View Full Version : Playing Alone vs. With Group

Kevin Briggs
Dec-10-2005, 1:14pm
Sup, everyone. Just had frustrating gig last night. Seems I can't convert intense practice to gigs.

I practice for about an hour or two every day, and I feel good about my playing, during this time. I do the Alonzo scales, slowly, I run through some of my reportoire, then I just jam a while. I also try to learn some new songs frequently (Red Apple Rag recently).

The problem is, when I play with my five piece bluegrass group, it's like something horrible happens where my mandolin loses its tone and I can't get my fingers to do anything, comfortably like when I practice. /granted, we don't have good monitors, but that's the only setback from my perspective.

Any tips on how to convert the good strides I make in practice to playing with the group?

Dec-10-2005, 1:39pm
Playing with other people, for a myriad of reasons, is a totally different dynamic than playing by yourself. You're in a different environment, every person's timing and phrasing is different, there are more and different distractions. Your head is in a totally different space.

Someone... forget who now... said that when you step onto the stage you lose 20% of your ablility right off the top. I can tell you that this is very true in my experience (at rehearsals as well as live).

Has your band been together long? It takes a good deal of time for 4 or 5 people to gel into a cohesive unit. My current band started over 2 years ago. We've all played in bands our whole lives and are fairly proficient. It still took us a good part of that first year to really come together. It just takes time.

Do you practice with a metronome or play along with MIDI tracks or anything like that?

Finally... i have wrestled with the very thing you're asking about... Why in the H can't i play like i do at home?? I've come to find that it is mostly a mental issue. I've had to find a way to put myself in a similar mental state when i'm playing live as i'm in when i'm sitting here practicing. It's been a process... i've gotten alot of help from the book "The Inner Game of Music". I won't go into any more detail here but i've found ways to stay on top of the mind game and not let it beat you.

Kevin Briggs
Dec-10-2005, 2:14pm
Thanks, that's very helpful, just knowing I'm not the horrible, untalented, sorry escuse for a mando player I thought I was.

We're like your group. We've all been playing in different contexts for a while. I've only been playing mandolin five years now.... However, we've only played two gigs together, and just afew practices. We are basically putting together a more formal jam atmosphere, working towards polishing it as we go. We all met at a local bluegrass jam.

I think the monitors played a big role too. With all of the music going on on each side of me (I'm in the middle of the lineup), it sounded like I was just clicking sticks together. However, in our last recording, the tone of my mandolin was actually pretty good, despite what I thought was trinny junk when I was up there.

I guess there is truth to the idea that the mandolin sounds better to people in front of it than it does to the person playing it. That must be a result of the F-hoels or something.

Dec-10-2005, 7:50pm
I've been playing live in some context for the better part of 30 years. Sound on stage can make or break you, both electric and acoustic instruments.

But there are two other things that I feel are at least as important to making it happen live.

The first is like Zed was saying - Live is completely different than practice at home by yourself, I don't care if you have TEN metronomes. #So the only way to get better at it is to, well, play live, and do it a lot. If you'll bear with me (you hit one of my favorite topics, so I'm on a roll http://www.mandolincafe.net/iB_html/non-cgi/emoticons/biggrin.gif ), I use the analogy of that scene in "Glory" where the 54th get their guns, and a squirrel-hunting kid is showcasing some fancy bottle target practice. Then Hayes comes over and commands "Load. Faster. #Faster!" and shoots a gun behind the kid's head. #The kid falls apart, can't hit the target literally to save his life. #It's completely different when it's for real.

For me, I have to use every new thing I play several times live, no matter how much I practice at home, before I can really call it my own.

The second thing is you have to have the space to play. #If the band is isn't really listening, they may be kindof heavy-handed and simply don't give you any room to play. They should instinctively back off and support you where you need it, as you will for them. #And that comes from, again, playing live and doing it a lot.

(The studio, in my opinion, presents an even tougher set of dynamics. That's a REALLY unforgiving environment!)

So the answer is, Play Live, Play Often!

Dec-11-2005, 2:22pm
I dont know if Im on the right track here,my experience is similiar or was. Everytime I played in front of people it was worse also,my problem was I wanted to sound good I wanted the band amd the audience to like it and was so caught up in performing I didnt concentrate on the task at hand just to enjoy picking. So I had to start finding ways to relax like I was at home and moving around and interacting with everyone around me while I played helped me alot its finnaly got to where I am fine except when I know there are other good pickers(musicians around). I may be off track but I think just to relax helps.

