A Classical Musician’s Guide to Join the Band & Play Confidently in Unfamiliar Styles

Collaborating in diverse musical settings is a great way to expand on classical training, but this begs the question:

How can you make these collaborations succeed, especially in unfamiliar or new musical situations?

To help you understand how to play confidently in new styles of music, I put together an 11-point checklist (plus some guidelines for how to make a good impression)  in both podcast and article form.

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Listen above or read below to discover:

✔️How to know when and what to play

✔️How to avoid writers block

✔️How to avoid getting in a rut (stuck repeating the same few ideas)

✔️How to make the other musicians you work with feel comfortable and always want to call you back

Thanks to Electric Violin Shop and Yamaha for supporting the Creative Strings Podcast.

First of all, let me dispel the popular misconception that improvising is all about doing whatever you want. There are times and places for that, but when you’re called upon to play a role in an ensemble, you need to be mindful of many parameters, the first of which is to do no harm.

All music benefits from fundamentals such as the unity of ensemble, sound, balance, etc., and  improvisation doesn’t change what makes music good and bad.

Don’t worry- The checklist below may seem like it puts you in a box, taking the magic out of the creative process. As counterintuitive as it may seem, placing restraints upon yourself is one of the best things you can do to promote your own creativity.

Your role in a band may involve becoming an improvising soloist, but it also requires you to think like an arranger, composing your part in a song.

Your part can range from textural colors to rhythmic accentuations to harmony pads to a feature solo. You can use ideas in the 11-point checklist below in just about any song for any band in any style.

However, there are some interpersonal considerations that are just as critical, so that you can feel confident playing with a band on stage, or recording in studio.

Without these strategies, when a classical musician gets asked to sit in with a band, they either freeze up or bull doze ahead with reckless abandon.

I know all about this.

I was mocked, discounted, laughed at…

I was told to “do a two-step and hit a cowbell” (not even allowed to play violin!).

Made to sit through jam sessions for hours without ever being invited up.

Faces made on the bandstand at me.

Threatened

Cursed out

I didn’t know what I didn’t know.

You won’t either.

And accepting this will save you stress, misunderstandings, and frustration. Because once you realize this, you’ll act differently around other musicians. The way you act, and the way you think about it, will make all the difference in gaining their respect and finding your lane.

It’s worth sitting on this point. I made the mistake of assuming that since I was an expert classical musician, I was an expert all-around musician. Therefore I sometimes came across as arrogant or condescending when working with musicians in other traditions.

The proper attitude to show is one of respect. And that doesn’t mean showing up like a walking apology.

When we show respect to other musicians, by acknowledging that we don’t know what we don’t know (about the music that they are experts at), we attract respect and appreciation, and this fosters a healthy spirit of collaboration. By letting other musicians teach us and ask for what they want, everyone wins, and the music is better for it.

We can come across as conceited or insensitive in musical situations because we’re insecure, we want to impress people, or because we’re too clueless to realize that it’s wrong to apply everything we have done in classical music to another musical tradition.

We may pretend we know what’s going on, play a lot of fancy stuff to show off our chops, or fail to notice or ask how the other musicians are reacting to what we are doing.

All of this usually backfires.

It’s better to have quiet confidence, and yet be unabashedly deferential in allowing musicians to teach us and ask us for what they want in a particular situation. Musicians will always appreciate you when you give them permission to ask for what they want.

If I lean over to a side person or bandleader and ask, “is this ok, or would you prefer something else?”, it shows that I respect them and the music. It shows that I know that I’m an outsider coming into their world. It sets me up to be more impressive to them when they hear how quickly I can adapt once given clear instructions; And it makes it easier for them to give me those instructions.

This may be universal to any social encounter in which we join a group of people who share something which we are not accustomed to sharing.

For example, if I walk into a baby shower with 15 women, the way to make it a positive experience is for me to basically shut up and listen. Not try to take over the party. I happen to be a dude who is not used to hanging out at baby showers, and I just don’t quite know how to interact in a way that fits in that situation, especially assuming that people who frequent baby showers have had similar or shared experiences.

If I go every weekend for a few months, I could begin to learn how to behave and navigate the situation. If I do it longer, I could gain even be considered part of the inner circle. But it requires respect, self awareness, and patience.

