Welcoming beginners and less experienced musicians into your group

Many of our member groups are ‘mixed ability’, which means that people of any standard can join in – from complete beginners to advanced musicians. The challenge for these groups is how they keep things interesting enough for more advanced players, but at the same time don’t leave beginners feeling all at sea.

When it comes to integrating beginners and less experienced musicians into your group, there are a range of approaches to choose from to help them feel comfortable and able to ‘hold their own’ during rehearsals and performances. You can choose some or all of these to help them get to grips with the music.

Before the first rehearsal: be clear and transparent

If a beginner or less experienced musician has contacted you about joining your group, they are probably nervous about being able to cope and don’t know what to expect. You can help to reassure them before they even make it through the door.

  • Explain the process to them – what will be expected of them at the first rehearsal? Is it ok if they just come to watch instead? If it’s fine for them to make mistakes – say so!
  • Give them some information about how you rehearse – do you read from music or do you learn by ear? Does the Musical Director (M.D.) go over things that are difficult? Are unfamiliar works taken at a slower tempo? Will you provide them with music or rehearsal tracks for individual learning?
  • Tell them where you are in the season – if you’re about to perform a concert, the standard of performance may be a bit too developed for them and it might be easier for them to come after the concert when the whole group is starting work on something new. If they want to come along anyway, make it clear that they are welcome but be honest with them about the fact that the pace of the rehearsal might be a little faster – forewarned is forearmed.
  • Reassure them – tell them about other people who were in the same boat as them when they joined the group, and who have now become permanent members. Perhaps you could feature these members as case studies on your website?

Finally, if you say that you are a mixed ability group open to anyone then make sure you mean it. If there is an expectation that someone can sing in tune, or read music, or that someone can play certain notes on an instrument, then already you have set some criteria for joining.

Who decides whether those criteria are being met, and what do you do if they are not? If you do have any criteria, then make sure this is made clear to any new enquiries – it can be off-putting to turn up to a rehearsal thinking it won’t matter how good (or bad!) you are, when in reality there are some expectations to be met.

Make them feel part of the group

This is important for any new member but even more so for someone who feels that they are not up to standard. If they find themselves in an environment which is friendly and supportive, they are more likely to ‘stick it out’ and have a go.

Ensure any new person is greeted as soon as possible and made to feel welcome. If appropriate, you might want to ask them about their previous history – how much playing/singing have they done before? Have they performed in a group before? Do they know what voice type they are? (remember that they might not know there are different voice types!) Do they want to join in straight away, or just listen? Asking these questions will help you decide where they should sit for their first rehearsal.

Once you have established where in the group it would be best to position them, give them a ‘buddy’ to sit next to who will look after them for the whole rehearsal. Choose someone who you know will be welcoming and friendly, who will be patient and help explain things. Perhaps you might consider allowing your new person to try out different parts during the first week or two, until they find the part where they are most comfortable.

Make sure your new person is included in conversations and activities during the rehearsal break, and that they are introduced to more people – not just their ‘buddy’. Introduce them to the M.D. too, so that they can have an informal chat together about the musical expectations of the group. Ideally, your M.D. should always be available to talk to beginners and less experienced performers in order to work with them to find solutions for coping with rehearsals.

Make sure you nurture all of your members regardless of their standard – remember that people come along to your group to enjoy the music whilst having a good time. If they are in an environment where they feel happy and supported, they will learn and develop their musical skills naturally.

Have a plan for accommodating them during rehearsals

Your M.D. will be in charge of making sure that rehearsals are inclusive for people of all standards, and so for many of the following tips it will be more appropriate for the M.D. to take the lead. Talk to your M.D. to make sure that you have a system in place for welcoming and including those who are less experienced – and make sure that anyone who communicates with potential newcomers knows what that system is so that they can reassure anyone who is enquiring.

