A recent Ed Sheeran tour here in NZ was extremely well attended. I didn’t get to go, but I heard some really positive comments from others who attended. Apparently he was on his own on stage; there was no band, but by using a loop pedal to record and play back the live sounds he had just played, he gave the impression of a full band sound. Everything was live in the concert and not pre-recorded. It says a lot about him as a performer that he can do all this as a lone musician. Even so, he also knows how to perform with other musicians.
So much of music is about performing with others. When someone starts out learning a musical instrument they are usually terrified at the thought of other people hearing their early attempts. Yet playing with others is a valuable goal to have in mind.
One of my greatest delights as a music teacher is working with a number of very young musicians and bringing them into their very first experience of playing in an orchestra. In their audition they show that they can play something they have learned. I also get them to play some simple music at sight to show they can read previously unseen music at their level. Bearing in mind the overall group of musicians I have, I then write and arrange a simple piece that will suit the level of each instrument. This way I know that the music is not going to be the biggest thing to learn when they come together. Rather, their prime challenge will be learning to play as a group.
Earlier this year some were so nervous at their first rehearsal that they just sat and watched the others until they were ready to join in. It wasn’t long before watching everyone else having fun was no fun at all, and they joined in.
By the end of each year I will have seen massive improvements in each orchestra member’s understanding of music and the instrument they play. There will have been a growing awareness of the importance of timing and listening to their fellow member’s input, and a sense of corporate solidarity. For many, if not all, one of the greatest highlights of their year will have been this weekly experience.
Here are some of the social plusses of playing with others:
Meeting people from other walks of life
It is a healthy way to mix and mingle with people who might look at life differently. The music brings the point of unity.
Learning the value of teamwork
Everyone has a different part to play, but no one part is more important than any other and together all parts makes the whole work. The children I work with can feel the impact on the music when someone doesn’t show up to do their part. The same can happen when working on a musical or other drama. So many parts have to come together for the whole thing to work. It’s a great way to learn how to work as a team.
Developing a focus for practice
On many occasions I have seen pupils get their parts right purely because others are going to hear it and they will let the side down if they don’t get it sorted. The result is that they see direct value in the practice they have put in. The cycle then repeats itself and they continue to improve.
Leading on from the last point about letting the side down, being accountable to a group is healthy for musicians who tend to work on their own.
Being sociable without having to talk
Working towards a common musical goal does involve some talking, obviously, but when your focus is on the music it relieves that awkwardness that some find in a social setting.
Playing your part in the conversation
In a musical piece with others there is a time to “speak” and a time to be silent. I always feel sorry for the triangle player in a rehearsal who counts 20 bars before his moment comes and the conductor stops to rehearse the string section when they get to bar 19! But he will learn that his moment will come and it is like taking a turn in a conversation. There are times to listen.
Learning about other instruments
My current little orchestra is no doubt learning a lot about other instruments. For example, they are seeing how difficult the oboe is to learn, because if the reed is not in right or there is a split in it, there is simply no sound to be made. They may also see and hear another instrument and become interested in learning to play it too.
Learning about how the music hangs together
When the leader breaks down the music into parts to practice, those who have to sit and listen will now be more aware of these other parts when everyone is playing together.
If you don’t have the opportunity to play with others, perhaps because you are living in an isolated area, you will just have to make sure other members of the family learn an instrument too! As the youngest in my family I have only vague recollections of family concerts when we got together, but I know they happened. Maybe my older siblings can remember them better.
However you do it, don’t be alone ‘on your stage’ of learning music. Find a way to get musically sociable. We probably won’t all be as brilliant as Ed Sheeran – making up his entire backing team by playing it all himself with the help of a loop pedal! And good as it is, a loop pedal will never offer the full dynamics and benefit (to both musicians and audience) of a live group.