Playing Together with Style
A Workshop given by The Last Gaspé at the New England Folk Festival ° April 25, 1999 ° Natick, MA


Fine print: Click here for the original version of this essay. This essay has been modified slightly by M. Koth. The authors (the band The Last Gaspé) were notified and responded with approval.


See also What makes a good contra dance band?

What turns a jam session into the beginning of a real band? How do the members of an ensemble get a "band sound"? This workshop explores the ways that people can put style in to their playing together, such as the combination of instruments that are used, rhythmic and melodic variations and creating arrangements.

Back to Contra Dance Music: A Working Musician's Guide

What makes a band a Band?

There seems to be a moment when a bunch of people jamming together suddenly feel that there's the beginning of a "real band" starting to come through. One person turns to the others and says, "Gee, we sound good - maybe we can get some gigs together!" What makes this happen? There are lots of reasons why a band sounds different. One of them is that in a band there is something about the way people play together that becomes more than the sum total of the instruments. Somehow there is an identifiable style that those particular people achieve when they play together. Sometimes it's by accident; sometimes it arises through the combined experiences and talent of the participants. But there are a lot of specific ways that this style can be deliberately developed. Today we're going to look at three of these ways:

1) Pay attention to each other and listen

2) Use the instruments and different ideas to vary the sound

3) Create arrangements that make the music flow better and sound more exciting

1. Pay attention.

Playing with others is very different from playing on your own.

Any of us as musicians have worked long and hard to become proficient at our instruments. Thus when a number of musicians first try playing together, each one is likely to pound away in his or her acquired style. What is the result? Completely straight playing which is potentially boring and does not allow any instrument or player the chance to explore or enliven the sound. Or worse, unsynchronized playing, or instruments competing to drown each other out.

Different instruments playing together in a fairly similar way can sound great just by virtue of the inherent differences in their sound. Yet when we pay attention to and make use of the opportunities that combining instruments provides, we find ourselves having musical experiences on an entirely different level.

You need to get tight.

All of us can agree that if we want to sound good, we have to be "tight," i.e. have solid rhythm, keep together, keep to a basic semblance of the tune we're playing. How do you keep together? Certainly keeping your ears open is crucial. Pay attention to how hard you feel you're working - if it feels difficult, chances are you're out of sync.

Rhythm is the fundamental issue. Tight rhythm feels supported, sometimes effortless, sometimes even elevating. To achieve this, it can be helpful to choose one person in the band whose rhythmic sense is the most consistent, and follow him or her (it doesn't even have to be a rhythm player). Another good method we've learned is that if you're not sure you're playing tightly, play more quietly for a while.

One basic method for assuring that you'll stay tight is to take turns experimenting. When you hear someone take off on an idea, make sure you keep your own playing basic for support. Also, when you all have been playing around for a while, take a time through the tune with everyone playing more simply.

Listening is the first step.

When you feel comfortable that you have a generally tight group, then you can explore getting a "style." This basically means more interesting ideas, both as individuals and as a group. As in any musical situation, listening is the first and most important element of creating an exciting sound, but sometimes the hardest to remember. Fundamental to all ensemble playing is to listen to others almost more than you listen to yourself. Nothing can sound exciting if it fights with the rest of the music, and no band is fun to play in when someone (or lots of people) consistently will not listen to the other musicians.

Start by listening to your own style. Really hear how you use your instrument - yes, you do have a style of your own. Ask your band members to describe your style to you. You'd be surprised by what you hear! Let them know what new ideas and methods you're trying. They can provide a lot of insight and support.

Finding ways to groove with each other can be as simple as listening to what you are already doing. Knowing your fellow musicians will give you a lot of information on which to base your own playing. As you all play, listen to what their instruments sound like. Are they essentially high or low? What are their characteristic sounds? Then listen to how the individual player uses his or her instrument. What kind of variations does she or he like? Find out all you can about what he or she enjoys most and does best. Learn about what challenges them the most, and what they're striving for.

Then think about how you could take advantage of having these other instruments playing along with you. If you don't have full responsibility for the melody or rhythm playing, how do you prefer to express yourself? What would you like to explore now that you can share responsibility for the music with someone else?

2. Use the instruments you have to the best advantage.

In a band, each instrument can find its best sound.

As we learn about what kind of sounds the other instruments can make, we find ways of using these sounds in exciting ways.

We can't talk much here about specific notes, harmonies, or chords. We'd like to introduce you to a philosophy which boils down to "it doesn't matter what you play, it's how you play it." One of the beauties of a variety of instruments is that they can even use dissonance to an aesthetic advantage, since they don't sound alike anyway (a ninth chord on the piano just can't sound like a ninth chord on the guitar, no matter how you try). But you must be judicious and listen carefully; use your aesthetic sense and discuss the choices with your band mates. Making sure everyone's playing the tune exactly the same way, or even using the same chords, is not always crucial. That's the beauty of having a band!

