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Even In Music Things Can Go Wrong

Something going wrong in musical performance is first a felt feeling. Musicians pay close attention to felt feelings and act on them.

There are considerable parallels between how humans in groups work together (or not) and the way in which musicians interact successfully. Models of musical interactions can be used to examine how humans might more improve their behaviour towards each other.

Musicians are often alerted to something not being quite right very quickly, almost as if they have a 'sixth sense'. They feel it first. Something going wrong in music in many ways can be a little more obvious than in non-musical situations. When it isn't right it's felt almost immediately. In performance musicians also have the ability to 'fix' things on the fly. They don't have time even to analyse it. They don't have time to apportion blame or criticise. They just deal with it.


Copyright © 2023 Andrew Hodges & Philippa Lowe

In rehearsal it can be a little different of course. The first part of the process is that having sensed something isn't working and worked out where the issue lies, then the necessary remedial action is implemented. This is often done with a considerable willingness which might be a surprise to non-musicians. There is mutual respect and ways of interacting which embody kindness and sensitivity. In music groups, individuals openly admit anything they have done wrong and take responsibility for trying to correct things. It is regarded as good practice to work together with good intention which means thar everyone is only too eager to put things right.

Musical issues are dealt with kindly between the members of smaller ensembles and in large orchestras the best conductor's leadership style is akin very much to that of a coach, offering encouragement and helpful suggestions.  If there is a need for a more authoritarian approach this is only applied as and when needed. In performance musicians may achieve a sense of being self-lead and at times even 'in flow'. Even with large orchestras they can feel as if they are acting as if they are one self-managing unit.

It isn't common in musical rehearsals or performance for anyone to be deliberately awkward. The causes of musical problems can often be related perhaps to anxiety or a lack of practice. Sometimes there is a difference over identifying the issue but musical groups will often try different approaches until the problem is solved. Musicians have a natural curiosity and are usually quite willing to accept responsibility for their mistakes. Once band members have got to know and trust each other, being wrong musically isn't an issue. Once the cause of the weakness is found then it is often then a matter of simply finding the right remedial action.  This is usually done with a sense of common purpose.

It becomes quite apparent that for music to work, everyone must work flexibly in and around the centre of the model, adjusting their approach accordingly. Things fall apart when they don't. Outside of the musical field, it seems that humans more readily act at the extremes without necessarily being aware that they've gone there and realising of the consequences of their actions. Once in the realms of chaos, low morale, rebeliousness and disengagement it can seem to many almost impossible to find the route back to health and wellbeing.

The model outlined above can be thought of very much as a map. This map is an outline of how groups of human musicians interact in different musical situations.  It can be seen that different musical styles can be placed within certain parts of the 'map'. The boundaries are fluid so the musical domains outlined do interact with each other. Musicians are inventive and will push these limits of these boundaries in their search for an authentic musical creation.


Grouped around the centre are styles of music which many people will recognise; Classical (18th C), Romantic (19th C), Jazz (20th C) and Improvised (since time began). Next to each musical style is a leadership style; Coaching, Transformative, Democratic and Self-managing. There are a number of other styles but the ones mentioned are regularly employed for the given musical style.

Beyond the yellow 'safety zone' are indications of how the effect of a change in approach might lead to distinctly unhelpful musical outcomes.


CLASSICAL: The Coach becomes authoritarian


Classical music has long been a realm of passionate artistry and meticulous precision. In this world, the conductor can reign supreme, wielding their baton like a magic wand, shaping and sculpting the sounds emanating from the orchestra.


The Coaching style is amply suited to achieving the very best from an orchestra so how does such a radical change in style occur? This is the space where extremes are exhibited by an overly strong sense of the formal meeting the rigidity of pure reason.  Perhaps there is a feeling that the orchestra no longer responds to the same methods, driving the conductor to tighten the reins. Personal ambition can pressure a conductor to prioritise immediate results over long-term development. Uncooperative musicians, internal conflicts, or even a lack of technical proficiency can frustrate a conductor, leading to a desire for stricter control.


The authoritarian leadership style thrives on strict adherence to the conductor's vision. Decisions are made unilaterally, with little room for input or dissent. Musicians are expected to follow instructions meticulously, often with little explanation or rationale. While this approach can lead to precise and disciplined performances, it can also stifle creativity, erode morale, and hinder individual growth. Musicians may become mere instruments in the conductor's hands, their passion replaced by rote execution.

ROMANTIC: The Charismatic Leader becomes autocratic


Charismatic leaders possess the unique ability to ignite a spark in their followers, propelling them not just towards achieving goals, but towards personal and professional growth. Transformative leadership is a style that goes beyond the transactional exchange of tasks for rewards, instead fostering a deeper connection and motivation within teams. 

So why might a leader switch styles to autocratic? This is the space where extremes are exhibited by an overly strong sense of the formal meets excess emotion. Understanding the potential reasons behind this stylistic shift is crucial. Tight deadlines, demanding audiences, or financial burdens can push a conductor towards swift execution and leave little room for collaborative exploration. There's the possibility of self-doubt. Facing a challenging piece or a technical hurdle, a conductor might resort to dictating solutions to regain control and maintain a confident facade. Personality clashes can cause friction with individual musicians. Lack of rapport with the orchestra as a whole can lead to frustration and the eventual disengagement by the players. They play, they act professionally but they don't care. They're not 'in the game'.

JAZZ: The Democratic Leader becomes overbearing

Jazz thrives on a dynamic interplay between leadership and individual expression. The ideal leader sets the stage for creativity, collaboration, and musical exploration, not micromanaging every note. The ideal style of Jazz leadership will certainly be fundamentally democratic but will also include elements of other styles such as Transformative and Servant.

What are the pressures on a band leader that might cause a change in style? This is the space where extremes are exhibited when the established order has to cope with the challenge of the unexpected.  These can be many and varied: booking losses, failing to secure gigs, or negative reviews can put immense pressure on bandleaders. In response, they might seek to exert more control, hoping to achieve a specific sound or cater to certain audience expectations. This, however, can stifle the creativity and expressiveness that drew audiences in the first place. The unspoken language of musical communication suffers, replaced by strained interactions and a constant undercurrent of tension and rebelliousness.

FREE: The Emergent Leader becomes too laissez-faire

What happens when an improvising group throws caution to the wind and embraces a hands-off approach? Isn't that what it's meant to do? Well yes, however this form of music-making demands a number of skills which include deep listening, respectful and meaningful responses, courage and a strong willingness to take risks. At the extremes, this is the space where undiluted emotional expression and unadulterated informality can easily result in chaos and confusion. Laissez-faire literally means 'unwillingness to get involved in or influence other people's activities'. This is not the stuff of deep listening or respectful responses. It almost feels a little cowardly.

While it offers the allure of boundless creativity, the self-managing improvising group carries the risk of chaos and disharmony. Without a guiding hand or shared vision, the improvisations can easily veer into unfocused meandering. 


Perversely, despite the sense of free-flow where spontaneous creation reigns supreme, the question of structure also hangs in the air. From out of the mysteries of the sheer act of creativity patterns emerge to which the musical output then becomes attached just a little too much. The improvisation ceases and becomes stuck. Unsticking it can be quite a challenge.


Whether it leads to sonic nirvana or a descent into the abyss, the journey itself promises to be a fascinating experiment in the ever-evolving world of musical improvisation. It's a path best trodden with a strong foundation of trust, communication, and musical understanding.

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