How does Success become a Source for Band Conflict?

Conflict within a band is one of the most disruptive elements that can occur. Everyone has a disagreement with someone else at some time or other; it’s something that goes hand in hand with being a human being. Usually this type of situation doesn’t have a lasting impact, because if the band members who are experiencing contention actually discuss the issue at hand most frequently the issue will be resolved through the discussion and folks get back to work. The type of conflict that does the greatest harm is ongoing and long lasting where it becomes the usual order of business. This can develop into a downright toxic relationship that affects the entire group, not just those directly involved in the conflict. It develops into a poison, which creeps through the group and eventually will result in the band’s demise due to irreconcilable differences between the sources of the conflict, and/or other band members leaving due to the unnecessary stress that has been created. It can even get to the point where replacing departing band members can be a problem because the musicians auditioning witness the conflict at hand, or sense it during the audition and want nothing to do with it. Let’s face it, who wants to work in a hostile environment?

Many bands are comprised of people who initially come together as individuals in a start up situation and end up spending quite a bit of time together, working as a group to get the project off the ground and into the club circuit. This type of situation builds a sense of comraderie, friendship, and unity that can often be seen on stage and becomes a basis for long-term relationships between the members. The start up stage of any band is actually the easiest when it comes to building and maintaining relationships because, for one thing, everyone is clearly on the same page in terms of the goals for the band. The immediate goals are simply to gather and polish enough material to get out there and start gigging. Often the members have day jobs, and place limits on what the goals entail, like gigging, say twice a month, with a once a week rehearsal schedule. The members tend to be enthusiastic, partly because it’s a new fresh experience, and also because any issues or problems are in the future. Things continue to be good as the band starts to get the one to two gigs per month they were targeting.

Some bands simply continue with this model, either because they’re only good enough to do one or two performances a month or the person booking the band only has enough time to book one or two. Booking also becomes complicated by the individual members’ schedules and attitudes toward availability. Family time takes precedence and the members are content with being occasional weekend warriors. However, some bands discover that they are actually good bands that are capable of doing more than the occasional gig, and usually what happens in this situation is that it turns out that some members are more than willing to expand beyond the one to two gigs per month format. They want to see the band grow into something closer to their inner dreams, so as the doors start opening they start saying yes to performing more often. This is fine until one digs in his or her heels about it, particularly if that individual is the front for the band.

At this point we have a classic situation where the goals that were set have been met, but now the group wants to establish a new set of goals that will take the band’s growth beyond where a member or members is/are willing to pursue. If the band member doesn’t want to lose his or part in the band but is unwilling to move forward, conflict will ensue and become an ugly situation rather quickly. If one key person within the band doesn’t want to do something, he or she can very easily disrupt whatever progress the band is making, simply by saying no to bookings. The power of a key member’s “I’m not available on that date” can be the death knell for the band’s ability to work with booking and management agencies. It is the killer of the dreams of other members and the blockage to building the momentum required to take the group to the next level. It then becomes the catalyst for conflict due to escalating frustration levels on both sides of the coin, and can readily be the cancer that kills the band.

Ultimately what should happen in these situations is that there should be open and transparent discussion about what the entire group wants to do. If the bulk of the group honestly wants to welcome the opportunities as they come, then the outlier must either concede, come up with a shared role option (such as there being two front people in the band), or accept that the situation has changed and give notice while the band searches for a replacement. Fighting growth and the natural order of things is the surest way to kill a band, and any relationships that have been established in the band. It also shows a lack of professionalism, even if you are one of the founding members of the group. When conflict escalates to the point where people start leaving the band, particularly when they aren’t even the ones creating the conflict, it not only hurts the progress made by the band, but it also damages professional as well as personal relationships. If you are the source of the conflict you are basically ensuring that the people who leave due to the conflict aren’t going to be in any hurry to work with you in the future, nor are they going to recommend you to anyone else who is in need of a replacement or sub. This is not the type of drama people want to experience in their bands, nor is it what they pay for when they go to see a band.