Dec-11-2005, 2:57pm
I have the same frustration. I don't have a solution other than continuing to play with others and get comfortable. I play blues with a couple of guitarists that are far more talented than me and they dust me often. I practice the tunes and think I am set for next time and it happens again! Same thing with folk choir. I can even record practice, play along at home and then blow it at the next practice. Muddling through it fairly okay is about as good as I ever manage with a real audience. But I keep doing it and I feel a little more comfort each time.

Mark Robertson-Tessi
Dec-11-2005, 3:55pm
Depending on your sound set up, try to make it so that you can hear yourself. If you can't hear what you are doing except for your pick clicks, then you are going to try and play harder, and usually tense up, lose tone, rhythm, etc, and it is hard to play the good stuff you do in practice when you are tense. It's a quick downward spiral. If your setup doesn't allow you to hear youself (no monitors, banjo in your ear, etc.), then it's tough. Maybe its time to invest in a monitor speaker.

When you're playing at a gig and are having trouble, compare what it feels like to when you are at home. Would you be playing at home like you are now? Usually you will notice a lot of arm tension, iron fists, etc, as you try to get more volume.

Mark R-T

Bertram Henze
Dec-12-2005, 7:43am
I guess there is truth to the idea that the mandolin sounds better to people in front of it than it does to the person playing it. That must be a result of the F-hoels or something.
The shape of the holes does not really matter, I have the same problem with my round-hole-OM. It's the fact that the instrument is optimized for forward projection, which makes your instrument more audible to others than to you. One temporal workaround may be to play sitting down and have the instrument top tilt a little upwards, so your ears get into the projection beam (thus taking part of the audiance out of the beam, that's why it should be temporary). My own workaround of placing my right ear on the side of the OM is probably not that easy with a mandolin.

Practising the noisy stage situation is also possible - avoid all the circumstances you like when playing at home, i.e. avoid small rooms with good reflection, have some noisy machinery running... E.g. cover your largest room with absorbing carpets and blankets and place your washing machine in the middle of it - something in that direction.

However - the most mandatory exercise is band rehearsals, can't do without that.

For some, it is also a matter of nervous tension in front of an audience. The only practise for that is performing - only regular adrenaline showers make you ready for cordless bungee jumping, although it may take a while, but at least it is an exciting time.


Dec-12-2005, 10:02am

I think your practice routine may be the problem since the amount of time you practice should lead you to improvement. IMHO practice means drills, repeative stuff that is heavy on technique, not playing songs. I've recently changed my practice routine to reflect a more drill approach with much success. Here is what I like :

1. Warm ups-I start with #John Moore's Picking Exercises (http://www.mandozine.com/index.php/techniques/techinfo/picking_exercises/) for the right hand and Aonzo Family Scales (http://www.mandozine.com/index.php/techniques/techinfo/aonzo_family_scales/) for the left hand warm ups.

2. Technique-This involves isolating parts of your playing into drills that improve that aspect of your playing:

I will practice (with a metronome) my scales and arpeggios around the circle of fifths. This also includes pentatonic scales. Practicing drills means playing with perfection. In otherwords, I play at a speed that I will successful play these without mistakes.

I also practice my right hand technique by taking difficult phrases of a song that is heavy up and down the scales and making the notes all zero's or open strings. Play the phrase with your right hand only, hitting the correct strings but not fretting the notes.

3. Practice of my reportoire: This means practicing at performance standard (PS), which means no mistakes. Here's an example:

If I practice a song I know five times but only play it at PS two times, it means tht I will only be successful at playing this to PS 2/5ths of the time. (take the 20% error in playing live and you will only succeed 30% of the time) In essence, I am practicing my mistakes. If this is your case; S-L-O-W it down to a speed you can play PS everytime.

Same for phrases within a song that you mess up most of the time. Isolate that phrase by playing it at a slow enough speed where no mistakes are made.

