When You Start Playing Together

What I’ve Learnt by Rod Vincent

When we first started writing songs together as O’Reilly & Vincent, Finn O’Reilly did all the musical bits and I supplied the lyrics. But one morning, before going to the recording studio, while we were doing a photo shoot for this website, Finn suggested that I could learn the bass parts. I will never forget that moment. We’ve all heard the expression: the blood drained out of my legs with fear. That morning I actually experienced it for the first time. I was terrified about the idea of trying to play an instrument in front of people. But I flew home from Dublin, bought a bass and started the lessons provided first at Fender Play and later with the wonderful online teacher Andrew Pouska of StudyBass.com Within three months I had played my first couple of gigs and performed live on BBC Radio Shropshire, the scariest thing I have done in my life. That was late 2019. Since then I’ve played bass with quite a few other guitarists as well as Finn. Mostly friends or family members who have taken up the instrument and aren’t used to playing as a pair. As well as practicing hard, playing with others is the most important thing to do if you want to improve, according to teachers like Andrew. But it can be a daunting and unexpected experience as some of us aren’t used playing in front of anyone else. Because I’m a Chartered Psychologist by trade, I gave a bit of thought to what can help or hinder you in having a positive learning experience from playing with others.

Tips for before or between sessions:

  1. The most challenging thing when you start playing with someone else is to keep in time with each other. So practice with a metronome and get used to playing at a regular tempo.
  2. Guitarists often fall into the habit of noodling, so practice learning to play whole songs not just fragments.
  3. You could set some ground rules in advance. Nothing too formal, you don’t need a lawyer but you could agree that you won’t give each other advice or agree that it’s about giving each other a good time rather than achieving a perfect performance.
  4. Agree some songs to play in advance, ones that you both know. Top tip: Make sure you are both learning them in the same key if you aren’t experienced enough to change keys at will. Guitarists who use capos often say the names of the shapes of the chords they are playing rather than the actual chord it has been transposed to by the capo. This can be enough to destroy the mind of a fledgling bassist, so check it carefully in advance.
  5. Tune your instruments with a tuner. Some of us are used to playing with the instrument in tune with itself but not tuned to correct pitches.
  6. Don’t be like golfers! Before you start, don’t make an exaggerated play of saying how bad you are or that you are nervous. Everyone feels like that and it’s okay to feel it but you don’t need to draw attention to it. Sometimes it’s best to fake it to make it, or to feel the fear and do it anyway, as the clichés go.

Tips for when you play together:

  1. When you start playing a song, agree a tempo that both of you can manage, then do a count-in. It can help to use a click track to keep you both in time. Or it’s fun and adds a bit of extra reassuring background noise to play to a recorded drum track on something like Band in a Box. (Apologies to all drummers!)
  2. If you make a mistake don’t say, ‘Oh shit! I’ve screwed up.’ Don’t roll you eyes and stop playing. Keep Calm and Carry on! Try to find a place to drop back in as quickly as you can. This is probably the biggest difference between playing on your own versus playing with a partner or in a band. And getting back in is a skill you hardly ever learn on your own; playing alone people often skip back to the start of a verse or chorus, or just stop when they get it wrong.
  3. When you do make mistakes be kind to yourself. Everyone does it, even the incredible Finn O’Reilly! There have been occasions when I stopped and blamed myself but afterwards realised he’d made the mistake. Just keep playing. Chances are the other person didn’t even notice that you played the wrong chord as they are thinking about their own playing and they are worrying about what you think of them. (I really hope Finn doesn’t read this bit.)
  4. Physiologically, nerves and excitement feel similar. They both up the heart-rate and can start you perspiring. It can help to remind yourself of this and to reframe your nerves as excitement. Whilst it can feel embarrassing to make mistakes there is nothing really at stake. It’s actually a safe environment and you’ve chosen to to do this. So you can choose to enjoy it.
  5. It’s not about competing or trying to impress anyone. Remind yourself that it’s about the joy of sharing the experience of making music together. That is one of the most miraculous experiences you can have.
  6. It’s easy to get totally absorbed in what you are doing. Don’t forget to listen to your playing partner and try to make them sound good. See your job as mostly about helping the other person to have fun.
  7. Encourage your playing partner. Notice the great stuff they do and let them know.
  8. Even if you are a more experienced player, don’t turn it into a lesson. Be wary of giving too much advice. Remember it’s a jam session. It’s supposed to be fun.
  9. Don’t insist on playing a song that you love to play but the other person doesn’t know. Maybe suggest one they could learn for next time. But be prepared to learn songs that the other person knows. Ask for them in advance.
  10. Find a simple repeating chord pattern like 12 bar blues or a I V vi iv pattern and play it for a while so you can improvise.
  11. When you are improvising, don’t feel you have to play all the time. Leave space and let your partner have their turn. Listen to what other musicians are doing.
  12. Don’t play for long periods, although this is tempting and it’s hard to stop. Take a break. Have a chat.
  13. Don’t keep playing the same one song until you are worn out or fed up with it. Equally don’t flit between masses of songs without ever getting any of them played properly. Ideally have a small set list that you can both practice individually and together.
  14. Having fun is more important than it sounding great.
O'Reilly & Vincent play The Wheatsheaf Ludlow