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And When It's All Going So Badly...

Updated: Nov 12, 2023


Let’s be clear. This article will be upsetting for some. The scope of this article is very much the far end of the leadership spectrum. This is where Autocratic leadership of any group, whatever its purpose, becomes toxic. It is important, despite how distasteful the subject, to be aware of this domain which lies far off the end of what would be considered a ‘normal’ leadership style. To illustrate this below are examples of human patterns of musical behaviour which might at best be described as unhelpful. I have chosen to discuss musical improvisation in this article largely because it reveals the issues so readily. Improvisation, everyone will recognise, is about ‘making stuff up’. Musical improvisation can be a beautiful thing. This almost goes without saying. But even in the music domain it is possible to have toxic events occur.

There are considerable parallels between how humans in groups work together (or not) and the way in which musicians interact. In fact it is possible to employ models of music group interaction to act as a means of examing how humans interact beyond the field of music. In this article be aware that you can be reading about a musical interaction whilst thinking about that same kind of behaviour in a non-musical group in which you might be involved with in some way.

These situations are often confusing and can be difficult to handle. Musicians are alert to these feelings because when they occur in music they are a little more obvious than in the non-musical group situation. The first part of the process of healing is to be able to sense what is going on and be able to investigate carefully what the grounds might be for any necessary action.

As you are reading through this you might become aware of memories of situations which didn't feel right to you in some way. You knew something was wrong but weren't quite sure what.

Most people aren't intentionally toxic. The causes of the behaviour can be related to insecurity, lack of knowledge or a non-work related matter which may not be explicitly known. If the cause of the weakness can be found then it is often a matter of finding the right training course for someone. In other cases it might simply be a matter of acknowledging a 'home difficulty'. Very occasionally someone might need to be moved out or moved on.

In music, sometimes the improvisation can seem stuck. It can become entrained with everyone holding a texture or a rhythm afraid to move off. They may fear that expressing themselves in these circumstances can be too challenging. Those of us that might want to find a way out are afraid to upset the status quo. We feel trapped in the ‘groupthink’. It’s almost like speaking out and saying “you’re all wrong”; echoes of the Emperor’s New Clothes.

Improvising groups stop listening to each other. They are so focused on their own sound that they lose connection with each other. This situation often occurs when some of the individuals in the group arrive with their minds almost ‘elsewhere’. A kind of ‘loosening up’ time is required before the real music starts. Sometimes someone in the group needs to remind them of this before getting started. What happens here usually results in a kind of musical ‘shouting’. Each wants to be heard but no-one’s listening. The collective consciousness of the group, the team doesn't materialise. A few players feel overpowered by what’s happening. Others stand by rather hopefully but not knowing how to get in. A couple of others will sit passively waiting. Moments later the ones who haven’t yet played might join in. The improvisation becomes a game of assertive persuasion. The loudest wins? That’s not a good outcome. It might reflect where they were emotionally but it certainly wasn’t the right place to start. If they recognise this they can adjust. Beyond the field of music it’s easy to bring to mind meetings you may have experienced with similar outcomes.

Then there is the beater of the solitary rhythm. This is usually exactly the same pattern repeated ad nauseum. No-one can escape its grip. Often behind the drum beat is anger, frustration or insecurity and a blind need to impose on the group regardless. The solitary drummer who beats out a repetitive rhythm can capture the entire musical space. In effect this is the musical bully. The perpetrator isn’t necessarily intending to bully but that is how the other members of the group experience the behaviour and that’s how they feel forced to react. Repetitive rhythms are powerful. They can be difficult to break away from and can occasionally become a real imposition. The others feel completely trapped. Undoing it requires considerable strength of purpose and assertiveness. The experience is ultimately disrespectful of the others and their value.

It’s hard to imagine that anyone in a musical improvisation can ‘ridicule’ someone but it is possible. The simple act of imitation will do it under certain circumstances. Again it forms itself into a pattern. The victim can’t get away from the sheer stupidity of the response. Imitation can often be quite subtle. One interchange on its own is nothing. It is the repetition which nauseates. As in the case of the holding note (see below) it’s like you are being held or even pinned down. Ultimately it can act like a strangle hold.

Someone at some point sets an uncomfortable tone. In musical behaviour this is far more subtle and can appear as the use of a held note or the imposition of a set of notes that subtly change the mood.. Holding a note firmly anchors a piece to a given tonality. It can be a very useful device musically. It can be used to change the musical landscape. Say, for example, an improvisation has settled into something akin to an uplifting major key. For those of you with some musical knowledge will know that F major has one flat in its key signature. The piece can settle into the tonality of F quite easily.