Practicing at home is the most comfortable place where you are relaxed and under no stress. So add stress to your practice. Using a metronome will do this somewhat. But I found that if I record a song using my small cassette recorder as I would play it in the band, the stress to me is almost equal to playing live. Then listen to the song and do an honest analysis of your playing. Are you playing at Performance Standard? If not, where are you making mistakes and go back to practicing the rough spots by slowing it down until it is perfect.

4. Practicing new material-I will now practice new material going as slow as it takes to make it perfect, same as before.

It is a matter of programming your brain with the correct instructions. If you practice your mistakes, then that is what your brain will play.

There is a axiom in BG: Practice slow to play it fast. Once you learn the correct muscle memory in playing a song, you can start to speed it up without loss of technique.

Mark Robertson-Tessi
Dec-12-2005, 10:46am
E.g. cover your largest room with absorbing carpets and blankets and place your washing machine in the middle of it - something in that direction.

Heh, heh, heh. #I think I'll try this tonight. #My wife will be thrilled, especially with the inlaws coming for the holidays. #At least laundry will be easier...


Dec-14-2005, 3:54pm
This has all been quite helpful and validating. I play with a band and we play for contras or as background to a party - that sort of stuff. We do not practice enough. In fact, we barely practice at all - MAYBE once before a gig. To maximize their playing possibilities, the other folks in the band play in several bands. (I play at home with friends). Therefore, even if theoretically we are willing to practice, its impossible to find common times. I have difficulty at gigs - mostly being heard against harmonica, guitar, fiddle, often a clarinet, and feeling comfortable in a gig context. Add on an inattentive sound person and/or lousy equipment, and it becomes harder. I don't mean to whine.The hardest thing is that I feel like a sucky player and that I am making excuses when I "blame" the lack of practice, or lousy equipment. Its helpful for me to know that other folks struggle with the same issues, including giving themselves a hard time. Judith

Dec-14-2005, 5:34pm
Oddly enough, I have always felt more comfortable playing with a group. I think it's something about not feeling like I'm entirely responsible for the whole thing, which is obviously true. Generally, unless you're soloing, if things just don't feel right, you can take a breather and pick back up with the group. But, recently, I played a solo of Wayfaring Stranger, all by my lonesome in front of a group, a song I had practiced until I thought I could play it in my sleep (as well as I can, anyway) and when I got in front of the group, my hands just turned to concrete. First time it had ever happened...not that I don't get nervous, and not that I'm that great or play out all that often, but I had to take a minute and talk and noodle around on some other stuff just to get calmed down before I could even half get my breath, and then I don't think I did that great...

Dec-14-2005, 7:54pm
i dont know your level of musicianship - i assume you can play and all play in time, etc..
i will give you one BIG tip that i think is so over looked - and i have seen it in good bands i played with where the music was magical and in bad ones that never could gel.

here goes the big answer;

listen to the whole sound of the band, dont worry about your mandolin playing - forget about it - if you have control of your instrument at home, then you have control - you are letting somthing get in between you and the music. i fight this senerio with the bass player and dobro player in our band (usually, its the banjo player) - but what they are doing is not listening to the #music - they are playing *their part* - the same part they practice over and over at home - they are not really *into* the song - and it shows - it sounds like 4 people playing 4 *parts* and not ONE song.
- i have no idea what i'm going to do on stage - i dont work out breaks, licks, nothin - i know the songs, have played them 1000x and i let myself go and let the music take over. this freedom and the ability to let the music take its course is really where the fun begins - not in seeing if i can pull off some showpiece break that i worked up over 3 months - i am not playing for me, i am tring to fill up the sound of the band....now, sometimes you will crash and burn, but you will often surprise yourself.

there is a REALLY good book that was out some time ago called The Inner Game of Music - it would be worth checking out if you like to read - i didnt realize i had been doing most of that subconsciously, but it works.

Kevin Briggs
Dec-14-2005, 9:21pm
Interesting additions to the thread. I'll say I don't get too nervous in front of people, and I don't work out breaks lick for lick. I learn fiddle tunes, and try to do variations on the melody, off the cuff, and I just kind of start regular breaks one of a few ways, then let them go wherever.

I get those "concrete" hands when I'm just trying to do some runs or play some things I typically jam on at home. The breaks are never really the same. Fiddle tunes are very close most of the time, since they have that specific melody. But, for example, when we play "Sittin' On Top of the World," I just have an idea of what I'd like to do, and let the music decide the rest. I have a few ways of startign breaks and ending them, and the middle is the variable.