The most fundamental tools you can use in developing a "band style" are the variety of sounds that the different instruments produce. Some areas to consider could be: the combination of instruments, the use of voicing, and dynamic variation.

Combination of Instruments

Look around your group. What instruments do you have? Which are melody and which are typically rhythm instruments? Consider the character or quality of the sounds each instrument produces. Play together and think about how they all sound together. Then pick smaller groupings and play the tune once through in different combinations. Try adding one instrument at a time. If the tune seems to suggest it, borrow the jazz concept of "trading fours," i.e. different instruments take turns playing phrases of the tune that echo each other. In general, taking instruments in and out of the mix will immediately give the feeling that you're a band that rehearses and wants to make it sound better. And it will!


When we speak of voicing here, we are referring to where in the available range of pitches instruments in your band might play. When playing in a band it is useful to think of where you are playing in your instrument's range in relation to the other instruments in your band.

When we have spent most of our time playing alone, we usually find ourselves playing right in the middle of the typical voicing. On instruments with a large range, like the piano or guitar, we might be playing as many notes as possible to get a "full" sound. But it's very helpful to give up these tendencies when playing with a group. Think of your instrument as playing a particular role, or voice, in the ensemble, comparable to a voice in a vocal ensemble - soprano, alto, tenor, bass. If everyone is playing across the entire range of their instruments all the time, the result can be a din in which hardly any individual instrument is really discernible. Thinking about voicing can give everybody room in which to express themselves, and be heard individually, even though the entire ensemble is playing. Note: We recommend listening to recordings of Count Basie to understand these ideas. The playing is spare and lets each instrument shine, and the timing and use of voicings are both lovely.

How do you achieve this? Try to simplify your sound to complement the other instruments. Talk to each other and decide who's going to be in which register for a while. Find the logical best place for each instrument. The truth is, there are sounds that only certain instruments can make, so instead of trying to imitate with your instrument, give the other player room to shine.

Maybe you're feeling like this will be very constraining—don't. Because now that you've given the above idea a whirl, try doing the opposite. Play really high on the bass. Drone low on the fiddle. Vary the sound; explore it. Now everybody high, now everybody low. Listen to the tune and use pitch to complement it—either play low-pitched with a tune that's low and dirty or at least some of you play high to counteract it.

(Have you noticed that this takes a lot of listening? Of course it does—but the beauty is that you don't have to painstakingly coordinate and rehearse to achieve this; if you listen while you play you can adjust what you are doing on the spot. It becomes natural after a time.)


We've all used changes in dynamics, or the volume of our playing, to make our music interesting. This idea is even more exciting when you have more than one instrument. Use dynamics creatively; playing all out all the time is monotonous and exhausting and also loses "swing."

There are many ways to use dynamics to your advantage. Play softer once through the tune, louder another time. Change the dynamics all together, or individually. Think about the natural volume of the different instruments at hand. For example, lowering the volume of the piano is always helpful for accentuating softer instruments like the guitar.

3. Make an arrangement!

Think of the great musical moments you've experienced listening to your favorite band. When you've had a chance to ask yourself what was so exciting, isn't it often that you heard a great idea, something that was thought up and executed with precision and care? This is heartfelt, often homespun music, so we're not advocating lots and lots of specific arrangements. But a few arranged moments strategically placed can bring your band's playing up to a new level, and make dancing even more exciting. The main areas we can talk about arranging are:

° Beginnings, endings, transitions

° Rhythmic variations

° Melodic variations

° Energy builders

Beginnings, endings, transitions

Absolutely nothing will make your band sound better, tighter and more professional than good beginnings, endings, and transitions. We'll say right now that all of these ideas require practice. Yet as you get more used to each other, you'll find that you will become more comfortable and be able to communicate them more quickly, so that you can use many of these ideas in a variety of situations.

Beginnings are essential - they have to set the tempo, introduce the mood, and excite people. Let's think first about "potatoes." Find different ways of playing those crucial introductory two bars, for variety and to suit the tune you're playing. If one particular instrument typically starts the tunes in your band, try starting with a different instrument or combination of instruments. Use blocked chords instead of "boom-chuck." Use the last two bars of the melody. Have two instruments start with harmony. Use percussion. Yell! Note: Don't mess with "potatoes" to the point of confusing the dance leader or the dancers. Again, it's essential to get the job done - no surplus of style will make up for a sloppy introduction. Also, out of courtesy, do warn the callers if your beginning is unusual in any way.

