Music is a group experience, whether it’s a group of people playing together or an audience listening.
When we practice we get used to playing alone, and if you play for your own enjoyment you might not have even thought about playing for or with anyone. Some people never play for anyone’s ears than their own. Others might be experienced performers but never play with other musicians. In either case, something fundamental is missing.
There’s a tradition in Nashville called a “guitar pull”, in which songwriters pass a guitar around and play their songs for each other. Sometimes others might join in and play along, sometimes not. It’s not a performance: no fans, no stage. The players are the audience, and there’s no other purpose than sharing the songs. There’s certainly an element of trying out material to see what kind of response it gets, or just to see how it feels to sing the song when other people are listening. But it’s primarily a social occasion, and the getting together matters as much as the music. Of course, this particular tradition is specific to a particular place and a set of people with shared interests. You can find that for yourself.
You don’t have to have any particular aspirations to seek your own musical community.
It’s not even about the practical value of the experience, although there are real practical benefits. The greatest value is the way sharing music deepens your connection to the people you share it with, and to the music itself. A musical community also gives you reason to play and practice that goes beyond your own satisfaction, especially if you do play songs together. It’s a lot more motivating to be part of a team that’s relying on you, and the gratification you get from the shared success is much greater than the pressure of having to prepare for it. And this sense of shared success doesn’t even require playing together – just playing, together.
I host a monthly performance night at my space in Nashville, primarily but not exclusively for my students. It was intended to be a low-pressure opportunity to get some experience onstage, which in fact it is. But there’s another element I didn’t foresee. First of all, I hadn’t anticipated just how much even the very inexperienced would enjoy it! Even if they were so nervous their hands shook when they started to play, they would almost invariable come off stage elated and energized. One woman, who had never played for anyone in her life, told me after two performances that the feeling was addictive.
The most striking thing is that as people returned and got to know one other, a community started to form. They began to root for their peers, and applauded each other with genuine warmth. This has continued even as the event has grown. Even though some are far more accomplished than others, there’s never been a trace of competition and everyone is consistently encouraging across the board. The same thing happens in my group guitar classes.
This tends to happen any time people share music with each other, and it doesn’t have to be a formally organized event.
I’ve experienced the same feeling at gatherings of all kinds: a concert, a church picnic, a house party, and my own backyard. The fact is, almost everyone has had some kind of collective experience relating to music, whether it was being part of a crowd of thousands at a stadium concert or jamming with a good friend around a campfire.
It can be challenging to find the right musical community. But it’s important for your growth as a musician, and the enjoyment, motivation, and friendships that can come out of it can be priceless. You might be surprised how many places you can find people making music. Churches, community groups, neighborhood music schools, libraries, or the local coffeehouse all might offer some sort of opportunity. If you have friends that play, get together informally and play for each other. If you don’t, find an open mic somewhere. You can go and just hang out, you don’t even have to play. Find places where people play music, and then look for people that match your interests. Make friends and create your musical family.