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One of the best things about playing in a band is that there are no rules. In hindsight there are mistakes, and I've made plenty. I've also learned from them and give you my ...

Top 10 Tips for Playing in a Band

Don't let any of this put you off; none of this is rocket science, just common-sense. Remember, these aren't rules, just ideas to think about. Maybe some will work for you and some won't. Maybe some could if you tried them.

1. Be on a Winning Team top

  A band is about working and playing together, so being a good player is fine, but unless you're so phenomenally brilliant that you're in constant demand (sorry, but most of us are not), then it's actually more important to know how to work in a team of people.

Some artists think its cool to be temperamental (half temper and half mental!), but you're making your own life harder than it needs to be if you put up with these people in your band, or even worse, if you're one yourself. Working in a good team can be fantastic (you know: the power of the team is greater than the sum of its individuals). You can get a real buzz when you pull off a successful gig together. In the band, it benefits you, as a band member, to leave space for others to grow, learn and make mistakes.

2. Know the People" top

  Working with people outside the band is also important - know your agents, promoters, employers (the ones who pay you) and your customers (the ones you're playing to). Find out what they want, and treat them as people. Understand that your average (non-musician) audience will notice more than your music alone.

In this order, your average audience will notice:

  1. Firstly, your presentation - how you do what you do
  2. You're appearance - what you look like
  3. Lastly, your music - what you sound like

This is a very uncomfortable concept for many musos. The only way to make your music more noticeable is to be exceptionally brilliant, or exceptionally bad.

Don't despair; performing music live is just a package deal. Don't kid yourself either, that when you play people somehow switch onto a principle that your music is everything, and everything else is nothing.

More importantly music, like all art forms, is about giving. I think the way to enhance the perception of your music is to combine the above three elements into your performance. If you really like the music you play, you'll find it easy to get into the feel of the songs, and that affects the way you look on stage, and allows you to present your music by giving something of yourself by expressing your feelings in a musical form, and making it real and credible experience for yourself and your audience.

This becomes a controversial topic when we stray into less credible musical territory. For example, if your entire audience pleads with you to play The Chicken Dance, would you play it? If not, why not? Would you be concerned about what other band members might think of you and how it might affect your credibility or reputation? Or is it your own pride telling you not to play anything musically trite? Are you above this sort of thing? Even if you never play The Chicken Dance it might be interesting for you to honestly answer some of these questions for yourself.

Then there's the show-band field, where presentation and appearance is intentionally the main focus of the performance. Whether its a Grease revival or your own concept, it usually requires some theatrics and dressing up. This can be a genuine additional artistic outlet for those with acting and dramatic skills, although I think it can be a minefield for musicians who do not have this flair. It again raises questions of credibility and musical integrity.

For what its worth, I recently played 2 shows in a row with the same lineup of musos. The first night was a birthday party, all aged around mid forties. They wanted 70's classics; rock, soul and a dash of blues, which we played. Next night we played at a wedding with ages from teenagers through to 60 year olds. It took us about set to figure it out, but they loved the old corny sing-along hits (like "Singin' the Blues", "Runaway", "Personality" and so on).

Now in my view, what we played the first night had a fair amount of musical credibility, while the second night did not. Nevertheless, our audiences loved the band on both nights, and we will get repeat work out of both shows. I choose to have a great night every night, and enjoy whatever I play, and these 2 nights were no exception.

3. Practice, practice, practice! top

  Tedious, yes. Rewarding, yes. When I was a boy (get the violins ready!) learning my music was a challenge. My music teachers taught Beethoven and Mozart, because they believed this was the only real music. Even the cheapo guitars I practiced with were almost unplayable.

Today, every music magazine is packed with playing tips and ideas for every music style you could want. There are instructional videos, YouTube and a wealth of web resources and cheap guitars are excellent value and very playable.

So practice, look, learn, listen, read, question, experiment. If you haven't made ten mistakes today, you're not trying hard enough!

4. Know the Songs top

  There's more to learning a song than working out the chords, solos and lyrics. Know what the songs you play are about, and play something to enhance or create the right mood and tell the story.

You already have the tools at your disposal to create the mood, and make each song unique. Use your effects and techniques to advantage. Obvious effects are good for short periods; subtle effects are good for long periods.

Some examples of obvious effects and techniques are: using a loud echo repeat, a wah pedal, playing with lots of dive-bomb harmonics, or playing a continuous stream of notes without a pause. These can be very effective when used occasionally and briefly, otherwise they can become tiring to listen to. If you set your effects so you can only just tell they're on, you can use them for a long time to add subtle textures to your music.

