Even the best musicians can struggle when faced with playing in a band if they are not used to playing with others.
You may be a pro on your instrument but unless you can play well with other musicians your band may end up seeming more like a pack of trained monkeys…
The best way to deal with this problem is just to practise playing with others as much as possible, but here are 5 tips that can help you improve faster.
1. Be Prepared
Although many musicians may look like they’re “winging it” because they make it look so easy, there is no doubt that most of them will come prepared to any practice session or gig. Know what songs you are going to be playing, and if you are a singer, memorise the words. If you know your own part well already, you can concentrate on the other parts of musicianship that you cannot practice alone. Of course, if you are playing originals this is not quite so simple, but try to badger the songwriter for some form of recording or song notation before you meet so you know what’s expected of you as a musician before you play.
2. Learn to count
It’s not just the drummer that needs to be confident in counting beats and bars. This is required practice for all members of the band as it helps keep the musicians all playing at the same time – which hopefully you’ll agree is essential!
Again, if this is not your forte, this is an easy exercise to do at home. Put on a recording of your music, get out a pen and paper, and write down:
- The Time Signature – is it in 3/4, 4/4, 6/8 etc.?
- The Structure – how many bars long is the intro, chorus, guitar solo etc.
- Any Timing Changes – does the song pause at any point or change tempo?
Once you’ve understood this principle, you can apply it to any song, and it will help prevent you from singing over the guitar solo, or carrying on playing when everyone else has stopped! Although this may not seem like a particularly fun exercise to do at home, if you want to be a serious musician and you have to learn a lot of music very quickly, these types of details are the difference between mediocrity and excellence, and can give your music that extra push it needs to succeed.
3. Stay in tune
You may think that you sound fine, but unless you are all completely in tune, it will really affect the sound of the music. Even if you are playing at a small open mic night, you don’t know who might be listening to you, and if it is someone who knows a bit about music, they will not be at all impressed if you are out of tune with each other!
There are many times I have seen a band, and after successfully retuning one guitar to an alternate tuning for a specific song, they fail to spend the time making sure the other instruments are in tune with it, creating a really disappointing, muddy sound.
Use your ears
It is also important not to keep an audience waiting too long, and fumbling around with guitar tuners can often cause people to lose interest making the general atmosphere drop. Don’t get me wrong, a guitar tuner is a great tool, but being able to check using your own ears is invaluable when it doesn’t seem to be working, or you just don’t have adequate time.
Practice at home by playing or singing along to a short, simple section of a song. It’s all about training your ears to recognise a note that is flat (slightly under the desired note), or sharp (slightly above the desired note). If you are a singer, think about joining a choir. It’s amazing how quickly you will start to realise the slight differences in tuning when you are singing the same thing. Similarly with instrumentalists, if you can find another person who plays the same instrument to play with, you will learn to fight against any dissonance (unstable sounds) created by being out of tune with each other.
4. Listen to each other
The best bands are those that work well together. If everyone is fighting to play over each other, nobody will be heard. Enjoy listening to the parts that the other band members are playing, and start to interweave your parts with theirs.
Two instruments mirroring each other in harmony, or any form of shared ideas across instruments can result in some interesting textures, creating one sound instead of just a few separate instruments playing at the same time.
If this doesn’t come naturally to you or the band, start by setting a structure of where you think the music needs more excitement (and therefore more involvement – try a chorus or instrumental perhaps) and when it needs less (maybe a verse or breakdown of some kind).
5. Give it a go!
As I said at the start, the best way to improve at playing with other musicians is to simply do it more and more. Whether you are new to playing in a band, or you are a complete pro, these are skills that are needed daily by musicians of all genres and backgrounds. Much like needing to practice your instrument or voice regularly, the skills acquired from working with others need constant honing too.
Unless you want to play on your own in a dark room forever, it’s time to improve your band listening skills. Quit monkeying around and use these tips to up your game. After all, isn’t playing music together what it’s all about?
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