How to communicate effectively with other musicians

This past weekend I had a really cool opportunity to help out on the sound crew for a pretty good sized outdoor concert. 

To give you an idea, it took ten of us about three hours to setup the system, and the main speaker array was pushing about 80,000 watts. ?

My job was to run the monitor mix for the musicians, so I was off to the side of the stage, paying close attention to their every whim. 

Lost of learning curves for me, which I enjoy, but one thing that was new to me was we setup a system of talkback mics between the two soundboards (front of house, and me, on the monitors) and several of the musicians. 

That way we could all talk to each other at any time on back channels, and you'd never hear anything through the mains. 

Well, the musicians used this a LOT amongst themselves. 

In fact, it was a primary component of how they worked together, because one guy was designated as the music director, and he was always prompting the band where to go to next. 

"Chorus, in 3... 2... 1...."

Then another musician was calling the shots for dynamics. He'd say something like "start a slow build on the one" and as soon as the start of the next bar came around, everyone would slowly start building their parts, which made for a pretty great overall sound. 

Efficient Communication Means Chords = Numbers

But frequently you'd hear them talking about chord changes too... "go to the three" or "end on the five." 

If you don't know some music theory, you might be feeling pretty lost if you heard that. 

I've heard guys in exactly that position say things like "can't you just tell me the chord name?"

But the reality is that when you're trying to communicate effectively on the fly in a live situation, it is just far simpler to relate to chords as numbers, instead of by their letter names. In fact, I've seen guys using their fingers to indicate chords (three fingers is the three, etc). 

When you use numbers, you can be working in any key and it applies equally. 

One great use case for this is if someone is using a capo. 

Let's say the song is in Bb, and the guitar player has a capo at the third fret, and has the song written in front of him in the key of G. 

Well, he's likely thinking in terms of those G chords, so when someone says "end on the F" he's going to get really confused, because he doesn't even HAVE an F in the song he's playing! 

And yet, the rest of the band does. 

But if the same person said "end on the five" and our hero knew his music theory, he'd know that the five (or the V) in the key of G is D major.... and he could easily go to the D. 

Using numbers to describe music cuts through the clutter and gets straight to the point. 

I've talked to a lot of guitar players who are initially quite intimidated when they hear other musicians talking like this. 

If you've experienced this, it can feel like suddenly you're in over your head, and it's not a great feeling. 

The good news is that learning the number system is actually pretty easy. I've put together a two hour course that will give you an excellent foundation in the Nashville Number System, called Unlocking I IV V. 

You can learn more about it right here

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  1. This article really helped me understand how to talk with other musicians. It's clear and easy to follow, making it perfect for anyone learning to collaborate in music. Thanks for the helpful tips!

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