Learning Chronicles: Practicing Solo vs. Ensemble

Learning to play any instrument is both a challenging and rewarding pursuit. As you venture down this path, you’ll find that practicing music is a highly necessary component of this journey. Independent study is critical for self-exploration, mastering technical aspects, and discovering your creative voice. However, music is a language with a strong social component, so practice with an ensemble is important to understand the nuances of a group dynamic. It follows that for many, practicing solo and practicing with an ensemble are two entirely different experiences. In this article, we’ll dive deep into the similarities and differences between the two. 

How Do Solo and Ensemble Practice Differ?

As the names suggest, solo practice is done independently by yourself, and ensemble practice is done with a group. Students or musicians who work with an ensemble should spend time practicing music independently each week to ensure that they are prepared for the ensemble. But in order to truly master the skills, regular practice with an ensemble is important for growth as a musician, providing an avenue to utilize the skills developed in your solo practice. In the next two sections, we’ll discuss the best way to ensure adequate ensemble preparation and some ideas for how to structure your practice time both privately and with a group. 

Solo Practice 

Music practice is your time to truly explore your instrument. Exploring, reviewing, and refining make your practices productive and your performances more effortless and enjoyable. Working on feel, phrasing, articulation, and dynamics will help you execute your desired sound when you’re eventually playing with others. Consider including these concepts in your solo practice routine for optimal success. 

Practicing scales and arpeggios will help you build a foundation upon which much of your technique will lie. It is important to work in all twelve keys to fully understand the nuances of your instrument. Spending approximately 15-20 minutes on these rudiments in warm-ups is a great way to get started. 

For your personal practice time, focus on the pieces you will be performing with a group. Consider breaking up the music selections into shorter sections, phrases, and measures. Within each, identify areas that create the biggest challenges or you find yourself struggling with most. Always use a metronome and vary the pace at which you practice to build up speed or help with ease of breathing (depending on the instrument). Use this opportunity while alone to perfect difficult sections and unusually challenging elements in the music. 

Memorizing short pieces to play from memory is a fantastic exercise to build repertoire, “musical memory”, and technical skill. Each new piece will likely have its own technical challenges to overcome, as well as melodic and harmonic structures you may find in other pieces in the future. For the most benefit, expand your repertoire with a variety of pieces that cover a wide stylistic scope, from traditional to contemporary music.

Recording yourself can help examine your playing critically as a listener. Set up a video camera or recording device to capture your performance. Ultimately, this kind of activity can help you become your own teacher. Additionally, recording yourself or inviting friends or peers to listen can help if you’re struggling with nerves, too. 

Ensemble Practice 

Ensemble practice brings together a group of musicians. As noted above, music has a strong social component. While you can learn to play solo, there are specific pieces that can only be performed in a group, and it’s an important part of your musical journey to learn how to practice and play alongside others. 

Performing a piece together with other musicians is difficult to do well without rehearsal. It can take time and effort to hone your skills as a group and get in sync, even if each musician has spent time practicing independently. Practicing music together helps you both grow as a musician personally and to learn how to navigate a group dynamic, improving critical listening skills. Learning to improvise is a special skill that can be developed in a group setting.

practicing solo and in an ensemble

During ensemble practice, or rehearsals, each individual can hear how their part or section fits into the greater musical composition and gives context to the hours of practice spent learning individual parts. Furthermore, because you’ve only heard your individual part during solo practice, you’ll have the opportunity during this rehearsal time to hear all of the instruments come together. Often, a musical piece may not sound like much unless an entire ensemble is playing together, and then suddenly it’ll all come to life!

At rehearsals, conductors or bandleaders may provide instruction or performance direction that can be perfected in private practice, or tips about how you can improve for the next rehearsal. Additionally, the bandleaders can help musicians understand why the music is written a particular way. Often, parts are written for certain instruments to allow others to shine through at particular moments. Having this context makes the learning and practicing that much more enjoyable. 

Final Thoughts  

Solo practice is critical personal practice time where you get to learn on your own. During this time, you’ll build upon your musical foundation, work on your technique, and practice your parts of a composition. Ensemble practice shows you the “big picture” of a song or composition that you’ll be performing with others, develops listening skills, and helps navigate the social element of music. Both are important for musical growth and critical for success. If you’re interested in learning about our options for learning music, both privately and in groups, visit Forbes Music Company.

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