The Joy of Playing a Supporting Role

Musicians playing in an Irish music session
Photo ©2022 Judy Minot

A few days ago I was chatting with a violinist friend. He expressed his opinion that violinists who play first violin in orchestras have a more “attention-seeking” or “look-at-me!” way of playing in general. Second violinists, according to my friend, are happy to play the supporting role, playing harmony notes and not standing out. This reminds me of my own experience being an alto in the chorus.

I love playing melody. I also get great satisfaction — even joy — from playing the musical supporting role: giving the melody more coherence, helping define the harmony, and providing counterpoint and variation. In those situations I challenge myself to make every musical choice: notes, rhythm, phrasing, and dynamics, in support of the melody lead. When songs or tunes are played with a more free sense of time, I laser-focus on the singer or player, working to sound each note exactly when they do. I may even leave space and stop playing entirely.

An aside: I often think of Kate Barnes who, after taking a “rhythm break” during a tune — i.e. stopping the piano backup entirely for a few bars — received the dubious compliment, “I love it when you stop playing!” (from Interview With A Vamper: Piano Accompaniment Techniques for Traditional Dance Music.)

Guitarist Dennis Cahill was a master at accompanying with an almost telepathic sensibility. He could play complex jazz harmonies, but what made him so revered, and (paradoxically) outstanding was his ability to provide the most minimal backup that would bring out the essence of what musicians around him were playing. One of my favorite examples is this set from the CD The Shores of Loch Graney with P.J. and Martin Hayes.

As musicians, all of us — not only so-called “rhythm” players — can benefit greatly from a practice of being more actively supportive of the musicians we play with. It makes us better listeners. It helps us sense the underlying harmony (even if we don’t have names for everything), and hones our sense of time. As a bonus, when you make other musicians sound good, they want to play with you!

I play a variety of instruments (too many!). Some, like the piano, are like an orchestra under your fingers, with a huge tonal range and the capability to play as many notes as you have fingers. Others, like the violin or diatonic accordion, are more suited to one or two notes at a time. I’ve made it a personal goal for the next 12 months to become a better supporting player on all of these instruments.

As with so many things musical, I know I’ll be much better at this if I practice it. Yet it’s difficult to sit down with the intention of practicing backup. Unless I have an upcoming gig, my go-to is to learn a new tune or work on a current one. It has helped to have specific methods worked out as to how I’ll develop my skills. Below are a few I like. I am sure you’ll have more ideas that work for you. Most of these would apply to instruments that play single or multiple notes.

Put It into Practice

This process will take time — months, not days — so be patient with yourself. If you can, track your progress. I hope you have as much fun with being a support(ive) player as I’ve been having.

Here are a few places in Best Practice where you’ll find more about playing the supporting role:

168 — Plays Well with Others
99 — Watch and Listen
65 — Give Me That Rhythm
148 — Playing with the Masters

Judy Minot is a musician and the author of the book Best Practice: Inspiration and Ideas for Traditional Musicians.

Judy has played and practiced piano since she could reach the keys, training in classical playing until age 16. She now plays traditional music in various settings on a number of instruments, and gives workshops and classes on Best Practice ideas all over the U.S. and virtually.

Judy spent her working life in broadcast television and digital marketing. She holds a 4th degree black belt in the martial art of Kokikai Aikido and is a certified yoga teacher.

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A musician and author of the book Best Practice: Inspiration and Ideas for Traditional Musicians

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Judy Minot

A musician and author of the book Best Practice: Inspiration and Ideas for Traditional Musicians