There is a special element of great duo or group musicianship that, to an outsider, can seem uncanny; something more than just two or more people who are able to play the same piece at the same time. When the music is flowing out of them expressively and with an almost electric energy, it’s as though the group members can each read the others’ minds.
Well, they can. It’s not something that happens among just any two or more musicians. Finding those with whom this intuitive musical communication can occur is a bit like finding a new romance; it’s “chemistry”. It’s possible with two musicians, and occasionally with three or more. I’ve played in duo and in groups throughout my life, and have been very lucky to have found this magical quality in many of the people I’ve played with. It adds an extra element to the music that makes it effective and exciting for the listeners.
My first musical partner was my sister. We were trained by my mother in stage skills and vocal technique. Mom was a tough tutor. We cried a lot. But we learned important skills, and since we shared genetics as well as environment – nature and nurture – we developed that ability to communicate without signals or instructions. We could add an indescribable element to our music that made it more than the sum of its parts. I remember that on many occasions we’d be performing some song that we had carefully practiced in a specific way, and would suddenly get an idea for some enhancement or change. We’d just look at each other and know exactly what the other had in mind, mostly because we both had the same idea. It was like having one mind. We could adapt our arrangements on the fly in a performance without planning or verbalizing the idea for the adaptation. There was nothing insecure about this. It felt the same as though we’d planned and practiced it.
Later I ran into a group of folk-rock musicians who gelled instantly. When we met, we really, really liked each others’ music. The first time we met, we were all playing at the same concert, we got together backstage and decided to try out a tune together. We quickly worked out four-part harmonies and blended accompaniments, so easily it was as though we’d always been together. You know what it’s like when you meet a special person and the conversation just flows, and you get each others’ humor, and you can’t stop talking? That’s’ how it was musically with these fellows. Over time and with focused work (we practiced five days a week, three hours a day) we got quite good and became very popular. We didn’t get along personality-wise, but our music was wonderful.
Many years later, I had the honor of playing with the Chieftains, the supergroup from Ireland. Their harpist, Derek Bell, had passed away suddenly, just before an American tour which they could not cancel, so they asked me to play with them for their first concert without him (other harpists played with them in other cities on that tour). Due to union regulations we had exactly ten minutes to practice the four tunes I was to do with them, which of course would normally not be adequate for developing a rapport. We would have to depend on our expertise and experience and trust that it would work. They had me start the pieces (probably to see what tempos I was inclined to use), and for two of those pieces, their flutist Matt Molloy then joined in with me before the rest of the group did. I didn’t know in advance that he would be doing that, but I was open to whatever they did. What happened in those moments of flute and harp together astonished me. I had not met him except to wave hello at the ten-minute rehearsal, and I only knew his playing from hearing their recordings. He was so far across the stage from me that I couldn’t even see him in the dim light. But the sound system was good, so we could hear each other very well. The magic of his paying was such that it almost made the hair on my neck stand up, and the two of us played together as though we were one musician. I felt as though there were a bridge of energy arcing across the stage between us, pulling the music together into a flowing stream of sound.
This magic can happen in sessions, too. My nephew Victor Provost, who plays jazz steel “pan” (google him and listen – he’s phenomenal) often posts remarks on Facebook about how it feels to play with some of the great contemporary jazz musicians. I can well imagine the almost physical sensation, the electricity that makes the whole body tingle, when these musicians get in the zone! I’ve seen him in concert. It’s indescribable.
This phenomenon is also common In Celtic sessions, if the musicians are experienced and are attentive to each other. It doesn’t work at all when someone is trying to stand out, show off, or play too fast or too loud. But when everyone is in sync, it’s like the groove on a bobsled run – it just carries you along. The key is to aim for the blend, to listen to each other and become a seamless part of the whole. This magic cannot happen unless we get away from just concentrating on reading the music and counting beats, and start really listening to each other as we play. Hear the way the music flows and moves. Feel the harmonies interact and the notes bounce off each other. Take cues from the tonal quality, nuances and subtleties of your partner’s or group’s playing. Music is so much more than a sequence of correct notes!
I relate these stories because I know of no other way to describe the phenomenon. If you wonder whether you’ve ever felt it, the answer would be that if you have to wonder, then you haven’t. But you probably will. As you truly master your instrument, as you listen deeply and respectfully to other musicians, it will come. When you feel it, you will know it. It cannot be forced or faked. And when you find it, nurture it.