After a lot of hard knocks, I learned to make it work with musicians in all kinds of settings.

Demonstrating this social grace is more important than practicing licks, because you’ve got to be able to find a way to get along with other musicians, and to begin to truly appreciate and understand what they do and how they think about music.

Here are some funny examples of situations that were way outside my comfort zone, and I had to find a way through them:

-One time my drummer for the night showed up with a water jug in a small town in China. That was his drum kit…

-Opening for Journey with a classic rock band at the Kansas State Fair.

-Helping save a string quartet collaboration in the recording studio with a hip hop group in Brooklyn that almost got derailed.

-Playing a 4-hour stadium concert w/ a band from India without rehearsal or sheet music while displayed on a monster tv screen

-Playing, producing, and arranging hundreds of recording sessions for producers, many of whom don’t know the difference between a crescendo and a croissant

It’s been a recurring battlefield – overcoming the chasm of translation between culturally disparate musical paradigms.

And now you’ll get my simple yet magical checklist to better navigate, anticipate, and avoid conflicts, to optimize the chances of musical success when collaborating with musicians who think and talk differently than your orchestra conductor

First, I’ll give you the musical checklist, i.e., what to do or not do every minute when you’re collaborating with a band.

Then I’ll give you a list of specific interpersonal suggestions, related to my preamble, that are just as important.

Implement these suggestions and you’ll be a hero to the audience and the musicians, and they’ll call you back again and again.

-11 Tips to Playing with a Band for Classical Musicians-

1)Know when to lay out – To lay out is to NOT play. This is literally the most important thing you need to do. Do not play all the time, unless you are asked to do so. It’s far better to have someone asking you to play more than feeling the passive aggressive energy of someone who is trying to find a way to give you a hint to play less.

Of course there are exceptions to this, depending on the scenario. A fiddle player might play 80% of the time in a Bluegrass band, for example.

You may feel uncomfortable laying out. When laying out, you can listen and look around at the band, sway or tap your foot to the music, close your eyes and listen, smile, appear deep in thought, or whatever you want, but I recommend you tune into the music. Over time you should get more comfortable with laying out.

Case in point, in my own jazz quartet (with drums, bass, and piano), I lay out at least 50% of the time.

Some songs may require you to play all the time, but others you may lay out 25%, 50%, or 75% of the time. You may want to think about this before you decide what to play on a particular song w a band. Map it out in advance so you know exactly when you will play or lay out.  For example, if I’m working with a singer songwriter or rock band, often I will play on an intro and then lay out on the first verse of a song, entering on the second verse;  or waiting to enter until after 2 verses and a chorus have gone by sometimes.

By simply having a clear intention and structure around when to play or lay out, this contributes to the long arc of the song, giving a lift to keep the energy of the song over multiple verses. And it makes people notice and appreciate when you actually play.

2) Master the fills— Short melodic ideas in the rests when the singer is not singing (or melody instrument is not playing melody). There are two common ways to organize fills. Either take a full verse with fills OR alternate phrases within the same verse w other people in the band who are filling such as a lead guitar, keyboard, or even the bassist.

Here are tricks you can try when practicing to make your fills sound more convincing:

Try clapping the rhythm of your fills before adding notes to them. Non-specific rhythm is the death of many an ill-fated fill.

Listen to the words and respond musically based on what they mean to you.

Respond to the melody line of the singer. Play something like, or unlike,  the singer’s melody.

Respond to the other fills. Listen to the fills played by other members of the band and do something like or unlike that.

Outline a simple melodic shape using chord tones. (For more see the “Easy Tonal Improvisation” course on this page.)

3) Go for the chord tones, aka, PADS– A PAD is one of the easiest thing to do if you know the harmony or are able to hear the chord tones. The safest way to play a pad is to play voice-led chord tones following the harmonic rhythm (playing on the downbeat of each chord with the keyboard or rhythm guitar and bass).

If you don’t have the voice leading internalized between chord tones from different chords, the easiest way to deal with this is by creating a diagram that I call a Chord Stack. It contains all three notes in the triad stacked everywhere they occur in first position on your instrument. (This is covered in one of my most popular courses in Creative Strings Academy.)