The concrete hands drive me nuts. It's like when you're dreaming and you can't run or throw a punch. You're dreaming, trying to do what you can always do, knowing it's not working as easily as you know it can. I've determined it's all about the sound. Without good monitors, I'm playing blind, and I'm pounding the hell out of the mandolin just to hear it. I know I "should" be able to do that comfortably with or without good monitors, but being a pefectionist, I don't want to.

Lately, I've experienced those horrible concrete hands and what seems like poor manodlin tone from what I can hear with no monitors (I'm POSITIVE the mandolin has great tone), but I've been on the otherside a few times, and it's always been when I can hear myself really well, even the light notes.

steve in tampa
Dec-15-2005, 6:10am
i will give you one BIG tip that i think is so over looked - and i have seen it in

here goes the big answer;

listen to the whole sound of the band, dont worry about your mandolin playing - forget about it - if you have control of your instrument at home, then you have control - you are letting somthing get in between you and the music.
This is the best advice so far. If you cannot find where to fit in, you wont.

Dec-15-2005, 8:03am
ok pickin - with a little more info, i think i know what your talking about - but is it the RIGHT hand locking up, or the LEFT?
i had for the longest time, a bad right hand that would often just tense up and *lock* at a certain point and it drove me crazy. what i did to correct it was *simple* - i had to relax my wrist, change my picking attack and play with a VERY loose wrist (which is what just about any really great mando player will do) this took a whole year - but now, the lock-wrist is gone and my playing is free from that problem. i came from an acoustic guitar background and brought with me that "tight wrist" technique (thats how you get that BIG tony rice sound), but mando requires a totally different attack.

if its the left hand fingering - you actually might NEED to start working out stuff note for note, just to force yourself to play the same fingerings to see where the problem is.

it sounds like you are playing too hard - do you have the same problem when just jamming? let me tell you another tip that i picked up from being around really good pickers - they dont play all that loud - they are not tring to blow away the guy next to them - they are again, listening to the whole sound. banjo players are worse, because they have the loudest instrument and you have to get up to their level to be heard, which is hard to do on a mando/guitar, - this goes back to the point about individual players tring to hear *their part/instrument* to the demise of the overall sound of the music - so you find yourself beating the #### out of the instrument. try toning down some, if you have a PA, then THAT should be doing the work, not your right hand. ask the band to lower the volume and see what happens.

also, dont forget to *internally hum* what you are hearing - you want a TOTAL connection between mind - ear - and fingers. i find if i am really listening and humming my ideas, they will usually come out surprisingly well - its often stated that if you cant sing it, you cant play it because you dont OWN it.
good luck-

Dec-15-2005, 10:16am
I really appreciate what kudzu had to add. for some reason, as I think about it, I think it just comes naturally to me to hear the whole group, not just my little part, and that helps me relax. Gee, now that I've started thinking about it....

Dec-15-2005, 11:24pm
Hmm... sometimes I have the opposite problem.

I play better with others than by myself. When I'm playing alone, I hear every little imperfection. But when playing with others, I kind of lose myself to the bigger sound and become part of the ensemble...one voice with a particular purpose.

re: performance, I am really used to being in front of people, and don't generally have problems with performance UNLESS the acoustic environment or sound system is really bad and I can't hear myself. They I may overplay and lose flexibility and fluidity (sounds like your "concrete hands")...

Perhaps making sure you can hear yourself (e.g. more control of the sound system) without having to flog the mando should be a priority for you in performance... could make a big difference...

Bertram Henze
Dec-16-2005, 7:48am
I agree to what kudzugypsy says - and I have experienced it myself, being stymied by the attempt to live up to my own expectations (I think male impotence works like that, too) and getting this nightmare inability to move my fingers/hands properly. Typically, those expectations include many circumstances a single player cannot control in a band and therefore cannot live up to, then this out-of-control feeling is projected inward. Audibility is just one of those control factors.

So, it is probably better to expect nothing at all and be happy with what happens anyway. If you feel control slip, let it go, don't get entangled with the problem or else you'll become a part of it (ever tried to swat a fly in your car while driving?). Problem solving is a much more basic task for rehearsal time.


