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Playing So you want to join a band... and why you should

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 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.
This is a great overview TV, full of good advice.

I will add just a few things, from my own experience.
Some bands do not like you taking music home, even for practice. In a way that's fair enough as it's their music. People have an amazing capacity for losing things or not keeping their pads up to date or even just walking off with them. Actually that happens even if a pad is left with the band, so be careful what you inherit, especially if there is no band librarian. At one band I joined I was given a large tatty envelope with about 20 numbers in it, just loose. It was a symptom of a badly run band and I didn't stay long. Good bands will have their pads in similar sized folders and marked up by instrument. If you show you are trustworthy the leader may in time turn a blind eye to your taking a pad home. In other bands the leader just hands out parts and you are expected to look after them. This can cause some chaos if you have disorganised members! Either way some bands now use Dropbox to keep their music which means it is accessible for members to print their own copies.

Something that people new to bands may find surprising and which is different to lessons, is that the band will not stop for minor mistakes until the end or until there is a serious breakdown (which often results in hilarity as everyone has gone wrong). Unless it is a small group there will be no individual tuition, which on the other hand is a good thing as you won't feel exposed. The leader/conductor will probably take a tricky phrase or bars and run through it with a section a few times making some performance points on the way (this is where you use TVs recommended pencil!) before trying it with the whole band. Even then, the leader may suggest that a bit needs some individual attention later; this is why it is so useful to have access to your part at home .

Finally, you will find that your sight reading improves very quickly and what was tricky a few weeks ago is now almost second nature. You will also have to pick up the leader's instructions quickly as they may not get repeated, like "pick up into letter C" or "two bars, top left". Sometimes our big band leader, Graham, a pro trumpeter, says "right, up to speed, good luck!" and at the end enquires "anyone hurt?".

Just enjoy it!
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A good introduction.

A pencil is important. One of the things that gets our Music Director annoyed is when he gives an instruction ("go right down in volume at C and then crescendo to D") and half the band don't have pencils to write it in their parts.

Another thing worth bringing, in my opinion, is a sax stand. Some people leave their instruments on chairs during the break, but it looks dangerous to me.
Excellent @tenorviol . That is a well written and comprehensive piece on playing in ensembles. There are a few things I have learned along the way with regard to that topic:
  • The fastest way to improve your playing skill is to play in a group where everyone plays better than you.
  • Musicianship* is not something that can be learned playing as an individual, it requires an ensemble.
  • Aside from musical benefits, playing in a group promotes camraderie, espirit de corps, and forming new friendships
* Knowing how to play one's part so that it fits into and complements the music and the group as a whole. This includes pitch, balance, tone quality, dynamics, blend, expression, style, posture, etc.
Thanks @jbtsax - I completely agree that playing with others, especially where they are better than you, can really improve your playing. It was only when I started to sing with really good choirs that were well directed that things like my timing improved a great deal.

Musicianship is important and an aspect that is often overlooked. One group I play in has the right number of wind and brass but is short of upper strings. It's frustrating when the brass in particular ignore that aspect and play their fortissimos as if there were 40 violins...

@nigeld - agree about the sax stand.
Thanks @tenorviol for an excellent article.

I've found every bit to be true over the last 3 years, starting with a night-school workshop (now discontinued by the adult education morons), and now in 2 bands, a big-band mainly saxes plus a rhythm section and singers, and a wind ensemble with clarries saxes trombone & flutes.

For a raw learner like me it was a great introduction to playing with other people, and then, amazing myself, playing in front of audiences. The learning curve may be steep at first, with quite a few ups & downs, but you soon learn to take it all in your stride and feel the improvement every week.

I've quite got the performing bug now, and when I fully retire from office work next year, I'm thinking of looking for a little rock/blues band to play in as well.

I've passed on that orchestras site to the secretaries of my 2 bands to get our names out there for new members (and possible gigs).
Good article tenorviol,I have been on that site you mention but a lot of them want you at grade 5 and above to play at.Idid go along to a local one,but was put off by playing Greensleeves for a hour,maybe should have had a bit more patience.Also joined a site called join my band,a site for people who want to form bands,apart from the occasional ad for sax player,it seems everyone is looking for drummers,guitarists or keys.Seems everyone are metal heads!!!!.My sax tutor,who is sax player with Climax blues band did suggest I try and put something together myself,did put a ad out....hopeless.So at moment just me playing along to my playalongs and various other stuff,but sometimes it is hard to keep motivated....we shall see???.Bumnote.
I'm confused, I couldn't find any references to sex or drugs. :confused2:

Also joined a site called join my band, apart from the occasional ad for sax player, it seems everyone is looking for drummers, guitarists or keys. My sax tutor did suggest I try and put something together myself ... hopeless.

There's also BandMix but if you're not actively involved in the scene you want to play in then finding other musos is nigh-on impossible. Go to local gigs and jams, say hello, become known, it's really the best way.
Great review.

i spent a day playing in an orchestra that lets the general public join in, twice a year, to see what its like playing in an orchestra etc..

I was conned - they said players of grade 2 and above are welcome. I just passed my grade 2 and when i turned up to play in the orchestra, all the music sheets were grade 5 and above.

Since then, i haven’t bothered attending in following years, only now, i feel more confident in having another go.
Great review.

i spent a day playing in an orchestra that lets the general public join in, twice a year, to see what its like playing in an orchestra etc..

[BGCOLOR=transparent]I was conned - they said players of grade 2 and above are welcome. I just passed my grade 2 and when i turned up to play in the orchestra, all the music sheets were grade 5 and above.[/BGCOLOR]

Since then, i haven’t bothered attending in following years, only now, i feel more confident in having another go.
That's naughty - they should be more open and honest about the level required. There are community bands/orchestras that will take all-comers including beginners. Also, there may be simpler parts for people who are new to playing, depending on instrument.
I suppose, playing sax, I wouldn't have to make orchestras to join, and being in high school, I would only have time to join a band in the summer (too many clubs to do it like my friends do). Is it likely bands would allow me to play only in the summer?
To add insult to injury, the next year they raised the entrance to grade 3 and above. You don’t have to have a grade 3 pass as such, but be of grade 3 playing standard and above (which implies a student workng on grade 4 or above).

Don’t get me wrong, it was fun to be there, i did manage to hit notes that sounded like the players around me, but most of the time, i just pretended to play the sax, as some of the finger techniques in the semi-quavers was just too fast for my experience.
Don't know what the situation is with you, @Ne0Wolf, but in NL there are some 'project bands' that start rehearsing in May/June and then go on an (international) tour in July/August. I should add that members need to audition.

I suppose, playing sax, I wouldn't have to make orchestras to join, and being in high school, I would only have time to join a band in the summer (too many clubs to do it like my friends do). Is it likely bands would allow me to play only in the summer?
@6182 most of us have to do that, including me on cello and sax sometimes. it's a very useful technique to be able to come in at the right time and place and to drop out when it's beyond you. You learn a lot from doing that. As you improve, you will find yourself putting more notes in.

A lot of people avoid joining bands/orchestras in the mistaken belief that they need to be able to play everything at speed from day one
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My (professional) bassoon teacher used to say that the key to being a successful player in an orchestra is to be a good bluffer. It’s amazing how much one can get away by wiggling the fingers in the hard bits. Being in time matters more than playing the right notes. And the more I practice, the closer my finger wiggling gets to the real thing.
Thanks tenorviol, i want to sign up for another orchestra day this year, see how i am compared to a couple of years ago, I’m a bit more laid back now, and if there are any difficult parts, i’ll let them slide.

Similar threads... or are they? Maybe not but they could be worth reading anyway 😀

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