Dealing with Emotional Difficulties and Performance

Fear is something we all face at some point or other. Fear ranges from the subtle undercurrent of unease to light and deep levels of anxiety into absolute terror. It affects us in many ways, but more often than not is debilitating, affecting the quality of our day-to-day lives and inevitably our ability to perform. The more powerful fear becomes the more it links to our fight or flight impulse and the farther it gets from our ability to reason. It can become an obsession very quickly and monopolize our lives despite our desires for it to be otherwise.

As musicians, fear can have a disastrous effect on our performances in various ways. We’ve all experienced stage fright at some point or other with dry mouth, shaky hands, sometimes accompanied by nausea and memory slips. Usually this passes during the performance, once we get going with things, and for many of us after we gain experience performing, we find the incidences of stage fright to fade away, never or rarely to be experienced again. But that doesn’t mean that we’re no longer subject to fear and the accompanying debilitations, because we are human beings with complex lives, relationships and potential health problems. What happens in our non-performance lives does impact us holistically and crosses over into our stage lives all too frequently.

As performers we have all heard the cliché “the show must go on,” and we do our best to adhere to that maxim. As musicians we have it drilled into our heads that unless you, or someone you love has died (even then there are caveats), you’re hospitalized or otherwise incarcerated, you will still perform the gig you’ve been contracted to perform. A case in point was when my paternal grandmother died whom I loved very much. I was in college at the time pursuing my musical dreams. On the day she died my parents called to let me know and make arrangements for me to picking me up in the next day or so to go to her funeral. I had a performance that evening, and that’s what I did, perform. I was an emotional mess, filled with a sense of loss I’d never truly felt before, but I still had a job to do, and I did it to the best of my abilities. It doesn’t matter how sad you are, how afraid you are, how sick you feel, or whatever is affecting you personally, you are supposed to show and perform to the best of your abilities. There is no paid vacation, sick leave, bereavement leave, or any of the other benefits of a formal job in the corporate world. You perform, or someone else takes your job.

When you are dealing with a strong emotional influence, such as debilitating fear, it makes it extraordinarily difficult to perform at any level, particularly when you’re approaching panic levels on a regular basis. Fear is a major point of stress, so it basically boils down to stress management. First, try to step back from the emotion as much as you can so you can try to engage your logical self in the situation. Physical activity also helps, so hitting the gym, going for a run or walk, or cycling, can help put you physically in a better place through getting the endorphins pumping. Meditation helps many people settle into a more peaceful state. Making lists of things that need to be done and then getting busy working on them helps too. In other words, try to occupy your mind and your body as much as you can. It will yield benefits that help to counteract whatever is having the negative influence on your emotional well-being.

The most important thing to do is take care of yourself and your relationships. If you do so then ultimately the primary sources for stress will be maintained to the best of your abilities, thus lowering the potential for stress. There will always be the unexpected to deal with, from mild to catastrophic, but if you are taking care of your business, health (both mental and physical), and working toward your goals, then chances are you’re going to be hitting more in the way of bumps in the road than downed bridges.

Instrument Maintenance: What do I NEED to Know?

Instrument maintenance is something musicians deal with throughout their careers, some more directly than others. For guitarists this, at a minimum, means being able to perform the most basic of basics, string changing, tuning, and cleaning the instrument periodically. Many stick to these basic requirements and farm out any other work that is required to people who specialize in instrument repair, either due to convenience, a firm belief that they can’t acquire the skills needed, or fear that they will irreparably damage their cherished instrument. If you are a dedicated player, however, the benefits of being able to do basic to intermediate level work on your instrument can yield many positives, not the least of which is the effect it has on your wallet. Today it is fairly easy to access information on how to set your intonation, adjust your truss rod, change pickups and various other relatively easy repairs and modification work you might desire to do yourself.

The first step in any of this is to do your research, whether it’s through browsing the internet, reading, or watching instructional videos. Along with the venerable YouTube information, companies like Stewart-MacDonald offer instructional videos and books for purchase on virtually any level of building or repair work you could desire along with a wealth of tools and supplies that provide virtually everything you need to do whatever level of work you desire. By far, from my own personal experience, the easiest approach to most of this is with an electric guitar. Acoustic instruments generally require a higher skill set and are not as user friendly, nor as forgiving for the novice.

