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Musicianship 101: Playing In a Band

Live performance has always been a huge part of being a musical artist, but for DIY musicians it seems to be taking a more critical role than ever.  For those who play in a band, you might be surprised at how many musicians don’t actually understand the band dynamic–how to play music together, rather than separately.  Being a good musician doesn’t automatically make you a good band mate; it requires a different way of thinking, and a different way of playing, than performing solo.  For that reason, I thought it was a good idea to pull this article out of the archives of my blog The Developing Artist and share an adapted version of it with you here.  Enjoy!


To some of you, what I’m about to say might sound like Musicianship 101–but you’d be surprised how many bands miss this point:  When you’re in a band with other musicians, you have to play together, not separately.

What I mean is this: when you play an instrument alone, it’s an open field; any sounds you want to hear, you have to make.  But when you play in a band, you’re sharing the musical space with other musicians. If you don’t play differently in that setting, you’re guaranteed to run over the other band mates, musically speaking.

It’s pretty typical of novice players to have trouble adapting to the band dynamic at first, but it isn’t necessarily something you grow into.  As I said, you might be surprised how many truly proficient players don’t adjust the way they play when they are playing in a band. It’s not so much that the musicians in those bands all suck; in fact, many times the musicians are pretty good at playing their instruments.  The problem is that they are a group of good musicians that are playing on the same stage, but not necessarily playing together. They are playing separately. It’s one of the reasons why there are so many mediocre bands out there, along with a few good ones. What separates a good band from a bad one isn’t just about who good the musicians are.  A good band consists of good musicians who know how to play as a band.

What do I mean by playing together versus playing separately? Perhaps the best way to describe it is that when you’re playing “separately” in a band, you’re trying to find room for your own sound among the others. But when you’re playing “together,” you’re contributing meaningfully to the band’s overall sound. Another way of putting it might be that when you play separately, you’re competing, but when you play together, you’re complementing.

So if you’re the kind of person who plays “separately” in a band, how do you make the transition to playing “together?” Here are some tips to help point you in the right direction:

  • See the band as its own entity, and find your place in it. Stop looking for ways to stand out within the band, and instead start looking for ways to make the band itself stand out.
  • Become a good listener. I don’t mean listening when someone is talking to you (although you should do that, too); I mean listen to what your bandmates are doing when you are playing together, and take that into account when coming up with your own part. This is critical to being a good band player; the art of listening is as actually more important than the art of playing in this case.
  • Less is more. True musicianship in the band dynamic is knowing when not to play. It’s not rocket science–just lighten up, and let other people play. You’ll have your moments to shine, and the others will shine more brightly if you’re not overplaying the rest of the time.

Formulas and tips aside, a lot of this is really intuitive–in fact, just realizing that there is a difference between the band dynamic and the solo dynamic is a huge first step in transitioning from playing separately to playing together.  As a musician in a band, one of the greatest signs of maturity you can display is awareness–awareness of the band itself, awareness of others in the band, and your own self-awareness in the process.

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About the Author


Jeff McQ is a songwriter/composer/musician with a diverse resume that includes everything from directing music in church to scoring short films. In addition to his role as chief editor for Music Is My Oxygen (and writing our DIY Musician Channel), Jeff also covers the local music scene for Examiner.com in his hometown of Denver, Colorado, and maintains The Developing Artist [http://artistdevelopmentblog.com], a blog dedicated to offering advice and encouragement to indie musicians.

When he's not tinkering in his home studio or blogging for hours on his laptop at the local coffee shop (to the annoyance of the baristas), Jeff McQ enjoys taking in local shows, going on road trips, wandering aimlessly, and talking to himself.

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