Even as businesses are opening back up, restaurants and bars are experimenting with outdoor seating, and people can be seen casually strolling the streets again, music communities have largely remained in as deep of a state of lockdown as they were this summer. Your favorite bands still haven’t embarked on the tours they had to postpone, what local shows that are happening are mostly unadvertised and barely skirting state guidelines as is, and very little music education is happening outside the confines of a webcam. Bands may be streaming performances and some private music teachers may have begun seeing individual students in careful, socially distanced environments, but the truth is that these do little to make up for the musical community that has been lost.
As an art form, music tends to be more community-oriented than most. Concerts ranging from arena tours all the way down to a show put on in a friend’s basement are enjoyed by crowds. And while there is certainly a precedent for a single musician taking a stage and delivering a set all by themselves, when we imagine a live performance most of us imagine a whole ensemble. The energy of a rhythm section that plays in exactly together or the chemistry between a pair of singers who sing in perfect harmony with one another can be the thing that makes a good performance the kind of performance that you remember for the rest of your life, and these interpersonal dynamics are the results of community. While the ways music and community intersect on a professional level is often discussed, something that I believe is often overlooked is the ways music and community intersect on an educational level.
When I first started playing guitar, it was a very private activity for me. I wasn’t very good yet and most other thirteen-year-olds that I knew weren’t particularly interested in hearing me stumble my way through Johnny Winter covers anyway, so I largely kept my playing to myself. For a while the only people who ever heard me play was my teacher at our weekly lessons, my parents and sisters, and, judging by the number of noise complaints we received, a fair amount of our neighbors. But as I continued to chip away at my practice routine day after day and slowly get better and better at the guitar, the instrument began to become a much bigger part of my life and even my identity. It didn’t matter that by most metrics I was still quite bad at the guitar, I had put in enough work that I wanted to start sharing music with people other than myself and take my playing to a venue other than my bedroom.
Luckily the year 2010 was safely pre-Covid, and finding a musical community wasn’t particularly difficult back then. In addition to jamming with what friends of mine both played instruments as well as possessed a fondness for rock bands whose prime came and went before any of us were born, I signed up for the New York City Guitar School camp. At the camp, I met a gaggle of other angsty teens whose experiences with music mirrored my own. They quickly became not only close friends of mine, but also a group that routinely made me alternate between feeling motivated, competitive, inspired, proud, insecure, connected, and more. This group became my peers, my collaborators, my sources of friendly competition, and some of the most enduring friends I’ve ever known. In short, my finding of a musical community is what I needed to really push myself.
The experience of playing and connecting with other musicians was an exhilarating feeling, and one that I wanted to chase. In order to get the most out of it, I wanted to be as good of a guitarist as I could be. I took the craft more seriously than I ever had before, pushing myself hard and playing until my fingers bled, ultimately leading to me to take up the guitar as a career and forever changing my life for the better. Essentially, this ego-centric narrative is my long-winded way of stressing the importance of finding a musical community.
Even if you’re just a hobbyist with music, and even if you’re an adult who might feel like the part of your life spent finding new groups has mostly come and gone, I can’t overstress the importance of finding a group of peers who are at similar stages in their musical journeys. Finding these communities may be made all the more difficult by Covid and the resulting social distancing measures, but that doesn’t mean that they’re no longer there for those who look.
Many people are now organizing virtual jams and many music education programs (including New York City Guitar School) have introduced virtual group classes. Virtual group classes mimic the in-person group learning experience that I got to enjoy through in-person programs with NYCGS as a teenager, but without putting you at risk during the strange times we are currently living in. If you’re learning music of any sort and you find yourself wishing to transform it from a solitary activity into a social one, then I can’t recommend trying out a group class or other similar program highly enough.