I’ve used that trick ever since, and probably will for the rest of my life. If I’m playing a big show, I just pretend I’m Keith Richards. If I’m walking into a party, I pretend I’m well-informed and charming. If I’m filming a Rig Rundown or a gear review, I pretend I know what I’m talking about. I’ve been fooling the public with this trick for decades and have bluffed myself into a cool little career. I highly recommend it.
Although I did end up spending a lot of time in school, I can honestly say that everything I learned or accomplished was built on these few simple lessons. I utilize them everyday. Play well with others, listen, share, don’t interrupt, mind your intonation, and with great pretend-confidence, carry on like you know what you are doing.
Everybody needs to start somewhere, and the basic triad is a cornerstone of nearly every guitar style. In this video, Michael Palmisano breaks down how triads are constructed, the most common shapes, and how to play them in any key.
- Develop a better sense of harmony and rhythm.
- Create more interesting comping patterns.
- Learn how to outline harmony without using chords.
The intersection between guitar and piano is ever present—and so is the potential for harmonic conflict, especially when improvising. However, guitar and piano can be a wonderful combination. Listen to the recordings of Pat Metheny and Lyle Mays, or Jim Hall and Bill Evans for stellar examples. But if your ears aren’t turned up it can be a recipe for disaster.
Often, the paradigm on the bandstand is that if there is a harmonic clash between the guitar and piano, it’s automatically the guitar player’s fault. So how do we deal with this? There are a couple of methods to take a more defensive approach, but the one we’ll address is to learn which notes to omit. Trim down those chords and be nimbler and stronger. Chords with more than two or three notes are, for our purposes, a full-on failure. The good news is that these lean-and-mean chords are easy to play and, within the context of the band, sound way better than the ubiquitous barre chord.
The basis of the chords we’re looking at are subsets of chords that are likely already very familiar to you (Ex. 1)
The “money” in these chord forms is literally in the middle of the chord. On the 3rd and 4th strings lie the 3 and 7 of the chords. These are the most important two notes of your chord. The different variations of the 3 and 7 give each chord its unique color, such as major 7, dominant 7, or minor 7.
If we reduce these chords to their essence, we get the shape in Ex. 2. This trims down the Bb7 to Ab and D, while the C7 is simply the E and Bb. These notes are sometimes referred to as guide tones. We’ll move this shape up or down the fretboard to accommodate each required chord quality.
We’re only going to use two other interval shapes in addition to the tritone. In Ex. 3 you can see a perfect fourth on the left and a perfect fifth on the right. They are super easy to play and ultra-effective in our journey to more defensive guitar playing. Feel free to use whatever fingering suits you.
Let’s put these shapes in context. In Ex. 4 you can see how these shapes work with a 6th-string root (top row) and a 5th-string root (bottom row). I’ve included the root notes simply for reference and to help you better visualize the shapes. In a solo setting you may even want to include the roots.
An excellent “closet organizer” for musical data is the 12-bar jazz blues form. In Ex. 5 I use our core family of shapes to work through an entire progression. I’ve made sure to include dominant, major, minor, and diminished chords in this example. The first step should be to play it with the roots and then try to “hear” the roots while playing only the guide tones.
The absolute undisputed king of playing these types of chords is Freddie Green, who was the longtime guitarist in the Count Basie Band. He made an entire career of playing quarter-note rhythms and being the glue that held the rhythm section together. In Ex. 6 you can how Green might play a 12-bar blues in Bb. Check out the chromatic movement in the last two measures. It’s amazing how smooth you’re able to connect the chords using only two notes.
Admittedly, the rhythm is a bit bland and feels sterile. In Ex. 7 I play the exact same chords but add in a bit of chromatic movement and some offbeat rhythms. The occasional extension (9, 11, or 13) is cool, but pick your spots wisely. Listen to the piano and look for your space.
This same concept can be applied to your single-note improvisations as well. In fact, this is a valuable step in learning to play over changes. The goal is to outline the chords so well that your ear can imagine the harmony going by. In Ex. 8 you can see how I might approach this. Notice the lack of “blues licks.”
While it always looks cool on your IG page to be seen playing stretchy Alan Holdsworth-looking chords, sometimes it’s the simple and economic approach that goes down easiest. Whether comping behind a singer, playing with a jazz big band or playing chords and walking bass Joe Pass-style, the defensive approach to harmony can oftentimes be your ticket to ride.