Why do people play musical instruments? Why do they have music lessons? There are all sorts of reasons. To quote one of my younger students "I just like the sound!" - that's usually a big factor. Quite often, especially with adult students, there's a desire to to learn so they can play in a group. Even if the initial decision to learn is because you 'like the sound', people often develop ambitions to be able to join an ensemble or to play together with friends.
It sounds like a good plan, to get to the stage where you can play with other people, but I think there's a lot to unpick here. For me, playing with other people is a huge part of what playing music is 'about' - the communication, the connection, the teamwork, the blending of sounds - and I can probably be a bit evangelical about it. But it isn't a compulsory aspect of learning an instrument, and it is absolutely fine if what you want to do is play on your own, in your own house, because you like the experience of making a nice sound, but feel no particular desire to do that anywhere else or with anyone else. Music in this way can be very therapeutic - sometimes it's an escape from the stresses of life. Sometimes I shut myself in my spare room and just play whatever I feel like, and it makes me feel better.
I'm also somewhat bothered by the idea that you have to reach a certain level of competency to play with other people - you have to be 'good enough'. Of course, if an established ensemble has a minimum standard, then obviously you have to meet that to join. In some cases, this can be a good motivator to practice and improve your playing. Sometimes you need the 'piece of paper' to show you're the appropriate standard, and I've had students set themselves goals of passing a particular exam so that they can join the next level up of school orchestra, or their nearest amateur wind band. However, I strongly believe that as long as you can make some sounds, you're 'good enough' to play with others in some way, if that's what you want to do. When I run student workshops, everyone is invited, no matter how long they've been playing for - and when we play as a group there are parts for everyone, even if I have to write a new part that just consists of Bs, As and Gs for someone who's only been playing a few weeks.
Part of the problem with waiting until you're 'good enough' to play with others is that when you do reach that stage, you don't have any experience of playing with others! In one worst case scenario, you could be Grade 8 'on paper' but only ever have worked on exam pieces and not much else, and the only ensemble playing you've done is once a year with an accompanist, whose job it is to follow your playing, whatever you do. You could be technically brilliant, but just not used to playing a part that isn't 'the tune' and listening out for how your part fits in with everyone else. You might not have a lot of experience of sight-reading. You might not have any idea how to follow a conductor.
Now, none of this is the fault of the student, but it strikes me that if one of your aims is to play in an ensemble, then one of the things you really need to learn is ensemble skills. That includes experience of listening to other parts and fitting in with them. It involves getting used to playing harmony parts and thinking about how they work in the piece as a whole, being sensitive to how loud or quiet you need to play, considering how to match your articulation or phrasing to what other people are doing. You need to get used to 'keeping going' whatever happens - there's a mantra about sight-reading for exams where people are told to keep going, don't go back and correct a mistake, and this is absolutely vital if you want to keep your place in ensemble music. You need to practice keeping in time with a whole load of other people - either by following a conductor or communicating somehow as a group. And really, the only way to learn these things is to do them. Teachers can help - I do 'playing together' and 'call and response' activities in lessons from the very start, and encourage students to learn duets for us to play together, rather than just using them as a 'fun' thing to do at the end of a lesson (this blog post from David Barton Music is also well worth reading on this topic). It occurred to me a while back that tutor books often have the student playing the top line of duets, for quite a long time, and then it can be quite tricky when you ask them to try playing the bottom line - your eyes just get used to looking in the same place - so have made a point of finding duets where both parts are manageable in the early stages. I think recorded backing tracks can play a useful role here as well, for the experience of playing along with 'someone else' who isn't going to adapt to you.
Individual lessons can only do so much towards this though, and just playing with other people helps to make you better at playing with other people. It's one of the reasons I run Sheffield Flute Choir and also why we have an annual summer playday where anyone can come and join in (as well as improving people's skills, the other main reason is that it's fun getting together with loads of other flute players!). Obviously, getting guidance from more experienced ensemble members and leaders can be invaluable too, and *subtle move into advertising here* that's why I've asked Carla Rees to join us for the playday this August. I've experienced Carla's ensemble-leading quite a few times now, including with the rarescale Flute Academy and I'm every time I come away feeling like I've learned something new about how to play as a group. She has some serious words of wisdom about shifting your mindset from playing like a soloist to working as a team. If you'd like to hear them, and explore a range of excellent flute ensemble repertoire at the same time, come and join us in Sheffield on August 25th for our Summer Flute Ensemble Day.