Pads can gradually be embellished to include playing multiple chord tones and/or joining the chord tones with short melodic motions through passing tones. I recommend that if you plan to play double stops on violin, viola, or cello, use caution, and make sure you can hear yourself clearly on stage. If it’s hard to hear yourself in the monitor during a given performance, bail on the double stops and go with single notes.

4) Unison melodic figures-Copy the figure and play in unison- often there will be a “hook” or a melodic figure that other members of the band play. Sometimes it will be a centerpiece, and other times it may be more of an accompaniment figure. If it’s the centerpiece, chances are you can either double the line or harmonize the line. If it’s an accompaniment part played by the guitar or bass you may want to ask whether they would like you to double it (or play it a few times and observe the body language and face of the player you are doubling.)

5) Harmonize the figure- Instead of playing in unison with the melodic figure, play a harmony.

6) Rhythmic textures–  This is very context dependent. Never chop unless the drummer stops playing. Let the drummer handle the percussive aspects.

7) Double a vocal melody– Play the same notes that the vocalist sings, however, be cautious with this one. Make sure the vocalist likes it.

8) Harmonize vocal melody- Again, try it, see if the vocalist likes it or not. Be sensitive.

9) Play colors or effects using various extended techniques with or without augmentation of effects pedals. Harmonics, trills, slides. You can augment the effects using pedals like delay, flander, wah wah, distortion etc. You could also combine some of those!

10) Double the guitar, bass or horns when asked to. This only happens on occasion.

11) Take a Solo- Generally check with the bandleader to be clear on when the solo is and how long it should be.

If you are going to play with a band, keep this list handy- chances are, you should be able to find the answers here.

-How to Communicate with Musicians from Different Musical Worlds-

One of the biggest issues you’ll face has to do with translating between the language of a classical musician vs the language other musicians speak.

Don’t expect a bandleader to speak your musical language. They may not hand you sheet music and say, “play detache bowings with a slight rubato in measure 32”…

They’ll make perfect sense to musicians who speak their language. You are the outsider. You can eventually  learn their language, but in the meantime, find ways to create understanding and agreement with the right questions, references, and prompts, for example-

Questions to ask your bandmates:

Should I lay out in the first verse?

Can I play two different examples over this section of the song and you tell me which one you prefer?

Would you like me to play high (like this) or low (like this) ?

Would you like me to play dense (like this) or sparse (like this)? When you say “like this”, demonstrate your ideas.

Make it easy for them to say “yes” or “no”.

Do they like this or that? Do they want you to lay out or not in a specific section?

They can tell you “I like that one”.  Or they can say “Yes”.

That’s what understanding each other looks like, when everyone is on the same page.

The more you can discern what your musicians are looking for from you, the more you will be a hero.

Give them permission to tell you what they want.

Watch for visual cues from the band.

Ask if they want anything different.

Prompt their feedback by saying things like, “How do you like the part I came up with for the bridge? Is it too busy? Would you like to hear it played down the register? “Is the chopping pattern I’m playing working or should I try a different type of groove during this section?  Can you play for me an example of something you’d like to hear?

So, or any situation, if you keep the checklist above handy, and if you follow the guidelines around communication, you will learn faster, build positive relationships, and gain confidence.

fiddle jam session at creative strings

Now… if you want to try all this out in a musical environment where you’ll be encouraged instead of laughed at, taught instead of criticized, and helped instead of hurt…

If you want to have the week of your life jamming with musicians from all around the world,

If you want to rub shoulders with the very best faculty, and…

If you want to surprise everyone at home by suddenly killing it when you get back,

Then buy a ticket to this year’s Creative Strings Workshop here.

Creative Strings Workshop

Remember the pretext of this post?

“Collaborations are the best way to grow as a creative musician”.

Learn more about the importance of collaborations in this video:

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Are you a string player/teacher interested in exploring improvisation, contemporary styles, and related subjects?

Take a free introductory private Skype lesson with me.

If you enjoyed this episode, check out these related posts:

14 Practice Tips: Violin Improvisation

Brazilian Music: A Gateway for Classical Musicians (How to play Bossa on violin)

The Connection between Creativity and Personal Development

The Courage to Create

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