It is very important to due your research before you start tinkering, so you have a solid understanding, at least intellectually, of what you are undertaking and how it relates to your current state of handiness. Doing your research will give you an understanding of both what is required from you physically, and what you will need to do the repair or modification. There will be tools that you need to do the work, and having the correct tool for the job is a need, not a luxury. Purchasing tools to do this type of work is a worthwhile investment, because once you start down this road and gain confidence, chances are you will continue to do your own work as long as you continue working as a musician. When you have what you need to do the work, start and take it slowly, following the steps carefully and referring back to your instructions as you go.

Many of us have friends or know people who already possess these skills and wouldn’t mind helping us learn to do these things. There are also places that offer workshops and instruction on doing instrument repair/building, if you’re willing to shell out the cash and make the investment. I worked at a music store for a couple years where my boss, the owner, Nick Bucci, was a luthier who built and repaired instruments on site. I benefitted greatly from being able to watch what he did, and then applying what I learned from him to instruments, mostly mine until my skills got to the point where I could do some work on other folks’ instruments. To this day I’m thankful for what I learned from Nick. While, since then, I’ve built some instruments from the ground up, through the process of this I’ve learned my limits in terms of what I’ll do myself and what I’ll farm out if the need arises. It does get to the point where you’ve got to decided whether you want to spend your time playing the instrument or building them – both skill sets require the same things, essentially practice and time.

Once you learn how, doing set up work on your electric instrument becomes a fairly simple process, and changing pickups in and out becomes a matter of budgeting the time to do so. If you find that you have an interest in learning how to do these things, then don’t be afraid. Start to do your research on what it is you want to do, and then have at it! As long as you are careful about it, keep in mind that most of what you don’t do right can be fixed. Some things are more finicky than others, for instance over-tightening a truss rod can potentially result in a major repair being required (actually witnessed an experienced repairman snapping one which was ugly), so remember to go slowly and don’t force anything! Anyway you look at it, doing your research, even if you decide to still hire someone else to do the work you need done, is going to reap benefits. When you understand how your instrument works on a deeper level, your understanding of what needs to be done and why can give you a better relationship with the person who ends up doing the work, and help you select who does the work required.

Time, the Structure of Our Lives and Our Art

Time is a funny thing. Human beings have a great need to understand things and a great deal of our ability to understand rests in the ability to categorize, building upon what we’ve encountered in the past through experience or education, and relating the new to what we’ve already learned in order to build connections which lead to further knowledge. Time is one of these ways that we add structure to what might appear to be a structure less existence. While we generally don’t question the reality of time, an argument could be made that we created it in order to help us understand the relationship between occurrences that happened in the past and those happening now or in the future. It provided another means of measurement, and it’s one that we employ probably more than any other consciously.

Musically we use time to structure phrasing and, of course, rhythm. It is so important to what we do musically that there is even a basic tenant that states people will notice mistakes in rhythm more readily than wrong notes, and for the most part I would have to agree. It’s also more aggravating for the players in some ways, because a wrong note doesn’t always affect more than one player. An incorrect rhythm can bring down the entire group. We train ourselves to have solid senses of time, and pride ourselves on our abilities to maintain a solid sense of time. We know the effects of playing a piece too fast and the impact it has on the sense of the song, and we also know the pitfalls of playing it too slowly and potentially losing the sense of life within the piece itself.

Drummers in bands often get the blame if the group slows down or speeds up, despite the fact that we are all trained to use our ears and react to what is happening around us. Many musicians view it as the drummer’s job to enforce time keeping, and if the drummer fails to do so they find another drummer. However, it is truly every musician’s job to deal with time, learn it, adhere to it, and work together to maintain it. If a band member has a bad sense of time, there is only so much the rest of the group can do to bring that individual into line with the majority and often the individual with a bad sense of time brings down the group. I’ve actually seen situations where a drummer with an excellent sense of time and its application was let go from the band and replaced because the drummer couldn’t force the players with poor sense of time to adhere to the time standards. How’s that for screwed up! Getting fired for someone else’s’ shortcomings happens in every type of job, but this type of thing is almost perverse.