Do you ever feel like the worst musician in the room/ orchestra/ world? I'm sure we've all been in situations where we feel like we're much worse than everyone else at whatever it is we're doing. Sometimes we are, actually, technically, the worst. I could recount many memories of playing various sports or games where I was the weakest, the least coordinated, the slowest runner. There was the time I played rounders with some work colleagues and everyone else was good or at least passable at it. I failed to catch anything, other than a ball to the head when I entirely misjudged how fast it was coming at me.
I have also been in musical situations where I've been the least technically-accomplished player or the least experienced. I remember sitting at the far end of a row of six flutes in a youth orchestra, feeling like everyone else was so much better than me, probably because they were.
It's something I hear from a lot of other people too - they worry about playing in a group or coming to a workshop because "I'll be the worst there", "everyone is better than me". It's fairly common with adult learners, as they feel they 'should' be more accomplished simply because they're adults.
I understand that worry, but if you can re-frame 'being the worst' it can help you enjoy and benefit from experiences that you might have otherwise avoided. For one thing, the language of 'better' and 'worse' is fairly unhelpful, and suggests that it's in some way a failing not to be as 'good' as someone else. It is language that sadly pervades some musical environments so it's no wonder that people feel intimidated by this sense that they're being ranked into levels of 'how good you are'. It's part of the (damaging, in my opinion) discourse of 'natural talent' that suggests you're somehow inferior if you can't currently do something.
However, I think it's better to think of yourself as at a different stage on your musical journey - perhaps you started later, or you haven't had as much time to dedicate to it. It may be that some people have found solutions that work for them to problems you're still struggling with. This is all OK, and nothing to be ashamed of. If you're willing to learn and try to find solutions, then the only people who should be ashamed are those who look down on others for not being at the same stage as them. Maybe you could have practised more/ better, but it's more productive to go and do some constructive practice now than to beat yourself up about not having done it in the past.
Yes, it is difficult to feel like everyone else in the room can do things that you can't. It is OK to feel like you've got a long way to go, and even a bit envious of someone else's lovely tone or amazing finger-work. But you can turn that around - see it as something to aspire to. Learn from them. And don't forget to appreciate your own skills too - maybe you can't play super-fast but you can get amazingly loud volume. Maybe you don't yet have the tone you want (if you're a flute player, that's a lifelong search!) but you can sight-read/ busk your way through most things. Maybe you aren't the best at any of these things, but you're a generally reliable, happy soul to have around in rehearsals. Whatever the case, you have your own unique qualities in your playing, and none of these things make you a better or worse person (except maybe being reliable and cheerful to be around, which is definitely a good thing).
The vast majority of people will not be looking down at you because you're not a virtuoso - in fact, most will be too busy worrying about their own playing, but those who are more advanced can make things easier on other people too, by being sensitive to the fact that others might find their level of skill and/ or confidence intimidating. If you find something easy, it can feel natural to always be the one volunteering to demonstrate, or play the solo, but you can support other people by stepping back sometimes, by being supportive, offering encouragement and sharing things you've found helpful in your own learning (without sounding like a know-it-all!). Teachers can help by making their teaching constructive and encouraging, rather than a list of things that the student has done wrong. They can openly talk about the aspects of playing that they find/ have found difficult and how they've worked on them.
I've written before about awareness as part of my series on being a reliable musician and I think that applies here too - be aware of how your behaviour is affecting yourself and other people, whether that's putting yourself down and grumbling about finding things too hard, or acting in a way which might make other people feel bad about themselves and their playing. And remember that how you play is not a reflection on your worth as a person!
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The Reliable Musician - a series of blog posts on the skills that make the sort of musician people want to work with!