Developing Group Empathy - part 1
Every great musical moment arises from you and everyone else in the group being one hundred percent present. That presence includes each individual instrumental performance as well as everyone listening and reacting to each other–to the composite sound of the group.
This level of presence requires a lifetime of deep learning and unconscious instrumental competence from you and everyone else. Your fundamental musical skills must be so embedded within your subconscious that you don’t think about them while performing.
I went to see Herbie Hancock when I was very young. He was playing with Miles in a concert. I got to know Herbie throughout the years, but this was before I knew him personally. I approached him and timidly asked, “Can I ask you a question
Mr. Hancock? I’m a musician.” He said, “Sure kid.” I asked, “How do you know when to play and how do you know what to play?” He was glad to engage with me because he knew I asked an important question.
He looked at me and replied, “I’ll tell you. When I’m playing here with Miles, Tony Williams, Ron Carter, and Wayne Shorter, half of me is sitting at the piano and the other half is up on the ceiling listening to the band.”
A light bulb went off for me. Herbie continued, “That’s how I know what to play. Because I’m hearing the whole band and I only play what the music needs in each moment.”
That was very heavy advice but I didn’t exactly know what he meant until years later. Herbie was describing what I said earlier about that split vision of being a performer in the moment and at the same time being a sophisticated listener.
One of the great things about Herbie, even when he was in his early twenties, was that he never overplayed. He and Tony Williams, all of a sudden and out of nowhere because of a particular musical statement from Miles or Wayne, would come together for a rhythmic hit that was perfect for that moment.
But, in fact, it wasn’t out of nowhere. It was a simultaneous reaction from Herbie and Tony to some rhythmic or harmonic thing Miles played.
Herbie described it as being up on the ceiling. What I feel is that I’m in the audience listening. It’s not just anyone listening, it’s me. So I’m listening with all my knowledge and musical experience.
Let me use the group Quest as an example, with Dave Liebman on sax, Ron McClure on bass, and Billy Hart on drums, and me. We have been playing together for 35 years.
The joy of playing with a band of peers performing and recording familiar material over years comes from delighting and surprising each other.
You do that by letting the music take you wherever it wishes. Sometimes it goes nowhere viable, but with the level of musicians I’m speaking of, that’s rare.
As a band, you have to have the courage to be in the moment and then to follow it. Sometimes it means not playing. Sometimes it means taking over.
It has to do with the actual content of the musical ideas. I know it sounds strange, but if everybody is tuned into the same vibe, the music will follow the right path.