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Building the skills to play with the professionals – Part One: Playback

All of us who are working daily with the Trinity Rock & Pop syllabus talk about instrumental performance – being and performing on stage. Because when we first start learning our instrument, usually the first validation of our learning is to actually perform for somebody – it’s a show, a performance that confirms to the world that we have been successfully taught. Yes, this is one of the steps in learning to play your instrument. You must know what it’s like to be in front of people – how  it feels, the nerves or the excitement, the buzz, the adrenalin, seeing the faces looking just at you, listening to your music, then hearing and feeling the applause – the roar of the crowd.

There is another side of playing music… all of the artists and bands you listen to actually had to record their music. Musicians that you may never see on stage laid down many of the tracks you hear.  These are musicians and players who are technically proficient in their instrument and articulation, who read music, who know and can perform many styles of music, and who understand the context of what the artist or producer wants. These are session musicians, proficient in session skills.

This is why we have a section of the Rock & Pop exam called Session Skills. Let’s take a look at one of these: Playback.

This Session Skill, Playback, helps you develop your reading and listening skills. Unless you are playing only your own music in a recording session, someone will normally give you a chart to read and will be playing a track in the headphones saying ‘we need you to play this music’. You need to be able to read and hear the music, follow the chart and produce the music and articulation that you see or hear. I can tell you that guys like Quincy Jones, Dr Dre, Brian Eno and George Martin give you the ingredients – the chart, the music, the style – and then you bake the cake: create the music. So the Playback Session Skill is all about  reading the chart, the tab, the dynamics, the key, listing to the track, sorting tempo, getting the groove in the pocket… to learn and develop playback skills for the studio gig.

The exam process: Rock & Pop Playback

You will perform some previously unseen or heard music. You will be given the chart to study or review for 30 seconds, then the practice track is played for the ‘first time take’, and you listen, read and play back what you have read and heard. Depending upon the level of the exam, the phrases are 2 bars, 4 bars or more.  Let me be clear here – this is a continuous backing track so listen, read and play back to the repeat sign, then listen, read and play back to the repeat sign etc. The track does not stop until the double bars ‘ending’ the Playback session, so the music should be practiced during the first take. Everything before the second take is rehearsal and practice. NOW you are ready for the second take, the assessment begins, and this take should be copied as accurately as possible, no variations or improvisation here, play as written and heard.

Remember, why are you doing the Playback Session Skill? This is to build listening and reading skills so you can play in the studio one day and know what’s going on, what’s happening musically, be it with a local artist/producer or even with the heavy hitters like Brian Eno or Quincy Jones. If you know what to do when you do get the studio, man, when the day comes YOU may be the producer. All because you developed and perfected your Session Skills. This music business is great.

Read about the top 10 music producers of all time

Tyler Smith, Trinity Rock & Pop Czar

Next blog: Building the skills to play with the professionals – Part Two: Improvising.

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