Musicianship

By Don Watson

Musician.

I wonder how many players of musical instruments use this word to describe themselves? In the strictest sense of the word, many of them probably are musicians. According to Webster's New World Dictionary, a musician is "a person skilled in music." This definition suggests that a person is automatically a musician by virtue of having attained a certain level of proficiency on his or her instrument.

I think there is a big difference, though, between persons who are good "players" and those who are good "musicians." The difference is that good musicians put the music first, whereas good players put themselves first. Let me give some examples.

How many of you have encountered players who consistently play louder than everyone else and attempt to musically upstage the other band members? These persons are trying to showcase their own talents to the detriment of the group sound. They may be the greatest players in the world but in my book they don't qualify as good musicians. A good musician attempts to position himself or herself in the music so as to complement the other instruments, not overpower them.

How about the guitarist who uses the same sound for every song? You know the sound I mean: the heavy distortion sound that works so great on Z.Z. Top tunes. For bands that play all rock and roll this may be fine, but I think a lot of guitarists use the distortion and the sustain to make their playing seem smoother, whether it works for the song or not. Again, their focus is on themselves rather than on the music. Good musicians ask themselves, "What sound should I use to make my instrument fit best within the context of the song?"

Then there's the keyboardist (saxophonist, etc.) who has to play every lick as fast as he/she can in every ride. Lightning-fast rides are fine when used at the right times in the right songs. However, overuse will eventually turn off the people they sought to impress. Rides are not just opportunities for players to step into the spotlight; they are the means for bridging gaps between two parts of a song. This is not to say that the ride itself is not just as important as any other part of the song. Sometimes it is even more important, since verses and choruses can themselves become repetitious, while rides usually occur only once and can really add spice to an arrangement. Keep in mind that what you don't play is just as important as what you do play and remember to try to compose a ride that fits the style and the feel of the music. This approach sets apart the good musicians from the good players.

Some drummers and bassists also have a tendency to overplay. The most important job the drummer and the bassist have is maintaining a solid groove. If the kick and snare drum parts are too busy, it gets harder for the drummer to maintain a solid groove and harder for the other musicians and the audience to feel the groove. Anything a drummer plays that compromises the groove is better left out. The same goes for the bassist. You might not impress as many "players" in the audience but the real "musicians" will pick up on your musicianship right away. Remember good musicians will play only what the music requires and no more.

What about a player's connection with the audience? I think one of the most important factors here is volume. Many players set their volume levels where they like to hear them when they perform. All too often these levels are too high for the audience to really enjoy the music. Good musicians set volume levels so the music sounds good to the audience, not necessarily to themselves.

There are a couple of other qualities that good musicians possess that I think are important.

Versatility: While I would never say that someone who has devoted himself or herself to only one style of music or one instrument is not a good musician, I think that musicians who learn to play a little each style and learn about other instruments will develop a better feel for music in general.

Professionalism: Even if you don't earn a living playing music, I think that it's important for musicians to practice some professionalism. This means keeping open mind about other styles of music and showing respect for the people who play them. It means showing up for jobs and rehearsals on time and being prepared when you get there. And it means putting aside personal differences during performance so that the quality of the music doesn't suffer.

While there are certainly exceptions to a lot of what I have said here, depending on styles of music you play to hear music performed, I have found that most of the really good musicians have many or all of these qualities and attitudes. And while some of the good musicians never become great players, it's certainly possible for all of the great players to become good musicians. Just remember to always put the music first.

(Don Watson is the owner ofAdtrax Productions.)