5. Don't Blame top

  Don't blame ...
... your audience if they don't dance
... your audience if they don't applaud
... your employer if you don't get booked again
... your agent if he can't find the work you want
... other band members when things go wrong
... your engineer when you can't hear yourself
... your equipment when it fails
... your partner when you've had a rough gig
... life in general

All of these and more will happen over and over again in your career, and guess what? Blaming makes every one of them worse for you. Every one of these situations is solvable with a positive and philosophical attitude. So use every disappointment as an opportunity to learn to relax (relax I said!, now!), and think calmly about how you can do things differently next song or show.

6. Choose the Right Songs top

  If your thing is originals, you can skip this one. If you're playing listening music (piano bars, restaurants, etc) then some of this might apply. If you're a dance band playing covers then every song you play should be:

  • well known by your intended audience
  • danceable (without too many tempo changes, avoid fast songs with slow passages)
  • playable (with your current instrument line up and individual abilities)

As much as you might like that track 3 instrumental on the latest Gordon and the Groovers CD, if it doesn't meet all three criteria, then you could learn and play it for your own enjoyment in the privacy of your own rehearsal room. Perform it publicly, and it will just seem irrelevant and self-indulgent, and maybe you'll start to resent that others don't share your own excellent taste in music.

When deciding what material to do, and what key to play it in, the front person has the final say - they are the ones who have the main role of selling the song, and if they're uncomfortable, it will show.

If any player has a rational strong objection to a song, then find another song. If any player has an irrational strong objection to a song, then find another player.

7. Have Fun top

  If you don't enjoy playing, then don't. Chances are that you do, and you can benefit from one of the best kept secrets in the industry - it's OK to smile! Start practicing this with the corners of your mouth, and when you finally get the nerve, flash a bit of tooth! If you have fun, so will the people you're playing to, then you feed off their energy, they feed off yours, ... and a good time was had by all.

You might also like to think about why you like to play. It is because:
(a) You just like having fun with the band and enjoy the social occasion
(b) For artistic expression
(c) For your self-esteem (pride in your own ability to learn and play)

And the correct answer is ... all of the above and more.

I think that if you play for many reasons, it means you are giving more, and in return you'll get more enjoyment back from your music. If you are playing primarily for only one reason, or for the wrong reasons (maybe money) there's a chance you could benefit by considering some of these ideas.

8. Mix While You Play top

  When you sing & play, listen to how what you're doing fits into the total band sound. If you have the idea that you just play your own way, and it's the sound engineer's job to mix it into the overall song and make you sound good, then you're short-changing yourself. For example, no sound engineer can mix over-played keyboards with over-played guitar.

Think about these things ...

  • Am I leaving enough space in my playing for the others? That notes-per-second meter on Nigel Tufnel's (Spinal Tap) guitar is a joke - trust me on this!
  • Is my stage volume making it hard for other players to hear themselves?
  • Are my stage tones clashing with anyone else?
  • Does what I'm playing contribute to the mood and meaning of the song?

Certainly, thinking about these things at first is distracting, and likely to make it harder for you to get into your own part. Just like practicing scales, though, it gets easier, until you can do it without even consciously thinking about it. That's when you really start playing as a band! You will start to bounce off each other's cues. Individuals can lead the band into places you've never been before, communicating with music alone!

9. Take Care of Your Body top

  I've heard 'em all:
... "I play best when I'm wasted"
... "I'm always in the right mood after 3 scotches"
... "I need to smoke to get the high notes"

Yeah, maybe, ... and maybe not.

I'm not a wowser (Australian term for one who expresses disapproval of others' actions); I reckon just about anything in moderation is a good thing. My point here is that (recent science experiments aside) we have only one body in our lifetime, so its worth looking after.

If you're serious about a music career, then you'll need to be physically fit and have your head together. This is the only way I know to give an energetic and focused performance, and (I've said it before) the more you give ...

10. Love and Trust Yourself top

  You don't have to prove this to anyone except yourself. Just like being physically fit, this is about being mentally and emotionally fit. Know what you want to do now and in the future, and work towards your goals. Trust your own intuition and your own judgement.

Some people tell me I'm lucky because I get lots of opportunities. I tell them I make my own opportunities and I make my own luck. Think and talk about good things, and good things happen.

You can easily spot a pessimist; when things go wrong, they say "That's typical for me!", but when things go well they say it was just a fluke. This is just plain unhealthy. Be optimistic; treat every setback as temporary. Treat every success as typical.

You may have heard of the story of two guys at a bar with half a glass of beer: one sees a glass half full, the other sees a glass half empty. Remind yourself often of your skills and achievements - that's your half a glass. The rest of the glass is for the new skills you're going to learn, and the new things you'll do. It looks different already, doesn't it?

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