One of the things I loved about the guitar from the time I started playing as a teenager was the opportunity it afforded me to go into a room alone, close the door and remain absorbed and undisturbed for an undetermined amount of time. Working in solitude is more than an indulgence – it is a requirement for both creative and technical progress in practice. There reaches a point, however, when it is time to allow the music to expand beyond the privacy of the practice room.
Once you step out of the room and into the presence of others, your emotional experience will move outward as well, and you will surely become more self-aware. Regardless of how that shift feels to you, at some point you will begin looking for time to get back into a private sanctuary in order to access the optimum environment for performance preparation and to acquire new skills, create new sounds and (if, like me, you are an introvert), recharge your nervous system. When sufficiently expanded and recharged, you will be ready once again to enter the more public phase of the cycle, which is the phase that will trigger self-consciousness and possible anxiety.
Playing With Others: Performance or Practice?
As players, performers and educators, we often investigate the anxiety experienced in performance situations, but we rarely discuss the anxiety that can arise from playing with other musicians. Performing can be nerve-wracking, even to the most attention-loving extrovert, and playing with one or more musicians can actually feel like performing, until we learn to let it be otherwise. As much as we need to practice in solitude, there is no doubt that playing with others gives us an opportunity to have fun while expanding our musical abilities and exploring creative avenues, so it’s worthwhile for us to consider ways to comfortably engage with other musicians and to bring the collaboration aspect of our playing into a place that feels closer to practice than performance.
As is the case with playing music in any context, we must lose ourselves in the experience in order to gain the deepest rewards. Losing ourselves doesn’t mean we have to expose all of our personal feelings or hold our accomplishments up for judgment – it just means that we have to let go of our identity awareness enough to have fun and learn while participating in a group experience. The logical approach is to create or search out situations that feel safe and to build on our experiences in ways that support our goals.
Finding or Creating Your Group: Music Circles, Jam Sessions or Casual Get-Togethers
If you have friends who play an instrument, the simplest way to step out of your musical isolation may be to simply plan a meal or casual get-together and bring out the instruments. If you are ready for a larger group or a more organized and regular meeting, however, try locating an ongoing or beginning music circle or jam session. You might even want to start your own small group that meets weekly for learning and playing songs that match your taste. Regardless of the format, there are a few things that can make the experience fun and easy.
Defining your intentions can go a long way toward managing anxiety about group play. If you are competitive or are trying to impress the other members of the group, entering into a group session can be very stressful. The best way to prepare for a jam for you will be to work diligently on all aspects of playing that will be showcased in the session and to choose to play with a group of players who are at a similar level.
If, however, your intention is simply to enjoy making music and interacting with other musicians while growing as a guitar player, it is helpful to recognize and cultivate those feelings and to then employ the following ways of alleviating stress and assuring a good time.
How to Minimize Stress and Enjoy Participation
If you have never participated in a jam session, let the leader of the session know about your lack of experience before or when you arrive. Feel free to declare any need or desire that you may have to ease into the situation slowly.
In the days or weeks before your first group playing session, take some time to consider your strengths and weaknesses. Commit to playing in the first jam session only what you can play with confidence and ease. When you arrive and begin to play, you may be surprised to find that the skills that feel natural to you at home seem foreign in the new setting. If that happens, just play sparsely, working within your comfort zone while giving yourself permission to expand that zone. Relax in the knowledge that you will adjust to the situation!
It might take several sessions before you feel ready to experiment or try out new skills. As you gain confidence and feel sufficient support from other group members, you may want to step out on a limb, but don’t put pressure on yourself to move forward on any particular timetable.
Maximizing Personal and Musical Expansion
As a group member, you will have the opportunity to support other musicians and the music they produce. Giving to your fellow group members in this way has the added benefit of increasing your own comfort level as you step outside of yourself.
Perhaps the most valuable thing you can learn by playing in a group is how to listen closely to both the individual instruments and the music as a whole. By consciously tuning in to the other musicians and finding artful ways to complement the arrangements, you will not only please your group members, you will elevate your musical skills greatly.
Even if most of the music is familiar, it is likely that you will learn some new songs in the group. Be on the lookout for new techniques, accessories, equipment and more. Feel free to ask for advice, but stay sensitive to the group purpose and avoid holding up the session with lengthy questions or discussions.
The Effective Group
Any group benefits from structure and organization. Joining a group that employs a few simple practices will help ensure a pleasurable experience.
If more than two or three people are playing together, one person should take a leadership role, which will include such duties as choosing songs and keys, setting a tempo, providing charts and more. The songs should be simple, with a minimum of chords and a straightforward harmonic structure. The leader should be certain that everyone understands the form, is clear on introductions and endings and has the opportunity to take a lead, if desired. The ideal leader is one who is able to organize the session and keep it moving, while staying flexible and open to the opinions of the other participants.
The easiest and most productive way to launch your group playing experience may be to participate in a guitar workshop. I began teaching workshops in order to offer people a way to not only learn a lot in a short span of time, but also to experience the benefits of playing with other musicians.
Most of the people who attend my workshops for the first time have never played with anyone else and consequently feel some degree of apprehension. That apprehension melts quickly as they realize that they are being guided and instructed in specific ways that allow them to gain confidence while absorbing new information and raising their level of musicianship. Because my goal is to provide a nurturing and supportive environment, I learn about the abilities and limitations of each member prior to the workshop and ensure that he or she is challenged without being overwhelmed. My mission is for every participant to walk away with new skills, increased confidence and a big smile. It works every time!
Want more ideas on playing with other musicians? Newsletter #38 contains lots of tips for tools and practice that will help you to prepare for group play. If you haven’t signed up for the newsletter yet, you can do so here.
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