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why playing music in a group can be so great when it’s good and so wretched when it’s bad

On October 4th covering , , , ,

This is the heart of why I’m doing this blog and all the other things you’ll see if you look around my site. (This post is inspired by Merlin Mann’s great talk on how to blog. )

I was a musician before I was a psychologist — low on the food chain and too much of a generalist (ahem, dilettante) to compete at a satisfying level in either the hard-core classical world or the jazz/ studio world.

I got to play in garage bands, jazz ensembles large and small, orchestras, chamber groups, new-music ensembles, early-music ensembles, theatre orchestras and a bunch of ad-hoc groups and gigs. They all had one thing in common. When they were going well, it felt unbelievably great. But every group could devolve at any time into sheer misery, a big soul-destroying bowl of suck.

Sometimes it would be clear why – somebody was being a jerk, somebody was obnoxiously bad, there was no direction. Rehearsals would halt while people had to fight over who was boss. Or something would happen so that the musicians would make that invisible shift from putting their hearts into it to a resigned do-the-gig-and-get-paid attitude.

Other times it would be a big confusing morass, a sickening sticky mass of loathing, frustration, hatred, boredom and despair with a touch of the flu thrown in. It could feel so bad it was hard to think about why it was so bad. Really, really impressively unpleasant.

You can see some of this in the Metallica movie Some Kind of Monster, as well as the movie about the Guarneri String Quartet, High Fidelity. It transcends genre. It’s almost embarrassing seeing these gifted individuals thrashing around like wounded animals.

I have been considering this as a serious question. What makes music groups feel so good and so bad? The how bad is certainly linked to the how good. Being in close synchrony with others is powerful. When a group is playing well together, there is a joyous feeling of unity, being part of a larger whole instead of a lonely individual. The awareness of one’s pitiful individual ego can nearly disappear. When the unity is interrupted, it feels like an intrusion, an insult, like being dumped out of a loving embrace onto the side of a highway.

Looking at it this way, the overall irritability in music groups makes sense.

I’ve been a psychologist for 20 years now and I finally feel able to understand some of these things and put them into words. I finally have the skill and understanding to seriously help groups work together without so much misery and destruction.

It’s important, because music is important. It is tragic when a group has the passion and talent to do something wonderful and they never get to because they can’t get along. I have found that other kinds of creative collaborations have a lot to learn from music groups. This is why I also talk about tech startups and so forth.

So I’m writing to sort out what I know and what I want to know, to reach others who are interested in the same thing and help musicians and other interesting people succeed, thrive and make wonderful things.

If you’re interested, leave me a comment or a note. And stay tuned.

One Response

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Oct 4 at 15:48


Thanks for the insight. It helps to explain the depth of emotion that we feel when a band breaks up.

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