Great endings are a surefire way to sound like a "real" band. The main idea here is to end solidly; don't fudge your way out. Variations for endings include blocking chords, simplifying the melody or rhythm, cutting the tune off abruptly, adding a tag, holding out the last note/chord. Use "ritard" (getting gradually slower) carefully. Note: Ask your dance leaders respectfully to give you ample notice for going out, so you can actually have the time and mental space to USE these ideas.

In discussing transitions, we're assuming you've come up with multiple-tune medleys. A nice medley is a definite way to sound like a real band. One reason for this is that a transition from one tune to the next is a stellar moment - it takes a dance and a mood that's been internalized by the dancers and shifts it to a new level. This can be done in many ways. Don't just rely on the "differentness" of the tune to do the trick. Sometimes just moving subtly into the next tune has its own excitement, but more often it sounds better to set the new tune apart somehow. Transitions can resemble endings, by using the methods of cutting the tune off or building volume. Using a "clean break" transition is very effective. Find chord progressions that link the tunes. Sometimes we change the last bit of melody to make a nicer connection.

Rhythmic variations

There are a few rhythmic variations that are typical in arranging dance tunes. Some of these are: using blocked chords (either with one rhythm instrument or with one at a time), syncopation, droning, or even dropping the rhythm instruments out completely. Be extremely careful with this last one - remember, you have to keep solid rhythm going at all times. We've also borrowed lots of rhythmic ideas from other kinds of dance music, e.g. calypso, swing, ragtime, etc. If you hear an idea for these kinds of rhythms, try them in these tunes.

Melodic variations

There is nothing essentially wrong with playing melody in unison, but how the tune is played is part of what adds "style" to your band. This would include phrasing, rhythm, and melodic variations. Harmony, which often requires writing harmonies and rehearsing them, is also very useful. We recommend trying anything that occurs to your ear; listen and decide. Counter-melodies are lovely, as are the improvisational "comping" phrases such as those used by jazz musicians. Melody instruments can also syncopate or otherwise adjust their playing to echo the band's rhythmic variations.

Energy builders

What makes an exciting moment? We've found that we can do things musically that generate energy on the dance floor that feels like it literally explodes into the room. We're working to heighten anticipation, or to create a moment of contrast, within the body of a particular tune, or as one tune transitions into another. Without trying to dissect what could be considered "magic," we'll give you a few hints that we've learned.

Before you can build energy, first take a look at the structure of this music. It's organized into phrases. So is the dancing. Consequently, the clearest way to build intensity is to create climaxes where phrases "turnaround" into the next section. The most obvious place for this is moving from the A part to the B part, or back to the beginning of the tune.

A solid method for creating intensity is to "build" musically. As you're moving toward a turnaround, be working toward something. For instance, add one instrument at a time. Increase your volume gradually. Or simplify, melodically or rhythmically, and get quieter. Drone with one or several instruments. Create moments of silence - people will fill them with pent-up hoots of excitement. Hang on an unresolved melodic phrase or unresolved chord, then launch triumphantly into the next section. The tunes will help you think of ideas.

Enjoy each other

Nothing creates a great band sound more than a group of people who clearly enjoy playing together. A lot of unusual and exciting musical ideas arise simply from people having a royally great time, taking risks, trusting each other, and even having a good laugh. We're hoping that the philosophies and specific ideas we've suggested will send you on your way to creating your own band style, give the music a lift, and help your own playing grow.

Before we close, though, we just have to say more about listening. Listening is not only essential while you're playing; we strongly recommend taping yourselves and listening carefully afterwards, alone and as a group. You'll find musical moments you missed at the time, and you'll be able to figure out what worked and what didn't. You'll also get a chance to listen to each other's playing without having to be playing yourself. This is not a time to criticize. You'll find listening to tapes fertile ground for coming up with solid arrangements, and for building your relationships as well.

And, after all, listening is what it's all about. Don't we play music because it's the best way to listen to it? Sitting right in the middle of the sound, feeling it with our hands as well as hearing it with our ears, is pure exhilaration. Playing in a group increases this sensation: you can feel the other people listening to you and answering back. When the other players respond with a funky beat you started, or you all work your way into a drone together, or some of you drop out to highlight another player, there's a connection impossible to describe.

This is when you know you have a "Band": there's a chemistry, an empathy - even a telepathy - that means you've found a sound you can collectively call your own. We've felt a sense over the past few years of having a special way of playing almost any tune: we try a new tune and notice we've put a "Last Gaspé" stamp on it right from the start. Sometimes we laugh - it's fun to play old chestnuts and use these ideas to swing them up!

So get together, listen, enjoy and find exciting ways to play together with style - and watch the dancers reach a whole new level of fun!

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