Paul Kotapish
Dec-16-2005, 1:56pm
Lots of good advice here.

Probably the toughest--and most essential--performance skill for any musician playing in a group is the ability to play fluidly while listening to the sound of the band rather than to the sound of his or her own instrument. This is a bit counterintuitive and can be frustrating at first, but this shift in perspective ultimately leads to more satisfying performance experiences.

Certainly a good sound system and engineer can help, but ask any seasoned performer and he or she will rattle off endless tales about gigs where everything was heavenly at the sound check and hell once the gig started. Having a clear mental picture of the music and your own role in the sound will help you manage when things are out of whack on stage.

One way to achieve this new focus is to do a lot of hands-off mental rehearsing. While driving, dozing, or pretending to work, run over the set list in your head and "play" each song through, imagining each player's contribution and run through your solos and fills mentally, always keeping the context of the band in mind.

When you do practice alone with a mando in your hands, always work with a metronome, and always practice your breaks in the context of how you will be playing them on stage. In other words, if you are punching away on chop chords just before trying to launch into a solo at breakneck speed, rehearse the whole song, including your rhythm parts, and not just your solo. Make sure that you are able to switch back and forth without breaking the tempo with the metronome.

Also, I heartily recommend booking some rehearsal time at one or more of the venues where you perform to practice performing on stage without the pressure of an audience. At the very least, use your rehearsal time with the band to emulate your on-stage situation. Stand like you do on stage make sure that your setup works for everyone and that you are really consistent every time you get on stage. If your current stage plot isn't working, use rehearsals to work that out.

Also, plan your set list for the next gig before the next rehearsal and perform the whole evening in the living room, standing just as you would at the performance. (If you have mic stands handy, use them so that you have reference points for keeping your places.) As you run through the set, you'll discover whether things flow properly and feel natural. Finding the right order for the material can make a huge difference in how well you can play it. Once you've got a set list that really works, perform that same set a number of times. Unless every member of the audience has heard you 20 times in a row, they won't notice or won't mind, and it will give the band a chance to learn to play the evening's music as a whole rather than one song at a time. As you build up confidence in the set as a whole, the rough spots will be fewer and shorter.

Anyway, those are things that have worked for me over the years. I still get nervous before every show, but there's still nothing I'd rather do than get out there anyway.

Good luck . . . and have fun.

Dec-16-2005, 2:20pm
I guess another thing I'd like to chime in is about audiences. Yes, you want to get out there and do your best. But I also think that we are often hypercritical of ourselves, MUCH more so than almost any audience member. Most audience members notice and remember the whole concert experience, and do NOT notice or remember the minor mistakes-- unless you have a total train wreck, chances are that most people out there don't even notice.

Again-- this is not to say that any performer shouldn't want to do the best she/he can do... but we sometimes we fool ourselves into thinking that if we mess up, we'll be disappointing the audience. And really, we are disappointing ourselves...which means that we can learn to be gentler and more forgiving with ourselves and trust that the audience will still have a good time.

Dec-17-2005, 7:42pm
Lyle Lovett once said you stop getting nervous when you play so much in front of people that you are too tired to care. Ultimately the best information. We become our own worse enemies.

Ever notice songs are faster with an audience? So is yours, and the audiences heart. Your body is whacked with adrenaline. Its the performance level. Who is this person!? Usually I can get so nervous I want to fall asleep...or its me just plain shutting down.

Playing in your room is a whole different physical level than in performance. And, Its a learned thing to control it. Always start a set with something kinda fun and easy. Hit the "big" tunes when you feel centered. That is, unless you are so tempered by the road you want to come our swingin.

When people practice its usually facing each other. You have to learn to trust your parts, and play while not facing each other, or only hearing each other through monitors. Most of the time the sound will be bad, if you can hear yourself at all. Don't push your instrument when this happens, it doesn't make it sound better. Trust yourself.

So, you are not alone bro...and when you leave a stage knowing you nailed it and stayed in control, you have tasted the elusive elixer that keeps us all coming back for more.

Its supposed to be fun, thats why they call it PLAYING! I have to remind myself of this ALL THE TIME.
Carry on mandoliners..

