I Can’t Hear Myself

“Hey, Mom!  Did you like my concert?”  The skinny boy was eager to hear what his mother thought about the high school band concert, but her reaction was less enthusiastic than he had hoped.  “I couldn’t see you at all,” the tired redhead replied, visibly showing her disappointment.  The teenager wasn’t upset about that.  After all, he did sit on the second row, behind the flutes.  “But, could you hear me?”  he plowed ahead, looking for some encouragement.  This query too, was met with a frustrating answer.  “No, son.  I guess I didn’t.  I just heard the music, not really any specific instruments.”  The boy was silenced for once.  What a letdown.  If she hadn’t heard him, neither had anyone else.  What a waste of his time!

It seems a lifetime ago that the exchange took place.  Many lessons have been learned and many concerts have been performed since that disappointing evening.  The boy, now an aging man, has wondered more than once if the road would have been any easier had someone told him that his mom’s experience was exactly what was supposed to happen.  He would have argued, no doubt.  But given time, he might have understood. Today, it all seems so elementary.

“Paul, I need to trade in this amplifier.”  The man speaking is no newcomer to playing the guitar.  He is looking wistfully at the large “half stack” amps in the store, while motioning to a mid-size combo amplifier which he has just carried in.  As I usually do, I ask a few questions about his situation.  What kind of music is he playing?  How big a room does he play in?  Any other musicians playing with him?  With all the relevant answers in mind, the next question is inevitable.  “Is there something wrong with the amp you have?”  You see, the amp the fellow owns seems to be adequate for the situation in which he is using it.  The answer comes, “No, except that I can’t hear myself playing.”

I have heard the scenario before.  Two guitarists and a bass player, all with amplifiers of their own, are playing in the band.  The drummer is already loud and needs no amplifier.  The group starts out at a reasonable volume, but in a few moments, the guitarist playing the lead part reaches over and turns up his amplifier.  For a few moments, the other players keep playing as they were, but eventually, the rhythm guitarist realizes that he is only hearing the lead player.  He reaches over and turns up his volume.  From there, it’s a free-for-all, until the moment that the fellow standing in front of me realizes that he is out-gunned.  His equipment is no match for the other players, who have bigger amps, and he is stymied.  He can’t hear himself playing.

“Mr. Whitmore, I need some really heavy drumsticks.”  The young man at the counter is serious.  He is almost begging me to have some super-sized sticks.  I wonder why, although I already have a pretty good idea.  Ignoring the fact that he has called me a name which is not mine, I voice my query.  “Why would you want enormous sticks like that?”  His reply is exactly as anticipated.  “I need to be heard.  My dad says that the other instruments are louder than mine.”  Like the skinny boy earlier, he would only argue if I tried to explain, so I sell him some really heavy sticks.  I hope he has someone who can help him to understand some day.

By now, you may be shaking your head and wondering what is happening.  I have pondered many times about how musicians can be so foolish with regard to the dynamics of playing in a group.  The problem is one of perspective.  Again and again, people are concerned first of all about themselves.  Again, like the skinny teenager, they are interested in being seen and heard.  The reason this mindset doesn’t work is found in the definition of what they are supposed to be doing.

Ensemble (ahn-sahm-buhl):  All the parts of a thing taken together, so that each part is considered only in relation to the whole.

Ah!  I see the light coming on now.  You begin to understand the problem.  You see, neither the guitarist nor the drummer had an equipment issue.  The skinny boy didn’t need to be on the front row, and he didn’t need to play louder.  All of these people needed to understand the foundational principals of playing in an ensemble.  What matters most in ensemble playing is the sound which the audience hears.  No one player should be louder than any other, unless he or she is playing a solo, and then they fade back into the group, to be a part of the whole as soon as the solo section is complete.  There can be no rivalry, and no domination nor capitulation.  Each voice is important in its own right and must carry its part, but must not impose itself in a way that draws attention.

Since the light has already come on, you will, no doubt, realize that there are any number of applications in the life of every one of us who lives in a community of any sort.  Whether that community is an actual town, or a church, or a business organization, the prima donna mindset can only devastate and tear down.  The superstar who thinks of himself ahead of others will destroy and not build; he will be out of tune and out of rhythm with the other members of the ensemble.  The result is a disaster, a cacophony of selfishness and envy.

The skinny boy learned eventually that all of the instruments play an essential part in the band.  He has played a solo or two and relished the momentary attention, but the joy of the ensemble is more satisfying still.  The discipline of complementing the voice of the trumpet, along with the trombone and the tuba, is made more sweet when the audience is visibly moved, not by the flashiness of a technical solo, but by the beauty of harmony and the integration of individual instruments into one voice.  Anyone with a little talent can play a solo.  It takes a special person to suppress the urge to stand out and to be a contributing member of a true ensemble.

Play your part!  Even if you only play the kazoo, you can hum along, blending with the oboes and bassoons (yes, it’s possible) and all of the other instruments in the band.

We can make some beautiful music together.  But, keep your hand off that volume control!

“If we were all determined to play first violin, we should never have an ensemble.  Therefore, respect every musician in his proper place.”
(Robert Schumann~German composer~1810-1856)

“…in humility consider others better than yourselves.  Every man should not take care of his own interests only, but also the interests of others.”
(Philippians 2:3b,4)

© Paul Phillips. He’s Taken Leave. 2012 All Rights Reserved.

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