Musicians are Magicians

PassI’d always thought that, if you wrote a song, that meant you made all the decisions about how it should sound: how fast it would go, which instruments (if any) would accompany the singer – and what notes each one would play, when there would be back-up singers and what harmonies they’d sing, etc. And maybe I wasn’t completely wrong – some songwriters probably work that way – but this week, I’ve had the opportunity to observe a process that’s nothing like what I imagined.

We’ve been rehearsing True Home, Cass Morgan’s play with music, which is part of our Festival of New Theatre. The piece has nine songs, and we have sheet music for all of them – for one or two, the music just has a vocal melody with chords above it for a guitar to play, but most of them have piano accompaniments and vocal harmonies written out, too. It all looks very familiar and straightforward to me – I used to sing in choirs and take piano lessons, and if I got a piece of music like this I’d just play and sing what I saw. Simple!

accordion…or not. The thing is, True Home doesn’t just feature singers with a piano and a guitar. We’ve got all that, of course, but we also have a violin, a mandolin, a few different sizes of penny whistle, and an adorable little accordion. At the first rehearsal, the rules-loving side of my brain was screaming, “you can’t use all those instruments! That’s cheating! They’re not in the music!” Fortunately, I was able to keep those thoughts to myself, and soon the music-loving side of my brain was saying, “whoa – that sounds great! Keep it up!”

It turns out that the sheet music is more of an outline. It communicates the basics of the song, and hopefully the general tone or feeling of the music, but it’s up to the arranger, the music director, or – in this case – all the performers to figure out exactly what to play and sing. It’s amazing to see how willing they all are to try each other’s ideas, no matter how challenging they are. Matt Castle, our Music Director and pianist, doesn’t play the accordion, but when Cass said she thought the accordion was the right sound for some of the songs, he agreed to pick one up and try it. In one song, Leenya Rideout has been singing lead vocals and playing violin riffs she composes in her head on the spot based on the chords noted in the sheet music.

To a relatively untrained observer like myself, this process seems to involve some kind of telepathy or magic. After running through a song, the musicians will have a brief conversation that consists mostly of half-finished sentences, and even though they’re all nodding as if they’ve reached an agreement, there’s no way they can possibly be on the same page, because they haven’t said anything that makes any sense! “What chord is that,” one asks. “It’s like a suss in a way, but not really,” comes the explanation. “Oh, OK, I see.” What? I think I actually know what a suss chord is (basically, it’s a chord that hangs onto a note from the chord that came before it, even though that note doesn’t really fit into the new chord), but that contradictory answer only makes me more confused. This is going to be a disaster for sure. But then they play the song again, and it works. It’s right. And even though I was right there the whole time, I still have no idea how that happened.

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