Most bands do rely heavily upon the rhythm section, primarily the bassist and drummer, to enforce time keeping, but their jobs are also to be musical as opposed to being metronomes. Learning to keep time and to play rhythms accurately is every musician’s responsibility; it’s one of the foundations that music is actually built upon, but often one that is the least practiced. There has been an entire industry within music devoted specifically toward creating teaching devices that are designed to assist in building this inner sense of time, those companies that build and market metronomes and rhythm machines. These devices, when they are used and used properly, do assist in building a solid sense of time and are well worth the investment. They also don’t lie, so there’s no one to blame but oneself when what is being played doesn’t match the pattern. There are many players who try metronomes, get frustrated and quit using them, resolving that it doesn’t work for them and they don’t need to use them. These are the players who are going to be dragging the rhythm section, and creating rhythmic issues within the band, no matter how solid the rhythm section is.

To a certain extent we created time in order to apply measurable order in the chaos that is our existence. It allows us to understand cause and effect more firmly because it gives a relationship that spans more than the immediate moment. How we understand our world relies heavily on structure, categorization, and relationships between things, events, and people. Time affects every facet of our existence in same way, shape or form. As musicians, time is a vital foundation of our art; without it we are lost in a sea of notes without structure, order and sense, at the extreme tumbling down into a cacophony that is nothing more than noise and disorder. Make peace with your metronome, and practice, practice, practice.

One Band or Several: How much work can you handle?

There was a time when one could be a regularly working musician and play with one band. Sometimes this is still the case, but those situations are pretty rare these days. Many weekend warriors still adhere to the one band mantra for various reasons, not the least of which is time available to devote to the band. It does simplify the issue in terms of booking and juggling set lists and scheduling. Booking alone can be a source of angst even when dealing with players who are dedicated to one band. If the band consists of five people, then that’s five families’ worth of scheduling as well as day-job complications. When you add factors like limiting the number of gigs per month to two due to spousal peace keeping it builds in heavy frustrations for whomever is booking the band.

Today, most musicians who are steadily working do so by performing with multiple groups. They prioritize simply by the order in which the gigs come in: whichever band books the date first gets the player. This can complicate the lives of the members of the other bands, unless there is a web of potential subs available, which is often the case when the bands themselves are built with a core of working musicians. They know the score and book the gigs relying upon subs to fill gaps as needed which feeds other folks’ gig bookings through being able to fill in when group members are gigging with other bands.

Gigging with and being a member of multiple bands can be quite rewarding not only from a wallet perspective. It can also create a very healthy amount of variety into the mix. Often the different bands have different focuses and might fit very different niches. What you do is only limited by the amount of time you have available to dedicate to the repertoire, and your ability to fulfill your role in the different genres. It’s not unusual to play in an R&B band one night, a Blues band, another, maybe an original band in the mix, and possibly an Alt Rock band or Variety dance band as well. The important thing to keep in mind is that when you agree to do these things you need to follow through and do them to the best of your abilities. Don’t spread yourself too thin! That being said, doing work of this sort builds valuable repertoire that sometimes can carry over into any pick up work you might do as well.

Along with variety and increasing the odds of better stuff to be found in your wallet, playing with several bands increases your visibility as a player as well. If you do your job in all of the bands, do it well, and are easy to work with, the word will get out and you’ll find your phone ringing for sub work as well on your off nights. People need players that they can count on to deliver the goods and the word does get around the more you do. This can also lead to bigger and better things in the form of offers from more well known acts that need players, to even a national level if you’ve been diligent enough. The only way to open that door is to get out there and build a positive reputation. Granted, there are no guarantees, but a large part of having good luck is opening the door for it through hard work and proving your reliability regardless of the circumstances.

The important thing to remember in all of this is to know your limits. Any time you join another band there is going to be time required in the woodshed working up tunes you’re not familiar with. Make sure you understand what is expected of you and be as transparent as possible about your involvement with other groups. If you don’t have time to do the woodshedding, then you really shouldn’t take the gig. Many bands have rehearsal expectations in addition to the gigging requirements, so be up front with everyone about what you’re willing and able to do. If it’s not going to work, then accept that and either look for another opportunity elsewhere or if something you’d really like to do, carefully take a realistic look at what your other commitments are before you make the decision.   What you can handle in an all-pro manner should be your guideline.

