For the solo musician, playing music with others is a whole new experience. If you love playing music on your own and with recordings, you’ll probably find playing with others challenging and rewarding. It requires a new set of skills, including listening to others, making space for their playing, and learning what role you play in the music.
If you enjoy it enough, you might consider starting a band. That’s harder than you might imagine. Few bands last years, let alone decades. Very few find fame and fortune.
I was sitting at home one Saturday afternoon when the phone rang. “Adrian, it’s Eugene. I’m putting together a band, and I’d like you to play keyboards.”
Eugene was a talented lead guitarist, and owned the music store where my wife bought a case for her electric guitar. Since then we’d learned that he was related to some of our best friends.
“I’m not sure, Evvie. Uni is really busy right now. It may not be the right time for me to commit to something like that.”
“It won’t be a problem. Just think of it as the occasional jam session. We’ll only get together every few weeks. The other guys are busy too. Wally’s working days and studying and night, and the drummer is in Year 12. We’re all busy.”
I reluctantly agreed to give it a go.
When I arrived at the practice venue I could hear the band rehearsing from up the street. They were loud! And impressive. Things came together really well. We didn’t just play together well - we inspired one another to play better than we’d ever played before. There was a sense of anticipation. Maybe even a sense of destiny.
I was surprised at the end of the practice when Eugene said there would be another practice the following week. Then the next week. And the next again. Around a month later Evvie announced disappointment at our lack of commitment, and (other than playing together at a few parties) the band ended shortly afterwards. I still have the utmost respect for every one of those musicians, and sometimes wonder about what might have been.
Bands don’t work out for all sorts of reasons. The issues this band faced had to do with timing and expectations. Here are some principles that might keep yours together.
Plan Your Rehearsals
There are no rules on how to run rehearsals, but it is important for everyone to have the same expectations and understand one another’s availability. The bigger the band, the harder it is to organize. Luckily, you’re probably starting fairly small, maybe with just a few friends. Be clear about dates and times, and make sure everyone writes them in their diaries. It may be worth following up with an email or SMS.
Once you’ve sorted out when and how often to rehearse, here are some other things to consider:
- Provide music/chord charts. It’s amazing how much time you can save at a practice by doing some preparation beforehand. This is especially true of providing chord charts. One simple chart can save hours of arm-waving and explanation.
- Don’t annoy your neighbors. It’s better to practice in a local hall rather than at home. If you do have to practice at home, be kind to your neighbors. Keep the volume as low as possible, and consider warning them in advance. Especially if you live in an apartment.
- Avoid unnecessary volume. Be kind to your ears, too. Volume can be fun, but it’s not healthy, especially over long periods of time. Make sure that the volume is loud enough for everyone to hear themselves, and no more. Besides, too much volume can cover up some fatal flaws in your sound. Crank it up from time to time just for fun, though.
- Have a separate rehearsal for vocals. It’s hard to focus on two things at once. You don’t want to keep stopping the band that’s sounding great to deal with a problem with the singing. You’ll make more progress on the melody, harmony and arrangement of the singing parts if that’s all you’re thinking about.
Get Some Equipment
Unless you’re an a cappella singing group, you’ll need some equipment. As a group of musicians, you’re bound to have some already, including your instruments. You may need to purchase microphones, stands and a PA.
The usual rule with buying music equipment is to purchase the best you can afford. But when you’re starting out, you don’t want to break the bank.
Consider buying some of your gear second-hand. A lot of used musical gear is in excellent condition, and is being sold because the previous owners are upgrading. You may also be able to find some slightly out-of-date gear on special.
Decide on Who Makes the Decisions
Decide in advance who makes the decisions - it may save some arguments down the track, or at least make the arguments shorter. Does your band have one main leader - a dictator - who makes the decisions, or will you make them by consensus after careful discussion? And when there are disagreements - and there will be - how will the disagreement be resolved? Will you vote, or will someone have the final say?
If your band becomes successful and you sign with a label, it may be that most of your decisions are made by someone else. Discuss in advance how much control you are willing to give away.
It’s not bad to have strong personalities in a band. It’s just not easy! Strong personalities can give your band the distinction and sense of direction it needs. In fact, a band with two or three strong personalities can develop a style and image that is very attractive - if you survive the disagreements and arguments that are bound to follow! Hang in there, it’s worth it. In a successful band, personality often trumps musical talent.
