One hallmark of really great ensembles is that they seem to be synced together as if they were a single, multi-human organism. Sometimes this means they are perfectly locked into a solid, steady beat or groove; other times it means they are expressively slowing down and speeding up perfectly together. These are, of course, different experiences, but they rely on similar processes and principles, foremost of which is the ability to predict what each other will do. Of course, to some extent this comes with lots of practice, but there’s a lot we can also do consciously with our nonverbal communication to share our tempo and timing.
Sorry for stating the obvious, but rule number 1 is this: make sure you are paying attention to your fellow musicians! Obviously, it’s hard to be looking around if we’re lost in sight reading notes or not sure what’s going on. That’s why we’ve been working on these skills! As they become more automatic—for example, as we are able to sight read more efficiently in chunks—we have more “brain space” for paying attention to other things, like our fellow musicians.
For groove-based music, where we want to play “in the pocket” (that is, perfectly aligned with the important elements and timing of the groove), there are two elements that can be really helpful. First, the more familiar we are with the groove, the better we’ll do. Of course, that just comes with practice. Second, think about repetitive/cyclical bodily movements you can do to help you keep track of the groove’s cycle. Sway back and forth, or stick your head out and back, or whatever feels right for the groove you are playing. As you do so, see if you and your fellow musicians can align your motions to make sure you’re together. This is almost like using dance to keep track of the music!
For more flexibly-timed music, rely on looking around, plus two kinds of movements: bigger, broader, more expansive movements are associated with slowing down, while smaller, more compressed movements are associated with speeding up. For example, a string quartet might lean in a little as they follow an accelerando, and then lean back and move their upper bodies slowly from side to side as they relax into a more expansive section.
Goal: Develop nonverbal communication skills for staying together with an ensemble, and develop sensitivity to others’ nonverbal communication within the ensemble.
Before you start: You’ll need a small ensemble (any instrument or combination of instruments), and some music to perform together. The music can be something you all already know or something you’re learning for the first time from notation or aurally. Sight-reading anthologies often have multiple-part exercises, but it’s even nicer if you can check out some 3–4-part music from a score library or find some on IMSLP or CPDL. (More parts can work, it just gets complicated.)
Instructions: Perform through a phrase or small section of the music together, doing your best to synchronize your playing in time. You may wish to start by playing without too much variation in tempo, but as you get comfortable, you should designate someone to come up with some tempo changes they feel are appropriate to the music and see if they can lead the ensemble through those changes nonverbally as they play without discussing them beforehand.
Goal: Develop the ability to stay strictly in time, sharing a common pulse with your fellow musicians.
Before you start: You’ll need a small ensemble (ideally 3–8 people) to work with. For this activity, we encourage you to use instruments with a sharp attack, such as plucked strings (including guitar and bass), piano, and percussion instruments.
- One member of the ensemble should come up with a meter and tempo, and start playing a “groove”—a repeating pattern—that lasts 1–2 measures. Pick something pretty doable, because you’ll keep repeating it for a while. The rest of the ensemble should listen for a few repetitions, really getting used to the first person’s groove and starting to move to it.
- One by one, the other members of the ensemble come up with another repeating pattern on their instrument that complements what’s already sounding, and start playing along.
- Once everyone is playing together, try keeping the tempo steady for 30–60 seconds. If the various layers seem to be coming apart, make sure you are synchronizing your bodily movements.
- At this point, you can stop and start the process over, or one member of the ensemble should decide to try to lead the ensemble in speeding up or slowing down.