Over the past few weeks I've been putting quite a few of you through your paces in keeping up with a drum machine, metronome or playing along with a recording. Once the playback starts, I can usually see one clear reaction - fear! All of a sudden there's a possible consequence to a mistake; you might lose your place and not be able to recover. The song is over, another failure to absorb. As someone who has had the best time playing music with bands, friends and strangers, I think it's time to learn how to love to play along, and there a few strategies that might help.
Firstly, it's time to let go of the feeling of being in total control and accept the idea of collaboration, even if it is with a machine. If you're playing with a metronome, you could feel like it's relentless, robotic and potentially distracting OR you could see the positive in that it's consistent, reliable and takes care of the tempo for you. Once you're aware that you have a friend that's going to help you out with the tempo, you can take a deep breath and focus on joining in, rather than feeling like you have to keep up.
Secondly, let the music move you. In this case I specifically mean physically rather than emotionally! If you hear a beat, a groove, a count in, undo the freeze reflex triggered by your fear by getting your body moving. Your head can nod to the beat, your foot can tap, your torso can sway or rock forwards and backwards. Feel the beat rather than just listening to it. How often do you see musicians staying still while they play? This might feel very foreign to you if you're not a physically expressive person, so you may even want to take a small video of yourself grooving to a beat just to see whether it actually matches how you feel. Chances are, your movements will be much more subtle than you imagine them to be.
Thirdly, it's an opportunity to practise your recovery. I can't possibly count how many mistakes I've made while playing on stage, but I can definitely remember the only one or two times where everything fell in to chaos. The rest of the time? I just got on with it. I paused, listened, and worked out how to come back in to where I was meant to be. This really ties in to the idea of making sure that you can start the piece at any point, that you know what each hand is doing independently, that you're not relying on one perfect sequence to get you through the song. If the right hand makes a mistake, try to keep going with the left hand, or vice versa. It's potentially a real challenge but it's great real-world practise of being a musician.
Things I've been watching/listening to this week: