Nashville number system and music theory
A group owner wrote a few days ago about his search for a pianist:
We are now auditioning piano players, and have heard some really great talent. More and more I am finding young people using the Nashville number system, and that fits quite nicely with my mode of operation.
This is good news as a report from the field, but I guess I thought (naively?) that it has always been standard issue for sg pianists who had any serious ambition to know the NNS. Even coming up in the small-time world 15 years ago and with a decade of considerable informal and some formal training already behind me, I had to learn it as a matter of course and plenty of music theory to boot. Was my case an anomaly?
Now that I think about it, perhaps so. After all, southern gospel is famous for how ignorant its musicians and vocalists can be of music theory and how little ability they can have to think abstractly about music and still succeed. Indeed, if you want to look for one of the many roots to the deep-seated problem of gospel music’s crisis of quality, the glut of untrained musicians (vocal and instrumental) is prime ground to till. Native or natural ability is all well and good. And a lot of players (and singers for that matter), of course, wear their lack of training as a badge of honor. In a culture skeptical of the worldliness with which formal training is often associated in southern gospel (long-haried or sissified music etc), celebrating one’s uncultivated talent can be a real crowd pleaser. It makes players feel exceptional rather than willfully ignorant, and it reinforces certain anti-intellectual predispositions among salt-of-the-earth fans.
But the widespread rhetoric of “God-given” talent and talk of divinely inspired ability or spirit-filled playing tends to exacerbate the problem of players who don’t understand the musical foundations of what they do and - worse still - to excuse this ignorance, allowing it to go unremediated, sometimes for entire careers.
Why does this matter? Because practically speaking, it limits a group’s expressive range. Even if a group is lucky (or smart) enough to have a vocalist who can also arrange and/or write music, it takes a live instrumentalist (usually a pianist) to transplant the arranger’s work into capital the group can spend on stage. Untrained players who don’t know or won’t learn how to build proper fills and to consistently construct harmonically complementary accompaniments means a group that can never really perform truly live sets.
Tracks, of course, are both a response to and a cause of this phenomenon. Thus the traveling hordes of sg groups that are functionally illiterate of music theory in all but its crudest and most dumbed down forms (your part is the high one … you end after me … make it sound real purtty and speerchul in this section). These groups are the norm: sing by numbers with band tracks that, if they require a pianist all, make the live accompanist’s job one of figuring out how to stand out from the track.
The typical account of how we got to this current state of affairs goes something like this: First they came for the drummers and the bass players and the lead guitarists and harmonica players (though I shed no tears for a single one of them … a pox on the harmonica!), and now it’s the pianists. Once the instrumental core of gospel music, the southern gospel pianist is now an endangered species, made irrelevant by tracks.
There is a certain amount of truth to this, but only some. Few people (especially the critics of tracks and mourners for the death of the band in gospel music) can recognize or will admit that pianists have relinquished a great deal of their authority and relevance to tracks. In the age of canned bands and orchestras, you can count yourself a bonafide southern gospel player if you can pick up a few licks here and there and content yourself with keeping time and smiling happily (or furrowing your brow reverentially) the rest of the time. This is why you hear so many players who “fill by number” – that is, do little more than play chords and keep basic rhythm with the track, waiting for the gaps in the singing to insert flashy, frilly phrases.
Another way to say this: part of the reason why it’s so deeply pleasing to hear a Justin Ellis or Stan Whitmire doing acoustical work is because it’s so rare. Probabilistically, my group owner friend whose email I led off with will likely end up hiring a guy (and he is almost always a guy these days) who for all his ability to arpegiate his way through a solo and dash off a few polished licks here and there, will for the most part lay down uninspired accompaniment and be virtually incapable of deviating from the (literally) preprogrammed set, unless it’s to sleep-walk his way through some tired old standard like “Beulah Land” or just sit silently by for an cappella hymn singing (cue happy smile or furrowed brow). Sigh. There’ll be no interludes (of the sort the Crabbs created so often) and no spontaneous reaction to a particular audience’s response to your set.
Sadly, of course, this is no obstacle to a career in southern gospel. By planting their butts in the seats of countless subpar or just-serviceable concerts and by buying and buying unnumbered pieces of crummy product, southern gospel audiences and consumers have practically decided that a southern gospel performer need only know how to create a reasonable approximation of a certain loosely defined musical style – without troubling himself with the structuring ideas and foundational concepts essential to the creation of that sound.
Update: A commenter writes:
Whether or not a pianist has learned the Nashville number system specifically has no reflection whatsoever on whether or not they know music theory.
This is a useful distinction that I think on rereading my post I didn’t make clear enough. I was mostly riffing off and thinking from my own experience here, which can be dangerous. In my case, I learned theory alongside NNS, on the premise that (as this same commenter notes) being able to read chart is useless without the ability to creatively interpret and apply what you see. That said, for pianists who have learned to play “by ear” and are largely lacking any formal theoretical training to understand what lays behind their improvisations, learning NNS has the potential to cultivate a more sophisticated comprehension and deeper appreciation of harmonic and chordal relationships, in turn helping pianists to figure out how to be smarter and more inventive players (i.e. using subtler passing tones). And it is this kind of connection between NNS and music theory that I had in mine when writing the post.Email this Post