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To Play or Not To Play

 March 7, 2016

By  alswainger


When will you play?

What will you play?

Why did you play?

Why didn’t you play?

What effect did that have?

In my previous article I described my RSI experience and discovery of the Alexander Technique.

The thing I really connect with in the Alexander Technique is that it is a toolbox: there are a set of underlying principles that work together to produce whatever results I need – just as there are in music. As I recovered from RSI I was forced to re-evaluate everything about my playing from the ground up.

One of the advantages of going back to basics is that you spot fresh relationships between things you already know, reinforcing & refining them at the same time. The process of teaching someone else is also very helpful in doing this.

For a lot of people the act of music making begins with “what style of music do I want to play and how do I play the notes that make me sound like that?” That’s a great place to start when you first encounter music but can be limiting later on if you want to create something of your own. Even if you don’t there may be levels of subtlety to the music you are trying to emulate that you haven’t yet realised. If, like me, you would like to explore ways of refining your music making process then read on…

Having asked ourselves some fairly fundamental questions at the top of this article let’s have a think about what they really mean.


When will you play?

Choosing to play or not to play, whether traditional musical notes, phrases or sound effects should always be a conscious decision.

It might be your own decision or you might be following direction from someone else within the ensemble or a conductor.

It might be a decision that you need to reconsider from moment to moment or you might make one decision that lasts for several bars, a section of a whole piece or the whole piece.

Don’t assume that the decisions you make on one performance will be perfect every time as there are a lot of factors to consider (see What Effect Did That Have).



What will you play?

This is obviously the BIG area but even before we get to thinking about the “what style of music do I want to play and how do I play the notes that make me sound like that?” there’s a whole load of stuff that can come into play whether you realise it or not. For that reason I’m going to leave the specific mechanics of note choice for another article but in the meantime how about this :

Silence – sometimes the best thing to do is nothing. This could be for a variety of reasons :

  • Thinning the texture – your part has sonic weight, while you are playing you add something more than simply notes. When you choose not to play you don’t just take something away, you allow whatever else is going on to breathe. This might be other instruments, it might be the tail end of a lengthy reverb, it might be nothing at all – which will build tension all by itself as the expectation of something happening becomes more palpable.
  • You are unsure what to do – If it’s an improvisation situation then playing without listening or responding can easily clutter or destroy a mood. If this is the case then wait, listen and respond when you genuinely feel you have something to contribute but not before.
  • You are lost – If it is structured music requiring reading then sometimes it is best to stop playing and wait until you can hear where to come in again.

Effects – Sometimes atmosphere is more powerful than traditional note production. It can be used to augment other instruments or in isolation as pure ambience. Effects might be produced purely with your body (e.g. hitting the body of your instrument, blowing air through your instrument with no mouthpiece, string muting, waggling your sax keys for percussion) or with the aid of tools (e.g. FX pedals, plectrum, ebow, capo, bow, mute, ‘prepared piano’)

Pitched Sounds – This is the area that everyone wants to get at and can be the most complicated to control if you are going to do it well. I like to think of every note & sound having 3 stages (Start / Transition / End) and they all need your attention if you are going to be stylistically recognisable.

Start – What decisions can you make in advance?

Dynamics – how loud or soft will your sound be?

‘Prepare’ the instrument –

  • Pre-bend the string
  • Prepared piano
  • Purposely detune
  • Palm mute
  • Left hand mute
  • Cup mute / plunger etc
  • Harmonics (natural or artificial)

How will your note physically begin?

  • Hit the string from a distance with right hand
  • Left hand hammer-on
  • Right hand hammer-on
  • Plucked by finger at rest on string
  • Plucked with a plectrum
  • Plectrum scraped along string
  • Thumb slap
  • Finger pop
  • Hit body of guitar
  • Bowed
  • Blown into
  • Strike mouthpiece
  • Hit with a mallet
  • Hit with a drumstick
  • A finger press

Transition – What will you do with your note once it is sounding?

  • Let it ring
  • Tap a harmonic
  • Increase in volume
  • Decrease in volume
  • Maintain a consistent volume
  • Bowed Tremolo
  • Picked Tremolo
  • Strummed Tremolo
  • Add vibrato
  • Slide to a different pitch
  • Pull off to a different pitch
  • Bend to a different pitch
  • Blow continuously while waggling keys / valves
  • Add an external effect to process the sound in some way (Reverb / distortion / volume pedal / pitch shift/ delay etc)

End – How will your note / sound finish?

  • Your instrument will have a natural decay time if you leave it ringing.
  • Wait it out until the full natural decay ends.
  • Stop the note during the decay at a moment of your choosing.
  • Press slowly against the string for a buzzing effect before it stops.
  • Physically hit and mute the strings.
  • Stop blowing suddenly
  • Gradually decrease breath until the sound is no longer audible then stop blowing.
  • Fade out with a volume knob.
  • Fade out with a foot pedal.
  • If you have fed your sound into an external processor the same considerations still apply –
  • Natural decay or artificial?