​However anyone with a sustaining instrument can introduce a held D. This subtly alters the mood as it begins to offer us a feeling of D minor which still has one flat but invokes a kind of darkness. This mood is easily sustained by holding the note and the group in its grip. In many ways this is akin to what happens in the black and white movie “Gaslight”. The other players continue doing what they’re doing but the lights dim just a little with the introduction of that subtle D. So in effect by altering things slightly the perpetrator can effectively change the meaning of events which in other circumstances would feel quite different.

What we notice in all of these behaviours is their repetitiveness and their pattern. The behaviours themselves are often quite acceptable. It is the way they are employed which enables control. The equivalent of the held note in the non-musical is even more subtle. Have you ever had the experience of someone walking into a meeting and the timbre or tone of the meeting suddenly dropping? It may be that you notice a shift in the room but not necessarily notice the cause. Nothing need necessarily have changed in the participant behaviour but nevertheless something about the quality has changed. The negative tone manifests in the room and its not good. The positive energy shifts almost inexplicably towards discomfort. ​It may be that there isn’t the intention to upset or disturb the other members of the group but nevertheless it is experienced as such.

Musical toxic patterns and their relationship to other forms of human behaviour

​How is toxic behaviour, be it musical or not, experienced? Confusion, uncertainty and doubt are the simple answers. However as you might imagine it is a little more complex than this. Many of the behaviours so far described aren’t in-and-of-themselves dangerous. Equally they can be enacted without malicious intent even if the experience is perceived as unpleasant. The experience can still feel controlling and manipulative, and certainly isn’t ultimately healthy.

In non-musical situations, toxicity at its most extreme can take the form of coercive control. Coercive control is a form of abusive behaviour that involves a pattern of behaviour that seeks to control and manipulate others. It can include a range of behaviours that can result in such as feelings of isolation, monitoring their movements, and controlling their finances. It is often spoken of as applying only in domestic situations but it can occur in other circumstances too, such as at work and in the community.

The relationship between the perpetrator’s behaviours and manipulation is complex and not fully understood. However, it is clear that patterns of behaviour are capable of being used as tools of manipulation and control. The behaviours on their own are often minor. In many ways though, they are experienced as ‘below the radar’. It doesn't mean that they can be ignored.​ A suspicion can emerge of the existence of being controlled. We musicians sense when something isn’t right well before we work out what’s gone wrong. In sensing it, our attention is drawn to the patterns which underlie the interaction. There is a correlation between the way we sense these patterns musically and the way we might sense them non-musically. Unfortunately in the non-musical situation we can tend to be less tuned in. It is important however to realise that we can sense this wisdom even if we can't work out what's actually happening.

Confusion, uncertainty and doubt might be the first thing which is experienced. Sometimes we experience this hours or even days later. These feelings are powerful clues and should not be ignored. As has already been mentioned there may be a pattern of activity that can emerge. It might not be obvious but it will be there. Improvisation, like life, has form and structure even if on the surface it seems to be a mess. Humans like to repeat things, especially if they are getting some kind of gratification. This applies as much to the coercive controllers of this world as it does to the many of us who want wholesome, fruitful outcomes. The perpetrator is often driven to repeat the behaviours because they never achieve a true sense of satisfaction. They never get a sense of being heard and so are forced to repeat their incessant behaviour. So the pattern emerges from the need to repeat.

For the recipient the feelings are the same both musically and non-musically. This is the start of recognising that something is going on which needs investigation. Is there a pattern? There will be something somewhere. Don’t ignore the small things. They may on their own do no damage but the hurt is through the repetition. When do these events occur? What stimulates them? How do you feel when they occur? Good or not so good?

Humans are creatures of habit but most of the time our habitual patterns are invisible to both the giver and the receiver. It is often difficult in most human interactions to expose and name the drama. However the extra-musical feelings and their patterns are very similar to those in live musical creativity. If something doesn't feel right then pay attention. You could be right. Then look for the pattern or the rhythm. Sense the change in the tone of the room. When does it occur? How often? You might want to discuss this with another trusted party to help establish the validity of your perceptions. Who then might be the best person to approach the individual concerned? Remember too that one option can be the power of the group, This is powerful however this can be difficult to facilitate so use this approach with caution. One has to be cautious in these matters but doing nothing at all isn't really an option. Often the group knows that something is wrong and maybe even knows who is responsible. Leaving the issue to fester sends a very bad message to everyone in the team and in no way supports a sense of good, healthy values within the team.

Once the matter is in the open it's then a matter of devising some form of remedial action.

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