If what you want is to stick with one band, then there’s nothing wrong with that. Many people happily go about their lives that way, finding the one group and whatever gigs that come or don’t come from it enough to satisfy their need to perform and make music. Often much of the local music scenes are made up of individual groups that don’t stray into polygamous musical entanglements, and those groups tend to make it very clear when they’re looking for replacement band members that they don’t want “jobbers,” musicians who perform for a living. They associate this with difficult schedules that don’t allow for a regular weekly commitment to rehearsing and complications when it comes to booking the band. Whichever way you choose to do it, whether it’s the multiple band scenario or the one and only, transparency on your part and a personal commitment to do all of the work required are absolute necessities.

Disconnectedness: I’ve Done this 100 Times Before so Why Can’t I Today?

Some days things just don’t work. No matter how hard you try, nor how many times you approach the issue, it’s just a doomed scenario from the start. We all experience those days where there’s a disconnect, whether it’s mental, emotional, physical, or even some combination of all of the above. It happens during performances, rehearsals, and practice sessions; nothing is sacred when it comes to the disconnected moment. I even had a moment once, where I was about to start playing a gig and I had forgotten how to play. For a brief moment it was like someone had pushed the reset button on my brain and all knowledge about the instrument had been wiped clean. It was quite brief; then I felt an almost physical snap inside my brain and it was back almost like a fuse had been reset. Not fun, but it worked out. Thankfully that was a matter of seconds, but the point is sometimes for whatever reason beyond our understanding, things don’t just work. So what do we do as musicians to deal with this?

One way we work through this issue is simply going through the motions. If we’re on a gig, we play the notes, work through the night and are thankful when our instruments go back into the gigbags and cases, chalking the night up as water under the bridge that we’d rather forget about. When it’s a rehearsal, it usually results in apologies to bandmates for underperforming, but can also lead to an evening or afternoon of uneasy conflict because several folks are having the same issue and frustration levels start to rise and spill outward. But we keep plugging away and chasing a brief moment of focus so we can salvage something from the rehearsal. The same goes for our individual practice sessions. We simply keep slogging forward, figuring that if we go through the motions we’ll at least reap the benefits of putting in the time.

Another way we deal with it, when we have the luxury, is to simply pack it in for the day, figuring that since it appears that it’s not in the cards for today we might as well refocus our energies elsewhere where we might feel like we’re making some progress. This can be advantageous in some situations such as a practice session where you’re making mistakes repeatedly in passages that are normally not an issue. Stopping prevents remapping these passages into future problems through a steady stream of negative reinforcement, essentially learning the mistakes and memorizing them to be drawn upon at a later date to our increased frustration. Sometimes we accept the pattern for the day, and instead of packing it in immediately, we run through things just to keep the fingers moving, at least. This is often the case with the rehearsal situation as well with the end result being a shorter rehearsal than scheduled but everyone just sighing and figuring the next rehearsal will be more productive.

The worst thing we do in these situations is start to rail at ourselves because for one thing it simply makes the situation worse. Getting angry compounds the inner resistance to the flow of musicality and assists in throwing up walls preventing progress. It also has the tendency to carry the issue further along the time line, effectively lengthening how much time is devoted to the affliction. Anger also has the tendency to spread the negative vibe to your bandmates who have all experienced the same thing, shifting their empathy to resentment of you’re being an ass on top of being disconnected. This is particularly a nasty way to deal with it when on a gig because the disconnect is now being broadcast to everyone in a massive flow of negative hostile energy. What went from a quiet personal issue is now everyone else’s and nobody wants that.

Whatever way we choose to deal with our bouts of disconnectedness, we need to ensure that we accept them for what they are, temporary setbacks that everyone experiences. Usually they are short experiences that disappear the next day. Sometimes they last for longer periods and can be linked to other issues we’re experiencing that are messing with our subconscious trains of thought, upsetting our inner balance and causing us to be preoccupied with other things than the immediate moment. No matter what it is that is fueling the experience, empathy helps. Don’t be afraid to extend that empathy to yourself. Allow yourself the understanding you would extend to others, and remember, tomorrow is definitely another day.