Decide on money matters early on, too. If you manage to make any money, how will it be divided? Where will the money for buying more equipment come from? And what happens if someone leaves?
Develop a Distinctive Style
Probably you share similar tastes in music to the other band members, or you wouldn’t want to play together. Try to identify the style(s) of music you enjoy, and especially the styles of music that seem to work best when you play together. A recognizable band has a recognizable style.
You may want to start by playing other people’s songs rather than writing your own. You’ll get to learn which styles work for you and which don’t, and you may stumble on some interesting sounds that start to define your band. Watch out for the songs and styles that feel good when you play together.
Sometimes what stands out in a band is not what the individual musicians are doing, but how they blend and respond to one another. That only comes by practice - lots of practice.
Here are some things you need to learn:
- Listen to the other musicians, and be aware of what they are playing.
- Make sure everyone is not playing in the same range. Spread your sound out over the octaves.
- Don’t always blend. Sometimes you need contrast.
- Make space for the other musicians so they have somewhere to play. Intentionally stop playing or simplify your playing so they are able to step in.
- Intentionally leave gaps in your playing. You don’t need to fill every gap - a second or two of silence here and there can be very effective.
- Listen to the rhythm of the other players, and intentionally emulate it or play against it.
- Listen to the phrases of the other musicians, and play something to answer them.
At some stage you will realize you have a sound and style that is distinctive and works well, and enough material to fill an hour or so. It’s time to take things to the next level, and find a gig.
You won’t fill an arena for your first gig, and you probably don’t want to. Choose something safe, like a party, especially if you haven’t played in front of an audience before. You’re enjoying your own playing, but how does the audience react? Do you get people moving, or put them to sleep? Do people move to your music, or stand there watching? The band should get together afterwards and conduct a careful evaluation (or post-mortem) of how you went and how you can improve. Try to identify positive points as well as negative.
You may not make much money to begin with. But you need the experience. Look out for local events where you can play and become better known.
In your first gigs you probably won’t bring the house down. See those gigs as an educational exercise. Take any criticism on-board. Carefully watch audience reactions. Try to identify the type and age of the people who enjoy your music. Start your life-long career of improving your music!
Once you are convinced that you’re going somewhere, you may want to consider getting an agent and/or a manager. But do it carefully. An agent can make contacts for you with the right people. Make sure they can deliver. A manager can look after the business side of your band while you focus on the music. Make sure you’re actually busy enough to need a manager, and you get someone you trust. Get good advice before signing anything.
Consider Your Stage Setup
Before your mind jumps to lights and smoke machines, consider the more simple requirements of stage setup - they’re important. You need to make sure that everyone can be seen, everyone can see each other, and everyone can hear the music.
Some stages are quite small, and it may be a challenge to fit you all on it. Other stages are huge, and you may want to spread out as much as possible. Try to make sure that each musician can see the others. It’s possible for musicians to communicate with one another on stage with just a look or a nod, but you have to be able to see one another. Don’t set up in a straight line, make it more like an arc.
The placement of foldback speakers and on-stage amps are important. Make sure that everyone is standing close enough to foldback that they can hear themselves. If possible, have one for each musician. Guitarists and keyboardists may have their own amps. Try to angle them so that everyone can hear them. And make sure that every musician can hear everyone else.
You may like to place the bass player close to the drummer so they can see the bass drum. Physical proximity can help give you a tight sound.
Once you have all of that organized, consider lights and smoke machines. You will need a dedicated person (or team) to run them, and probably someone to keep an eye on the mix of the music.
Develop an Image that Sells
A band without a distinctive image won’t be remembered. A band’s image should support and reinforce its musical style. It should also be consistent.
A band’s image takes on the style and sound, looks and dress of the band, hooks it together with a name, and delivers it in a memorable way to the fans and audience.
Take time choosing the name of your band. It should probably be a group decision, and you may need to work through dozens of potential names before choosing one.
Work on your stage presence. How will you engage the audience and keep their attention? Will you talk between the songs, and entertain the crowd with witty banter? Will you work on your dance moves, or just do what comes naturally? Will you dress for success, or wear your favorite ripped t-shirt? There are no rules. You need to find what works for your band, and stick with it.
Create an online presence for your band - a website or MySpace page or both. Consider recording some of your best songs and making them available for download or streaming.
You will have more success with agents and clients if you have a distinctive image and definite stage presence. Work on it like you work on your songs. Being a successful band is not just about being talented musicians, it’s about having a recognizable product to sell - your band.