Why It's Good To Play In A Band (and some useful tips)

Despite having a focus on solo performance throughout my music lessons, it was playing in a band that allowed me to hone those skills and learn to appreciate how musicians work together. Here are a few reasons why I believe it's good to play in a band.

SOLO If you're like me, you've chosen your instrument (or been told what instrument to play) and you've had peripatetic lessons on that instrument to a point where you feel you're pretty competent. So where do you go from here? I've come across a lot of people who simply like playing on their own, perhaps with a backing track, and have no intention of ever playing with other people. Sometimes it's due to nerves, them feeling like they're not good enough; other times it's simply because they're not interested. Unfortunately for those folk, they're missing out.

YOU'RE IN THE BAND

So you've decided you want to play with other people, you've found a group that plays the music you like and you've passed the audition, or perhaps you didn't need to audition. Now it's on to rehearsals, where the true magic happens. Here are some things I've noticed and learned from in rehearsals and band performances.

DYNAMICS

Playing solo, we learn about volume or dynamics - forte is loud, piano is soft, with mezzo before each word implying a moderate volume. That's great but when there's more than one person, it gets a little more interesting.

At some point in the music, one part will have a more important line than another part, therefore, that part gets louder and the other parts get quieter. When there's only one person per part it's fairly straight forward but if there are more people in a part as in an orchestra, those performers have to make sure they are all getting quieter or louder while no individual is going further than another.

When it comes to quiet volumes, you don't tend to notice it as much. If a player has gone too quiet then they simply won't be heard and the part sounds weaker than others. Sometimes people purposely stop playing in order to lower the volume.

When you get louder however, it's a little more difficult since there is such a thing as too loud. We've all done it at home when practising. We've literally played so loud that our ears are ringing (probably the lowest note too). Did you notice that the quality of the note you played reduced? It might have started sounding flat, a bit brash and ugly, or got really breathy.

When in a band, the danger of going too loud is just as important, if not more so. There being more of you should mean you don't have to go that loud and when someone does, suddenly that uniform note coming from the part is broken, one player in particular being heard above everyone else. You know what I'm talking about - there was always an ensemble at school with one really good player and other... not so good players, so you would only really hear the good player carrying the part. When the band is of a more professional standard, this sort of thing shouldn't be happening.

So what do we need to do? Listen. Listen to each other all the time. Recognise that balance needed to create one uniform note. As if it isn't loads of players playing the same note but an illusion of it being one confident sounding note from a singular being.

BREATHING

When playing solo, it's important to know in advance where you're going to need to breathe, whether the marks are already written in or you need to put some in yourself in sensible places (usually at the end of phrases).

In an ensemble, breathing is just as important but in a more tactical sense. Yes, even ensemble music has breath marks but sometimes musical phrases can be ridiculously long with no marks in sight. In these cases, we need to decide who breathes where.

For example, on very, very, very long notes two players will make sure they never breathe at the same time, giving the illusion that the note is continuous. More people per part means more need for communication between yourselves. The part can't rely on two really good players and the others just do what they want. Everyone has to be a part of this, all breathing at different points, allowing for a stronger note of great quality.

TUNING Of course, everyone breathing in different places and playing at the same volume won't have an impressive effect if the tuning is horrendous.

The first thing we see at a performance is the 'tuning note'. One player, usually an oboist or a viola player, will play a concert A and everyone else tunes to them. I always find this frustrating since playing one note doesn't automatically mean all your other notes are in tune and I've seen many players think they can get away with doing this basic tuning before playing but no, there needs to be more.

Backstage, the first thing you should be doing after putting your instrument together, is your own tuning. Everyone should have their own tuner or at least one per part (these days you can get tuners on your phone so there's no excuse). Tune as many notes as you can in different octaves and then tune to each other in your part. Give yourselves plenty of time so that when you go onstage, that 'tuning note' is simply part of the performance.

From that moment on, we as players must be vigilant. It's well known that as we play, instruments heat up, strings start to loosen, and lips get tired. Those half-time intervals aren't just for the audience, they're to give the performer a break too and allow their instrument a chance to retune for the second half.

That doesn't mean the tuning won't change while we play though and so listening is just as important here as it was for dynamics. If your part has more than one person playing and you can hear yourself going out of tune, you need to make a decision. Do you try to retune quietly without drawing any attention? Or do you tell the other players in your part that your tuning is going and stop playing until the break?

You might think I'm being too harsh but honestly, there is nothing worse than out-of-tune music so we need to do the right thing to keep the quality at its highest.

TEAMWORK MAKES THE DREAM WORK

Of course, all that aside, it is great fun playing with other, like-minded people, doing something you love and sharing it, not only with other players but with an audience too. We ask ourselves a lot more questions about our own playing as a band member and we learn how to adapt our skills within a team of musicians. We listen to each other and to ourselves, giving helpful feedback in order to create the best sound, and ultimately, these skills we learn from playing with others can then be applied to our solo performances, granting us a better understanding of how we play and appreciate music.

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© 2020 Ed Brown