To be an accomplished musician you must practice. There is no getting around that fact. But there are many ways to make practice more enjoyable, and practicing with others is one of the best.
While keeping yourself motivated to practice may not always come easily to you, having a commitment to practice with others is a helpful way to maintain consistency in your practice schedule. Being accountable to others for showing up to practice serves as an incentive to fulfill your music practice commitment to yourself.
However, before you can consider practicing with an ensemble or a band, you will want to develop your performance skills sufficiently to avoid the embarrassment of stumbling to keep up with more experienced musicians. You must be beyond the point of fumbling to hit notes with your instrument or losing your place in the score or your charts. If you make a mistake, you must be skilled enough to quickly get back in synch with your fellow players. If one of them makes a mistake, you must be skillful enough to keep the rest of the group and the performance flowing. That means you must have a lot of solo practice under your belt before thinking seriously about practicing with others.
In the interim, as an alternative to solo practice, consider performing with a music instructor, a mentor, or a friend who has the time and patience to coach you musically while your skills develop. Consider playing duets with a colleague who understands your desire to improve your performance. During this stage, informal musical gatherings where everyone is aware of one another's' skills and willing to allow for a broad range of ability can be helpful as well.
Once you really are ready for group practice, the benefits are enormous. Perhaps most obviously, you'll be getting immediate feedback on your performance. Your every move will be on display, and you won't be able to hide, so be prepared. You will be hyper aware of every one of your gestures, and your performance weaknesses and flaws will become instantly obvious to you.
If you are prepared to learn in every moment of group practice, you probably can't create a better environment for learning musicianship and increasing your capabilities. Performing in practice with others is a perfect setup for working on your pitch matching, your ability to track and synchronize with the group's rhythm, and to match tones or harmonize with your musical partners.
Group practice is also a great opportunity to acquire helpful ideas from other musicians. You may also observe some activities or habits to avoid! You will see how others interpret a composition, the steps other musicians take to learn a piece, and how they break it down into manageable pieces until they master it. Performing with others is the ultimate in interactive learning, and ideas will be flying back and forth as you bounce them around the group.
If you are improvising, you must be capable of building upon what the ensemble lays down in the moment. Group practice is the ideal way to develop this skill. Playing to tracks or using music-minus-one recordings can get you part way there, but if you ever intend to perform on stage, you must have the experience of staying with others in real time, finding your cues extemporaneously, recovering from your flubs, and covering the mistakes of others as well.
If you find that you are making more mistakes than you anticipated, you can avoid getting excessively self-conscious by imagining that you are an impartial observer. Rather than judging yourself, assume the point of view of a fly on the wall watching your arms, hands, and fingers move, listening to the sound coming from your instrument, paying attention to your tactile sense and to your senses of sight, sound, and smell rather than to the critical voice in your head.
With each problem or flub that you observe, you will be identifying something about your performance that can be improved. How can you be aware of that error in your practice so that you can overcome and move beyond it? What is missing or weak in your technique that you can now focus on and improve?
If you do contact people you meet on the forums directly by email be sure to keep your messages direct and don't just send out generic form emails. Let your email show your genuine interest in the person to whom you send it and their music or their band venue.
If your musical colleagues are agreeable, group practice will bring you fellowship, shared interests, growth, fun, and many opportunities to hone your skills of collaboration and cooperation. Seize the opportunities to push out of your comfort zone—there are bound to be plenty of them. Listen and learn from the best musical partners you can find. Practice, if you can, with musicians who are better than you. Of course, they'll also be trying to practice with performers who are better than they are.
When working with performers who are better than you, do your best to avoid unhelpful comparisons. While comparisons can spark a desire to improve our playing by engaging our competitiveness, we can also use them to put ourselves down. It's helpful to remember that a large part of music involves connecting with your audience through your expression. Even if you can't play lots of notes as fast as another musician, you may be able to express your gifts eloquently with fewer notes played more musically.
Finally, the benefits you derive from group practice can be enhanced if you use some of the same techniques that can help you make individual practice effective: Set regular practice times and stick with them; set goals to achieve in each practice session; warm up before practicing; work on the tough spots until you master them; improve your ear; become a better sight reader; broaden your musical vocabulary; and review your accomplishments.
Your ability to play will develop exponentially and your performance will become more natural and expressive as you practice with others. So make group practice a part of your musical development as soon as you can.
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