Ensemble Playing

One thing I have come to realise, especially over the past year – is how important ensemble playing is for a learning musician. I personally think that to grow as a musician, one needs ensemble playing – it just accomplishes what solo playing cannot.

I used to be a soloist most of the time, mainly on piano, up until I got accepted into Millfield. Well, first, I got thrown into the choir and piano quartet, although nothing much more, except for a timpani&glockenspiel part in the musical “70 not out”.

Then I got my trombone and ended up being thrown into Wind Band, Swing Band, Brass Group, and Orchestra. And on the piano side I was in piano trio and Millfield Trio+1 (YAY!!), not to mention accompanying other music groups (Like when Mr. Barker ‘skipped’ choir rehearsals and I had to end up playing for them).

So why was ensemble playing so effective and great for me?

1) It builds friendships and relationships (hmm… and enmity, I guess it could, as well)

Yes. The most obvious (or least obvious, whichever way you look at it) thing I could think of. Not really related to music, but a byproduct of music! And guess what? It was this aspect of ensemble music which kept me going. Without friends, you can’t really go on.

2) You share ideas and *ahem* sometimes end up arguing.

But this is great! You get different interpretations of music, you get viewpoints from the OTHER instrument. You understand why the violinist wants that phrase on the piano a particular way so that it complements the part. You understand why the recorder player wants you to be softer, and so on. And yes, sometimes you get conflicting views. (At the moment, it’s still easy enough to solve these problems – most of the time the teacher gets the final say!)

3) You learn to communicate your ideas well.

“That line is supposed to be smooth and yearning”.
– Don’t know what yearning means
“Erm, then.. that line is supposed to be very… very.. OKAY! The line is SEXY!!”.

And guess what? That gets across! Well, that was a real example which I used. But my point is – not everyone reacts to the same language the same way, so you have to find your own way to communicate your ideas.

4) You learn to listen carefully.

You have to now balance yourself out with other players in the ensemble – and that is a challenge! You have to actually concentrate while playing (Not that you don’t while solo’ing, but now you can’t get away with it as easily) so that you don’t end up just going ahead. This also ties in with watching the gestures of others carefully (something you don’t get in solo playing), such as watching the violinist for that cue or when to come in.

5) You learn to count!

Well, it’s not something you have to do that often in solo playing, since in solo playing you’re always playing your own part. Now with ensemble playing, you’d better count those bars properly! Else you’ll end up going out of time (which does happen, and then the NEXT question – does everyone know that the group is out of time, and HOW is the group going to bring it back into time). Also you need to learn how to keep a steady beat – don’t go wandering off with the beat! Or else, others may beat you! And you also learn how to do a group “ritardando” or “accelerando”. Great stuff!

6) You get to learn new music.

In some cases, the music that you end up playing may not have been the piece that you wanted, but never mind! Just take it, and see what you make of it! I’ve found great music this way – because I wasn’t the one choosing the music!

7) You don’t normally get as nervous while performing.

Naturally, if you’re up there with others, it doesn’t seem as bad. (At least, that’s how I feel) Normally you’ll be in a more relaxed state. Somehow, sometimes you think “If I make a slight mistake there when I’m not having the melody, not as many will notice”. Well actually they’d probably still notice. But somehow the more “relaxed” state helps.

8) You have motivation!

I find that solo playing can get a bit boring. And sometimes you lose the will to practise or to improve. With ensemble playing, if everyone is in a good mindset, it will push you to do more practise so that you’re not “The one who pulls us back all the time”. So you become motivated to do more.

9) You discover new instruments.

Without too much ‘competition’, you get to learn about new instruments, how they play and how they relate to the music. I guess enough of this is up to the composer how much he used the instruments – to their capabilities or not.

10) It’s fun! Who wants to always sit in a practice room by themselves? (Which, is good now and then actually)

The only thing I can say though, is sometimes when you end up with a bad performance, you might think “It was entirely my fault that it went that way” or the other musician might be thinking “Hoong Ern messed that up, ARRGH!!!”. Well it does help with responsibility. Take the responsibility for the bad and the good you play.

And – you get people to celebrate with, if it’s a competition and you win! (Although if they only give one cup.. then it may become an issue)

Ensemble playing really helps me.

Cheers, to all those who played with me or those I played for! It was all great!

2 thoughts on “Ensemble Playing”

  1. And yes I forgot to add.

    11. You are NOT the most important person in the ensemble.

    Value each other’s opinions just as much as yours. Even if you feel that you are “superior”. The whole point of ensemble playing is working and playing together, not to push others aside.

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