Playground puts non-musicians in a jam

If the global success of video games like Guitar Hero and Rock Band has taught us anything, it’s that an awful lot of people who’ve never learned to play an instrument secretly yearn to kick out the jams.

While most people with unfulfilled musical ambitions make do with hanging out in seedy karaoke bars, singing along with the radio and/or rocking out on the air guitar, a group of Vancouver artists, musicians and other creative types calling themselves Playground have a better idea to help get people’s untapped musical juices flowing.

The volunteer-driven collective wants to make a connection between established musicians and wannabes alike, and the first 60 people to respond to an invitation via their email list in the next few days will gather at an undisclosed Main Street location Dec. 9 to help cut a new track with local blues rock duo The Harpoonist and the Axe Murderer.

The idea behind the event is for a band and an audience to team up together and record a song in just one hour. No formal musical training is required and professional guidance is given to help participants get out of their comfort zones (free beer is also helpfully provided to help the creative process along) and come up with something unique.

“The way it generally works is the artist comes with a plan of how they are going to use this extra crowd of people to kind of remix and enhance the sound of the song,” explained event organizer Kev Holloway. “It’s not about trying to teach people to play some crazy Vivaldi composition; it’s just them doing something they wouldn’t have been able to 20 minutes before walking through the door and letting their natural musical abilities come out.”

If you ask a self-described “non-musician,” they’ll often claim to be tone deaf to rhythm and pitch. Push the issue, though, and you’ll likely find they sing a different tune. Holloway said he and Playground co-founder Adam Schelle were inspired after seeing a speech multiple Grammy-winning jazz singer Bobby McFerrin gave a World Science Festival in New York City three years ago. In the online clip, since viewed more than five million times, McFerrin instructs the audience to sing the five basic notes of the pentatonic scale based on where he jumps to and then uses them a kind of human keyboard.

“He basically bounced left and right as he was singing out a pentatonic scale and, after three or four bounces, the audience sort of followed him along and it really illustrated how quickly you can teach non-musicians something that is very simple to learn rather than just clapping and singing along.”

Singer and harmonica player Shawn Hall, a.k.a. the Harpoonist, said he and guitarist/drummer Matthew “the Axe Murderer” Rogers are not only looking forward to trying something new at the upcoming re-recording of the song The Sky Is Falling from their new album Checkered Past, but they also have selfish reasons for doing it.

The Harpoonist and the Axe murderer look like nicer guys than you'd think.
The Harpoonist and the Axe murderer look like nicer guys than you’d think.

“It’s a tune that we haven’t really been able to discover yet live” he said. “We are kind of doing a big group experimentation to breathe new life and give us ideas on how we can represent the song live in a better way. It’s kind of like a big adult education thing in a way.”

Hall, who first got into music after his grandmother gave him a book called Harmonica for the Musically Hopeless when he was 12, said the plan is divide up the crowd and give them separate tasks based on their capabilities.

“There’s going to be a couple of pianos is and we’ll get some people — they won’t have to know how too many chords or anything — and give them sort of an eight-note pedal part. We’re hoping to get two different people on two different pianos on opposite sides of the room and that might be the metronome for the whole song and everything works and builds around that. The idea is to put together four different, simple parts of a tune that can intricately fit together, so it’ll have a cooler sound than rather the whole group just kind of ‘ooh-ing’ and ‘aah-ing’ and just clapping along and doubling along with the chorus. We want to make it a lot more interesting.”

Professional musicians collaborating with people whose musical training might have peaked at, say, mastering Chopsticks on piano or the intro to Stairway to Heaven on guitar — if they even have any training at all — might seem far-fetched, but Playground has already successfully pulled it off a four times before on a smaller scale and hope to eventually bring similar events to other cities.

Jesse Galicz, a development manager for Simon Fraser University, attended their last event in May at Zulu Records featuring local indie band Bend Sinister leading a crowd in a high-energy, gospel-tinged version of their song The Road Divided.

Galicz said he hopes to send in his RSVP in time to make it to this one as well.

“I think from a young age, we are encouraged to be artists but then many people get embarrassed or self-conscious and so they stop trying or stop singing or stop playing music, and this is an opportunity where people get to be creative,” said Galicz, who took saxophone lessons as a child but hasn’t played in years. “You sort of choose where you feel comfortable and are brought into the process of the song. It really becomes this incredible team-building event and you make this connection with everybody that is in the room.”

© Copyright (c) Vancouver Courier
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