The Two and the Four

I don’t do a lot of posts about music… I don’t do a lot of music anymore nowadays. But those of you who know me know that live music has been a pretty big part of my life.

It’s always great to play live for people, even when I’m not ready or not well rehearsed; in the moment it’s always a joy to do. The one… problem… The one problem is when the audience doesn’t know when to clap. That is a gross feeling. You’re not supposed to feel gross about your audience, but that’s what it is; when people are clapping at the wrong time, I think, “these people are gross.” It’s the same feeling you get when you watch someone put way too much salt on their food. Or when you see someone who swings their arms wrong when they walk. Or when someone calls a baby “ugly” in public.

The strong backbeat is the hallmark of American music; it’s our gift to the world. There may have been strong backbeats before America, and now certainly there are many non-Americans now which emphasize the backbeat, but it is clearly a thing: Old World musical traditions encourage clapping on the downbeats; American musical traditions emphasize the backbeat. That is, if they’re trying to sound American.

So what do you do when your audience starts clapping along to your live music in that lumbering Old World way, and you start getting that gross feeling as if someone just drank from the toilet? Well, you can try to “bring people in,” and show them where the beat is, which usually means that your hands leave your instrument for a moment. Someone once asked me why my Gospel choir director always brought people in, why we couldn’t just sing an uptempo song without clapping…. It’s just part of the song, I said, but I’m pretty sure now that she was pre-empting the bad clappers. Once people get going on the downbeat, they don’t let go, it’s like trying to take a porkchop back from the dog. So it’s safer to just pre-empt them by starting the claps on the correct beats, the backbeats, before they turn your American music into a Slavic military march.

Watch this video of Harry Connick Jr. playing on French TV. To tell the truth, I myself saw it just a second ago, and got so excited that I wrote this post; I haven’t even finished watching the whole thing.

What’s so exciting? He start playing the song; and immediately the French audience starts clapping along. There’s a look on his face that’s like, yay, you all sure did find that downbeat. The audience of course has no idea they’re “wrong,” they’re enjoying it and they what they do when they enjoy music at that tempo, they clap up the ones and threes.

After HCjr. finishes singing the head, he takes a chorus for a piano solo, and at about 0:40 seconds in he FIXES THE AUDIENCE. He adds a beat…. or does he skip a beat… I don’t remember, I was too excited, I would have to look at it again… either way, he shifts the audience to the backbeat, and suddenly the energy of the music changes; it changes from that lumbering, plodding, embarrassing dork-festival, to something that you’d want to loosen your tie and crack open a can of beer to. About a second later you can see the drummer behind the piano pumping his fists in celebration… just his fists; but it’s pretty clear to any American musician why.  From that moment on, the audience is clapping on the right beat, and I doubt they even realized that they had just been “fixed.”  Go back and look; count it out if you need to!

Now that I think about it, I’m sure that experienced musicians must do that all the time; I’m just excited to see the youtube evidence.

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