Dec-18-2005, 12:46pm
Lots of good adivce so far. I have recommended Band in a Box in other posts, but it might bear repeating. It lets you practice with a rhythm section, keeps you on time and in tune (important to me, since I play fiddle a lot). It's easy to set up, you can play any key or tempo you want, and volume is only limited by your equipment. I've only had my copy about six weeks, but it has been a huge help to me. You can even download a free demo version to try out the features. It really has helped me learn to listen to what's going on around me when I play.

Dec-20-2005, 8:24pm
>granted, we don't have good monitors, but that's the only setback from my >perspective.

Never underestimate the power of good monitors. If you're like me, to nuance my music correctly, I need to hear it. a) you can't hear yourself as well, and b) as a consequence, you lose your nuances and try to play louder, which you probably haven't rehearsed in your living room. It's a double penalty.

Then, there always seems to be a live/stage penalty. I can do more in private or in a small jam than I can on a stage. I suspect it's true for most.

Kevin Briggs
Dec-20-2005, 10:37pm
Yeah, I've been payign extra attention. At the jam last Saturday night, it was four mandolins, two guitars, and a fiddle. No banjo or bass showed, which was wierd. Usually too many people are there and two circles form.

Anyway, my mandolin was clearly audible above all of the rucous, but we were standing in a circle, and I think that helped.

Two days ago I was picking with my friend for a half-hour or so, and I was basically at basement/practice spot level. I may have missed a beat or two, but that was due to the live duo concept. A few hours of practicing with my friend would iron that out.

I think it's definitely monitors and not facing eachother, in my case. I'm pounding the notes to just hear myself, and I lose all dexterity. I whined to my banjo player about the poor monitors, and we vowed to go an hour earlier to our next gig (sadly in March) to do monitors FIRST, then audience speakers, then tweaking monitors again.

Thanks for all th egreat tips. You guys rock like Don Maracco (think about it, the old school WWF guy).

Dan Adams
Dec-20-2005, 11:57pm
Lots and lots of lenghty replys. If you're not the MC of the group, is it possible? Sometimes the confidence of being the 'front' man will add to the playing. Who is that person playing that small, odd looking guitar? Dan

Jan-17-2006, 7:29pm
For me it's a mental thing. I know a part of it the audience, but not as described. The stage fright thing no longer decides the good and bad shows any more, it's my ability to focus and audiences have a way of distracting. Naturally, I don't have the ideas and my right hand gets rotton cuz I can't relax because I'm playing poorly.

It then comes down to experience and doing it often enough that you can find that pocket and think and play and listen and relax and still acknowledge the crowd. There's just so much going on and you have to learn to singl out the task at hand from all of the ambient noise and movement.

Or I'm completely wrong, I dunno. Just one guy's POV.

Jan-23-2006, 10:11pm
I am doing better in the the weekly jam than I do at home, When theyre in Bb, Im in that key thruout the tune, at home i keep drifting back to the default key. maybe its due to my tonitis ringing in G. or the open string habits.

Typical for Band Teachers to have their tonitis ringing in Bb from all those horns, Im told.. http://www.mandolincafe.net/iB_html/non-cgi/emoticons/wow.gif

Jan-25-2006, 11:29pm
When you get on stage anything can happen - nervousness (even if you don't think so), equipment malfunctions, an unresponsive audience, acts of God - anything to keep you on your toes. My goal has been to learn to play as comfortably in front of people as I do at home. That includes playing in front of the guy at the front table who folds his arms and stares at every note you play with no expression (he's better than everybody, but you will never see him on stage), or the older lady who is probably having a good time even if her face never shows it. Or for that one guy in the back who looks like he loves every note you're playing, even if no one else gets it.

The more you play out the more comfortable you become, and the more you understand the ephemeral nature of a live performance. Each time it's different, and it starts all over again the next time, with a new audience and a new set of problems to overcome. As long as you are part of group you have people to share the experience. I played alone a lot thirty years ago, but it wouldn't be fun on stage alone for me today.

Play for the audience, not the monitors. Think about how the group sounds rather than just your own playing.
When our band started using one microphone (and no monitors) we found we listened to ourselves better on stage and had a better time playing. We are practiced and play together well, but in this situation we are not so isolated from each other, and we think as a group.

There are good days and bad ones, but I usually joke that even if it wasn't our best performance, if the audience liked us we live to play another day.