Today’s post comes from a guest writer, Chris Dye.
I have known Chris for 15+ years and have played in many bands and orchestras with him. He has been playing various instruments in various performing groups for 20 years. For the last few years he has been a professional audio engineer, focusing on the live sound market. Chris has a passion for music. Chris does what he does because he wants to help people achieve their dreams. He has spent a good portion of his life around music and it has had a profound effect on him. In both performance and in sound engineering there seems to be one factor that really gets Chris going, read on to find out…
Some music has the ability to affect more than other music. Why is this? What does it have that the other is lacking? Have you ever seen a movie that made you cry? Have you ever heard a song that made you cry? Have you ever sent or received a text that was misunderstood? What is the link between those questions? Emotion. Or the lack thereof in the last example. The best songwriters, composers, film makers, and speakers have the ability to evoke emotion from the audience. They do this by using their own emotion in their creation. With music in particular you only get one medium to evoke this emotion. The ears. (Unless it is a live performance, but more on that later.) With only the ears to please your ability to create music with emotion and feeling is key in evoking an emotional response from your listener.
There is a great documentary titled Muscle Shoals. It looks at the “Muscle Shoals sound” and why a little recording studio in the swamps of Alabama was able to change the music industry. Major recording artists such as The Rolling Stones, Traffic, Elton John, Boz Scaggs, Willie Nelson, Paul Simon, Bob Dylan, Dr. Hook, Millie Jackson, The Osmonds, Glenn Frey and The Black Keys all flocked there to record. They all wanted that Muscle Shoals sound. What made that sound was FAME Recording Studio’s in house rhythm section called The Swampers. In a normal recording studio it was very structured with charts written out meticulously. The Swampers did it differently. They just played. They felt the music. Some of the most iconic R&B albums were recorded by a bunch of backwoods Alabama rednecks. The difference is they worked well together and could feel the groove.
Another example of musicians that feel the music well is the genre of jazz. Jazz music cannot be played without feeling. One of my favorite quotes comes from bass player Victor Wooten: “Never loose the groove to find a note.” Yet another great example is Johnny Cash. Technically, his music is simple. His vocal quality is poor and could use some auto-tune. But he sang from the heart. He poured energy into his performances.
In my own career, I have come across some great examples of feeling and emotion. When I was playing in orchestras I would put everything I had into my performance. I would come away from the concert physically and emotionally drained because I wanted the audience to care about the music as much as I did. This last fall I had the experience of working with several high schools for their musical productions. you could very easily tell the difference when the kids cared about what they were doing. I ran the sound for one high school’s production of Cinderella. One scene in particular took some time to perfect in rehearsals. Towards the end of the run I was on auto-pilot. I had things dialed in so I was just going through the motions. I had seen this scene about 30 times– Cinderella is pleading to her dead mother and the Fairy Godmother makes her entrance. But one night the actress who was playing Cinderella channeled some hidden emotion from somewhere and I was snapped into her world. She was Cinderella in a real crisis. She had my attention as if I had never heard the story before. It was a magical moment for me and the entire audience.
If you are a performer, how can you fill your performance with emotion? If you are a teacher, how do you teach emotion? My advice would be to find the story behind the music or performance. Why did the composer do what they did? But not only that. Find the reason behind why you do what you do. Why do you play that instrument? What do you hope to achieve when you produce sound? Find the what and the why. The ability to channel emotion is what sets apart the great performers. I wish I could offer more advice but emotion is a very personal thing. Spend some time pondering those questions and you can improve your performing.
A notable experience for me came when I performed “An American Elegy” by Frank Ticheli. It was an All-State band performance so there were only a few run throughs and then the performance. We had received the music before hand and had practiced on our own. When we came together and played it through it was good. Then the director told us the story about the piece. It was written in memory of the Columbine High School shooting. The director pointed out the different passages and the images they were intended to convey including the school song and a trumpet solo that was supposed to be the angel of a student saying he was okay. After we knew the significance of what we were playing the next shot at it was completely different. We had nailed it. The notes we played probably didn’t change, but the way we played them did. “That’s it!” the director exclaimed! We had found the “It” factor! The live performance of it left many audience members in tears.
That is the “IT” factor, being able to elicit an emotional response from your audience by putting your own emotion into the performance.