Some suggestions of things you might try:

  • Use warm up exercises as a way of developing technique and confidence.
  • Provide simplified parts for less able members, or work with them to determine which bits of the music they could leave out and which they could join in with.
  • Allow people to just watch/observe the rehearsal, following the music if they feel confident to do that, so that they have some time and space to get to grips with what is happening in a rehearsal before joining in.
  • Break into sections or small groups to work on specific difficulties.
  • Allow people the option of only taking part in certain pieces if they feel more confident with some than with others. Give people permission to take part as much or as little as they like, and let them know it’s ok to make mistakes.
  • Don’t focus exclusively on those with less experience – remember that all members are here to benefit from your time and experience, so make sure the rehearsal is of benefit to everyone.
  • Make sure your language is inclusive and don’t single anyone out for instructions. Keep comments general and inclusive – talk to ‘teams’ of people e.g. altos, flutes, strings. The difficulty lies in recognising that some people are doing what is required of them whilst others need some guidance – for example, say things like ‘some of us are still breathing late there’ instead of ‘we’re still breathing late there’. You highlight the fact that most of the group is doing something right without naming and shaming those who haven’t quite got there yet.
  • Ensure that your comments have context. If something is not as you would like it, explain what effect this has on the music and why it would be better for it to happen a different way. Giving context to your remarks will help people to understand what it is you are asking them to do.
  • Don’t be too technical – whilst the more able musicians will understand some of the terminology, others may not.
  • Don’t be afraid to explain concepts several times – it won’t hurt the regular members of your group to be reminded of what you mean when you say certain things! If you do have to explain things several times think about different ways of explaining it to help communicate your message clearly.
  • New members may feel daunted by joining in with a group that seems to already know what it is doing. Try mixing familiar repertoire with some warm up exercises which are new to everyone, or introduce some sight-reading every so often, so that newcomers have a chance to feel that they are at the same disadvantage as everyone else.
  • Try including some short sessions focusing on different aspects of technique – it provides a good opportunity for newcomers to learn, and for regular members to remind themselves of good practice.
  • If you’re feeling brave, have a session every so often where everyone in the group swaps instruments or swaps parts – it’s very encouraging for newcomers to see the most experienced people feeling all at sea every once in a while!

Provide extra support outside of rehearsals

Turning up to a group for the first time as a complete beginner can be daunting, particularly if the pace turns out to be different to what they expect. In addition to being welcoming and accommodating during rehearsals, your group could provide some extra support for beginners to take advantage of outside of rehearsals.

Some suggestions include:

  • Offer a pre-rehearsal or pre-season session specifically for beginners or those who feel they need extra support, which can focus on some of the more basic elements of getting to grips with the music.
  • Provide short rehearsal notes to help people practice in their own time. These could be created by the M.D. or by a section leader and emailed around to everyone / made available online after the rehearsal.
  • Have tuition videos in a members’ only section of your website.
  • Offer separate individual tuition.
  • Create a ‘feeder’ group, where beginners start in the lower group then progress to the main group when they are feeling more confident.
  • Direct people to useful apps or YouTube videos that can help them with aspects of technique, such as sight-singing.

If it’s not working out…

So you’ve made your beginner musician feel welcome, you’ve accommodated them during your rehearsals, and you’ve provided extra support outside of rehearsals – but still they’ve decided you are not the group for them. What else could you have done?

The answer is probably nothing. There will always be people – of any standard – who feel that your group is not a good fit for them. Ask them for feedback, but remember that they may be unwilling to give it. Thank them for coming along and trying you out, and try not to take it personally. So long as most of your group are happy and enjoying themselves, then you must be doing something right.

We hope you find this Making Music resource useful. If you have any comments or suggestions about the guidance please contact us. Whilst every effort is made to ensure that the content of this guidance is accurate and up to date, Making Music do not warrant, nor accept any liability or responsibility for the completeness or accuracy of the content, or for any loss which may arise from reliance on the information contained in it.