Not everyone aspires to join a band.
When I was a teenager, the idea of starting a band was the most exciting thing in the world. My first experiences of playing with other people were intimidating, though. It was one thing to be able to play a part by myself. It was something else entirely to be able to keep track of that part AND blend in with whatever else was going on.
First rehearsals were always the worst. Learning the part wasn’t the problem – I would generally have the music beforehand, and have some time to practice it. But when the group started to play, it was as if the music I had practiced had changed into something completely different. Without the rest of the music, my part was just a sequence of moves. Played along with the other parts, it was a puzzle piece that had to fit perfectly. Now the challenge was to know the part well enough that I could focus on what was happening around me.
At first, it was just about keeping up and not getting lost.
If you ever played in middle school band, you know the feeling. As long as everyone starts and ends together, it’s a win. But that’s just the beginning.
Playing with a group develops aspects of your skills as a musician in a way that playing alone can’t. Even if your musical goals don’t involve performing with others – or performing at all – you can benefit from it. I’ve come to believe that most people can only progress so far in their musical development without some experience in a group of some kind. Here’s why.
1. Playing with a group requires you to really know the music.
For a band of any kind to sound good, everyone needs to be listening to the same thing. That means listening to the collective sound, not just your part. This was the lesson I learned in high school: that the guitar part I played alone in my room sounded completely different when it was surrounded by the other instruments. Most of all, I realized that while I was able to count, there was a lot more to having good “time”.
Counting measures did work – I was able to come in at the right spot if I didn’t lose my place – but by focusing on that count I was concentrating on the wrong thing. Good musicians pick up on cues after one or two run-throughs. In other words, they know when to come in because they know the music. And no matter how good a player is, everyone listens better when they aren’t busy counting or reading.
Even for the solo player, this kind of big-picture listening helps make a performance stronger. To do that, though, you need to know your part cold. That means learning the song by heart and not relying on a lyric sheet or chord chart. It means knowing the part so you can play it without distracting thoughts like ”uh oh, here comes the hard part”. When you know the music that well, you’re free to focus on the big picture and just make the music feel good to you and the audience.
2. Playing with a group develops your ability to interact musically.
Once you know your part well enough that you don’t have to think so much about it, you start to really hear what the other players are doing. And that leads to a better appreciation of how your part fits with theirs.
No matter how many times good musicians may have played the same music together, they’re always listening to each other. Playing as a unit is a dynamic process, and that means it should always be conscious. Not self-conscious, that’s different. Conscious in the sense that the players hear and feel the interaction between them, and learn not just to “play” the part but to “play with” it.
Getting back to the idea of beginning and ending at the same time, there’s a difference between things happening simultaneously and happening together. And while the sonic differences are subtle, they’re unmistakable. You might not notice when the musicians are really “locked in”, but you definitely will notice when they aren’t.
This sense of interaction makes you a better musician all around, because it develops your own ability to “play with” your parts rather than just playing them. It should never be enough to go through the motions. Playing your song well is like driving a sports car on a mountain road: you can enjoy the scenery and the responsiveness of the vehicle at the same time.
3. Playing music together feels good.
Collective joy is one of the greatest of human experiences. Whether you feel it in church, at a sporting event, or a concert, it’s an amazing feeling to be part of a larger group with a shared sense of purpose. When this happens to musicians playing together, the result can be transcendent.
Musicians talk about being so deep “in the zone” that they become more of a channel for the music than the source of it. This might sound cosmic, but it’s really not. We’ve probably all had an experience like this at some point in our lives. A group works together so well that the interactions are practically automatic. Everyone is so well practiced that the right things seem to just happen, without deliberation or thought.
This can happen in a solo performance too. But sharing an experience like this with others is deeply gratifying. It’s my favorite thing about playing music, and the goal I’m always aiming for in every performance. If you’ve never experienced it, you’re missing something. The best part is that it doesn’t necessarily require a lot of technical ability! It doesn’t matter how simple or complicated the music might be, the potential for transcendence is the same. And once you’ve had that feeling, you’ll be shooting for it every time you play, in any setting.
You always have very insightful posts!
Part of my limitations are directly related to thinking too much about the notes and counting the measures instead of feeling the music. That is my challenge going forward.
It definitely takes time and practice, but it starts with listening for cues and anything else that helps you keep your place. These can be subtle details, but once you know what you’re listening for you’ll start to hear them.
Good stuff Dave. I always feel comfortable playing and practicing alone, but put with another player and it seems like overnight I have developed 5 thumbs on each hand. Getting over the anxiety of playing with and in front of others is as big of a battle as just learning to play by yourself!