We’ve all heard stories of players who have been together for years but basically hate each other. Perhaps you even know some groups like this. Why do they bother? Well, because when things do go right there is magic that happens and that can sometimes transcend all the squabbling. In the big leagues there is a money factor that figures in. What about smaller time groups? What can we do to avoid those situations?
Well, there are a number of roads to take here. One way of thinking is that you should just dive in and play with as many people as possible. If you throw enough of it at the wall, some is bound to stick as they say. I’ve tried this in years past and while I did manage to meet and play with some great people there were a few bad moments too. It was worth the effort, however.
Another school of thought is that you should start by being an observer. Go to places where live music is featured, hit up as many open mics as you can, network with friends and family. That last one can yield some pretty amazing results. Once in awhile someone will tell me about a friend of theirs who’s a “closet musician,” one who may be quite good but hasn’t the courage or interest to play with anyone else. Singers are the most common of this category. For example, right now I know a woman who I see on a weekly basis who is a fabulous singer. She can nail anything from blues and country to jazz and even show tunes. But for whatever reason she won’t sing with me! I’ll keep after her though. I know it would be worth it. The point is, with these types it may take some time.
So let’s say you’ve found another guitarist or other type of instrumentalist or singer and you’ve decided to get together. I’ve found that it really pays to be prepared. If you don’t have one, make a list of songs you know and if you have chord or lead sheets to share, so much the better. Nothing kills the buzz like sitting around going – what do you wanna play? Uh, I dunno…
Keep your expectations within reason. When I get together with another player for the first time I hope that maybe three or four songs will come out OK. If more do, so much the better. Write them down so you don’t forget which ones they were. Sounds silly, but it’s easy to forget. Keep the first couple of times you get together a reasonable amount of time and keep things loose. If your new playing partner or partners are inclined, a beer or two can’t hurt.
Where things often go wrong when people get together with the idea of actually forming a group is the level of experience various members have. The best analogy I know is sports like tennis or golf. If one player is heads and shoulders better (or worse) than the others that person will not enjoy the experience unless all the others have a deep well of patience. In my experience that level of patience is a rare circumstance. Raw beginners can have a marvelous time playing together if for no other reason than they tend to be the best cheerleaders for the people they’re playing with. At the other end of the spectrum, highly experienced players can communicate on a level that allows some very fine music to be made right away. So if possible try to find players that are roughly at your own level. A positive session will usually be the result.
But getting back to those famous groups who hate each other, we have to ask – how did it get to that point? I believe it comes down to expectations and motivation.
The relationship between the Beatles, especially John and Paul has been well documented and scrutinized for decades. They started out as fast friends, endured a few years of grueling work in places like Hamburg and Liverpool. This forged their bond and the result was some of the greatest music the world has ever heard. But as time went by different members found their expectations diverging widely and when that happened the levels of motivation became impossible to reconcile. In spite of his continued success I’m sure on some level Paul will regret this for the rest of his life.
On a much smaller scale, what about a group you’ve been playing in for a while that’s starting to fray around the edges? Ego issues inevitably become more prevalent and if we’re talking about a group with three or more players, alliances begin to form. These things will break up a group as sure as the sun will rise. One good way around this is to work on projects with other players or go out and do a single. The result will be an ability to focus on what made you get together in the first place, the good stuff in other words. I had a conversation a couple years ago with a musician I played with decades ago who was in terms of pure ability the finest player I will ever have the privilege to play with. This person dumped me for one of the finest bluegrass guitar players alive and went on to have great career in studios in Nashville and elsewhere. But when we spoke this person said: You know, I think the most pure fun I ever had playing was when we were together.
This warmed my heart and I know if we didn’t live on opposite sides of the country we would probably get back together at least from time to time. All I’m saying is that sometimes a bit of time and distance can do wonders for musical relationships.
As a practical matter, when getting together with other musicians, check your ego at the door. Never try to show someone up even if you are clearly a more advanced player. If you are the lesser of the players, don’t be afraid to ask questions and admit what you DON’T know. Our egos may give us a push-back on that one but believe me, you will be a better player – and a better playing partner - for it.
Don’t automatically assume you are instantly in some kind of obligatory musical relationship. You may end up getting together just once or twice. You may go further than that but finally figure out that expectations and motivation are just too wide apart and go your separate ways.
But you may end up in a duo, trio or band that just clicks. There’s no way to know unless you try.
And finally, keep an open mind. Shared musical interests should only be viewed as a starting point. Everyone benefits when this is understood.
Peace & good music,