The band for this occasion included, along with myself on mandolin, my old friend and now brother-in-law Mike Johnson, on banjo; Murphy's #3 sister (and Mike's wife) Argen Hicks, on bass; Murphy's #4 sister, excellent singer/songwriter Nancy Pate on guitar; and our friend, multi-instrumentalist Barry Palmer on fiddle. What did we do? We just played music. Well, we did run over some numbers at Argen and Mike's house beforehand. That was fun, too. Then we went over to the middle of town and set up at the gazebo and played our first set.
Now, I've talked before about how good it is when people are really playing together. This can happen immediately, as is did at that party I talked about a few days ago, or it can happen because everybody listens and adapts. On this particular day we had a group that hadn't ever played together before, and I think we all played with slightly different natural rhythms. When we started practicing back at the house we sounded a bit loose, but by the time we started up at the gazebo, we sounded pretty tight. So how did this happen? It happened because everybody there was a very experienced performer and knew what to do. Everyone was listening and adapting to everyone else, one song after another, and in a short time we were really playing together well.
You don't have to be a professional picker to do this. You don't have to have played for 20 (or 30, or 40) years to listen to everyone else and adapt to their rhythm and play what sounds good.
As soon as you are able to play in a group, you can start listening to the other pickers (in fact, those two things go together). You can start listening to the other instruments and to the vocals, and follow your ears in trying to play (or not play) things that help the whole group sound good. If there's a banjo or guitar player drowning everybody out you usually can't help that, but if that player is YOU, then you can. Whatever instrument you're playing, try to play steadily and supportively to the others. (Sometimes this means scarcely playing at all, during other leads or vocals.) When it comes time for you to take a lead, think about it ahead of time-- stop playing for a few beats if you need to, to set up your hands and brain to start playing the break at the right time-- and then keep listening to the rhythm while you're playing your lead. That way, whether you're playing lead or backup, you'll be playing together with the others. And that can help them do the same thing (more on that later).
I sometimes get so carried away with the idea of “my break” that I will forget to listen to anything else besides what I’m doing.