Why did you play?

I get the sense with quite a number of people that this isn’t an area that always gets as much thought as it should. Here’s some of the reasons why I think people play :

‘Good’ reasons

  • I had something to express
  • I felt I could add something
  • I thought I could help
  • Because it’s fun
  • I wanted to rehearse with others
  • I wanted to work with more experienced players to help motivate me to practice on my own
  • I want to improve 

‘Bad’ reasons

  • I wanted to show off
  • I wanted to practice over others
  • I wasn’t listening
  • I wanted to force a change in what someone else was doing by playing their part over them
  • I was impatient to get started



Why didn’t you play?

‘Good’ reasons

  • I wanted to provide textural variation
  • I missed a cue and thought it better to wait for a part of the structure where I would add something instead of simply sounding late.
  • I had a clear cue from another band member / conductor to drop out
  • I didn’t think I would be adding anything of musical value at that point.

‘Bad’ reasons

  • I couldn’t be bothered
  • I lost interest
  • I wasn’t listening
  • To annoy the soloist or show them up



What effect did that have?

Probably your first thought is going to be along the lines of ‘I had a great gig, rehearsal, recording, practice session etc’ or ‘I had a terrible…etc’.

Your next thought needs to be concerned with ‘why?’

Whatever decisions you make about when, what and why you played are going to have a big effect on how everyone feels about the results. It’s important to realise that you aren’t all necessarily going to come to the same conclusions. If you can develop a habit of conscious critical reflection then you will notice that you start to have more consistently good experiences. Learn to read the other players, and your audience, to see which things produce positive and negative effects. Over time you will start to spot patterns that you can use to your advantage if you are observant!

Here are some things to consider that might help in recognizing those patterns.

  • The tempo. What sounds great at one speed might not work at another so don’t be afraid to think of something new.
  • The size of the ensemble. A smaller ensemble has more sonic space so you can inject more notes or cover more of the frequency spectrum. With more instruments the sonic clutter builds up more quickly so you might need to drop out more often, play fewer notes, double another’s part, play within a small frequency register etc
  • The personnel. People play differently. One change in the ensemble lineup can drastically alter the feel / mood / tempo either through the way they perform or because they have different tastes and requirements of the players around them.
  • The acoustic. You can’t play the same way in a drama studio as you can in a cathedral. Reverb has an enormous effect on the clarity of rhythm; a single note can sound amazing due to the characteristics of one room but would be gone in an instant and sound small in another. A listening audience allows for much greater subtlety than a noisy pub. Adjust accordingly and you can have amazing gigs, fight it and you’ll probably go home depressed!
  • Your instrument. Different instruments are good at different things, try to make the most of them. An electric bass has different qualities to a double bass, an organ is different to a clavinet etc. Alternately you might have had to borrow an instrument – if it’s not as good as yours then perhaps rein in your playing to do the things you can do well on it rather than going for broke and sounding bad.
  • The mood of the audience. Sounds simple but I’ve played with a lot of people that ignore this one. If they ask to dance don’t play ballads at them, if they ask for background music don’t crank the amps… If they are listening and have paid to see you then why not challenge them a little and see how it goes?
  • Something unexpected has happened. Maybe there was a powercut, someone broke a string, an amp blew up or just a mistake in the music – these are all great opportunities to improvise, for something new and unplanned to happen. Don’t just stop playing if this happens – you signal to your audience that it went wrong and you look bad, whereas if you bluff it out you can raise smiles, possibly hit on something wonderful & have an anecdote for later.


If you are fresh to this way of thinking there’s no way to suddenly take all this information on board, don’t try. Read it through – think about just a small portion of it now and again when you have a moment to yourself. Do it regularly and come back for more when you forget or want something new to think about. Try recording yourself playing – see if you can spot your own habits. Which things do you tend to do most often? Which things do you never do? Do the same thing with your favourite records or at gigs that you go to. Over time all of these things will occur to you very quickly. This will help you to adapt to and make the best of any situation you find yourself in as well as increasing your variety of responses.

The information in this article is based on my own experience and observations. If you have other things that you’d like to add, feel I missed out or would like discussed further then please let me know. I’m still learning too!


​Al has performed, recorded and taught all over the country and internationally for more than 25 years.

Highlights include sessions, tours and workshops with :

Peter King, Grice, Paul Jones, P.P. Arnold, Scott Hamilton, Siobhan McCrudden, Gary Bamford, Gilad Atzmon, Mike Outram, Alan Barnes, Ant Law and many more as well as h​is own projects :

Pointless Beauty, Biophosmos, Snow Giants and Mahatmosphere.

As an educator he has taught for schools, colleges and privately for more than 25 years and has a BA (Hons) / PGCE in Music.

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