A few years ago, I was doing some pro bono work with a small, rotating-cast musical ensemble. I was doing a lot of this kind of work at the time, which amounted to 1) show up, 2) get handed a stack of charts, 3) learn 30-45 minutes worth of music in an hour or so, and 4) play it. It’s great for extending your musical reach, particularly if you’re not familiar with the musical genres you’re being asked to come up with parts to (which I wasn’t, really). There’s a lot of down sides to this kind of ensemble, though. The biggest being that you will never sound better than the least experienced member du jour. Woe befall everyone if it happens to be the drummer.
It was shaking out to be one of those days. The team wasn’t overly strong and we were trying to get to a lot of songs. The bandleader, who we will call Jerve, was clearly struggling. In these kinds of gigs, it’s not my job to be the place where the buck stops. But I do know a thing or two about music and arrangement, and Jerve made it clear from the beginning that he wanted my 2 cents, so I was offering what help I could. We got to a brand new song (let’s call it Blarfingame), and everything just stopped. I mean, literally ground to a spark-spitting halt. It wasn’t a hard tune by any means, but the band chemistry and this song just didn’t get along.
Jerve plowed forward, leading the song largely by himself on guitar. After we’d taken a pass through the tune, I had an idea or two of how to make Blarfingame easier and more dynamic. Jerve listened to me, agreed it was a good idea, but in the interest of time, he wanted to stick with the arrangement we had just slapped together. Fair enough; been there myself.
So we did. And Blarfingame didn’t sound bad. Not great, but sometimes any landing you can walk away from is a good landing.
Flash forward a week. Smaller group and Jerve has the week off. Ah, but the keyboardist from last week is the bandleader this time, and Blarfingame is on the setlist again! Okay, cool. So we practice the other tunes in performance order. We get to Blarfingame. I make my suggestion about arrangement again.
She informs me, in all earnest and without an ounce of duplicity, that “this is how we’ve always done the song.”
I ponder that whenever someone appeals to tradition as an authoritative benchmark.