As the director of a recreational music community in New York City, I have the pleasure of meeting lots of people who are new to the experience of making music with others. Often the musicians I help have been strumming their guitars or pounding their keyboards alone, or to a bored cat or a spouse who has grown weary of endless renditions of “Sweet Jane.”
Eventually, the time comes for these musicians to experience the pleasure (and complications) of ensemble playing. The process, though not without its pitfalls, is invariably rewarding. Your music teacher will be the first to tell you: there’s no substitute for playing with others, both for the positive effect on your musical ability, and for the sheer joy of it.
It comes as a surprise to many that the single most important skill in the musician’s arsenal is not the technique required to play an instrument or to sing, but rather the ability to listen. Just as music is language, music making is conversation. If you’ve ever had a conversation with someone who didn’t listen to a word you were saying, you’ll recall how unpleasant the experience was. When you make music with a group, think about the “conversational” aspects of the experience, starting with listening.
For instance, can you hear what everyone else is saying with their instruments and how they’re saying it? Are you playing at a volume that allows you to hear each individual? A common mistake is to turn your own amp or microphone up in an effort to be heard, which quickly leads to cacophony as your companions follow suit.
Unless you are fortunate enough to play in a studio that allows for individual monitor mixes, make sure to ask your bandmates (who will hear things differently based on their location and their own hearing) if you are too loud or not loud enough. Don’t be shy about politely asking others to turn down (or up). Musicians who play through an amp or PA system have another tool: the ability to move closer or further away from their amp or the PA cabinet. By all means feel free to move around to give yourself a better “mix”.
Call and Response
Whether you play improvisational or strictly notated music, all group playing depends on call and response, or the intertwining of parts. Once you can hear everyone else properly, you’re ready to have a conversation. Ask yourself when you are playing: Am I leaving enough space for others to reply to my part? Do I consider what I’m told (and how it’s said) before I play my answer? Or am I just yelling, trying to make my voice the loudest?
While the greatest musicians are renowned for their ability to hear every note as it happens (particularly the wrong notes), you should consider this facility an aspiration rather than a prerequisite. Depending on your material, you may have to concentrate wholly on your own part, and worry less about everyone else.
Don’t sweat the call and response aspect of group playing. As you become more comfortable with a song, your fellow musicians, and your own skill, you will start to pick up on changes in dynamics, tempo, and timbre that form the conversation. With practice and experience, you’ll be able to adjust what you’re doing to respond to your bandmates or even take a turn leading the conversation.
Those who play with an established combo may notice how, in experienced hands, instruments become channels for personality and mood. As with learning a language, your ability to hold a conversation will be limited at first. But immersion is key, so take opportunities to play with others as they come, and enjoy the experience of your musical growth through better band etiquette.