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So, you want to play in a band… and why you should

One of the best things that you can do as a musician – whether you are very experienced or an absolute beginner – is to play together with other people. There are many reasons why you should do it. Unfortunately, too many people shy away from it thinking that they’re not good enough, or that they will let themselves down, or that they will embarrass themselves, and so on. In this post I am going to talk about what’s involved and what to expect when joining a group. I’ve made this general as I’m a string player (cello and viol) as well as a sax player, but the principles apply to all.

The first myth to bust is: am I good enough? The answer is yes you are, but obviously you have to find the right group to play with. There are community groups, bands, and orchestras that cater for all levels of playing and for different styles and genres of music. One community group that I am familiar with runs three orchestras on a Saturday morning. Being a community orchestra, the welcome all abilities and all instruments. One is aimed at absolute beginners and geared at getting people used to playing with others and working with a conductor. This group has a very wide age range from about 8 to one that is over 90. The second group is the intermediate group and has a wide range of people including youngsters, adult learners and adult late returners, or second instrument players. This is a large group of around 40 to 50 players. The third group is more experienced. It contains a few older youngsters (i.e. teens) who tend to be very good players, plus adult late returners or more experienced learners.

The area where it tends to be harder to find an outlet is for the smaller ensembles and groups such as string quartets. If you’re a viola player you can probably find an opportunity easily enough, but it is much harder if you’re a cellist or violinist. The challenge here is that for accessible works by say Haydn, Mozart or Beethoven, the first violin part is significantly more difficult than the other parts. There are ways round this though. String players should think about joining string orchestras. First of all this will provide an opportunity to play. Second, playing in a string orchestra is very different to playing in a symphony orchestra and it will help with relevant technique. Third, you will be in an environment with other string players and that will provide other opportunities.

If you are a wind player, then similarly joining a wind band will be useful. These can be anything from small groups of six or seven players, right up to symphonic wind bands of seventy or more players. Again groups such as the classical wind quintet, or big bands are harder to find because of the narrow definition of instrument requirements. You are more likely to find an opportunity by being a member of a larger ensemble. Conventional orchestras can be difficult for wind players as a classical orchestra only needs 2 flutes, 2 clarinets etc. Community groups don’t usually have the same limitation on numbers. You do get ‘choirs’ of wind instruments from the same family such as clarinet choirs (which will have bass, alto, Bb, C, Eb etc. instruments). You also get sax choirs and sax ensembles (as indeed we do within the Café).

OK, so you’ve found a group, what do you do? Well the first thing is don’t panic. Everyone makes mistakes, so don’t be afraid of making them. Wrong notes are not that important – once they’re gone, they’re gone, so no use fretting over them. What is more important is timing and rhythm. No one will notice if you play a wrong note at the right time, but the right note at the wrong time will be a little more evident. Don’t feel obliged to put every note in. If you have a passage of quavers or semi-quavers and it feels too much then an option is to just play the first note of the bar, or the first note in each group, or maybe the notes on each beat and work up to adding more. The important thing is to keep your place in the music and to not get behind.

If you’ve never played with others then it will feel strange. One aspect will be that with a group the tempo will be consistent and you may discover that you’re not used to that. Other things that may seem odd are that you may be playing a piece you know but your part is not playing the tune, but rather a harmony part. It can be very tempting to play your part in the style of the tune, which is probably wrong!

The other thing that can be confusing is working with a conductor. Now it has to be said that they vary a great deal, but generally they are there to help you, in particular with keeping in time. You need to have your music stand at a height such that you can catch the conductor’s beat with peripheral vision. If you are not familiar with how a conductor beats the various time signatures, then have a Google for a suitable wiki.

So, you’ve found a group, what should you do for the first rehearsal? Apart from the obvious of making sure that you know where the venue is, make sure you allow at least 15 minutes before the scheduled start time, possibly more, on the first visit. The reason is you will need to sort out parking and finding the room. You will need to allow time to introduce yourself, find out where you’re sitting, set-up your music stand and instrument, tune, and get music. In most groups the music director / conductor will probably have a few words with you during the tea beak or at the end. Things that you need to remember to bring: music stand, soft 2B pencil and eraser, and if you wear them – glasses. If the MD gives directions during the rehearsal about say changes to dynamic markings or articulation, then make sure you add them in soft pencil to your part. It can be embarrassing to come in on a strong FF because you forgot it had been change to mf…

Most groups and ensembles will welcome having a new member, so you are likely to be very welcome. It is common practice for groups to allow a ‘getting to know you’ period, often one whole term. This is to enable you to see if you like the group and are comfortable and also for them to be sure that you fit in with them. Whether or not a subscription is payable in this initial period will vary from group to group.

I sometimes get asked why groups have to charge. The short answer is few things are free and typical costs include rehearsal venue hire, the venue may require the group hold PLI (Public Liability Insurance), they may have to pay the music director, they will probably have to hire or purchase music. Some areas are fortunate to have more enlightened local authorities and such things are subsidised in part.

Finding groups is the main challenge. These days, the internet search engine is your friend. There are dedicated sites such as www.amateurorchestras.org.uk which list groups by genre and location. Just be aware that not all groups are listed and some groups are not sufficiently ‘tech savvy’ to have an online presence, but that is becoming very uncommon. Don’t rule out the notice board in music shops or asking the staff there.

I hope this short overview might encourage you to take the plunge in joining a group. Do post about how you get on. Since I’ve been on the committee of many groups and I’ve been chairman of a few, feel free to ask questions, which I will try to answer if I can.
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