Some bands just click. When that group of musicians get together, it’s greater than the sum of their parts. When they play music, the effect can be an overwhelmingly direct feeling – a force multiplier for an emotion with each musician adding momentum. It can also be a wide open feeling, like seeing (hearing…) multiple perspectives all at once, giving an impossible birds eye view of how a moment in time feels.
A band is essentially a team, and like any team it can be successful or a failure, positive and engaging or negative and tumultuous. According to author Charles Duhigg in his book Smarter Faster Better, the outcome of a team’s efforts often largely depends on the group norms. In other words, the team’s how is significantly more important than the who. This is evident in the cast that some of the most successful and beloved bands are made up of musicians who are little better than mediocre when compared with virtuosos, while some bands made up of top-shelf musicians can’t seem to create something that feels genuine.
One of the most important group norms tends to be that individuals speak out the same amount as one another. Being heard, and also feeling like you can speak without being judged, is a key component in establishing psychological safety – the feeling that you are safe to be yourself, and safe to contribute no matter if your idea is “good” or not. Psychological safety is key to having an environment where creativity can flourish. In order to create something that is indeed more than the sum of it’s parts, all of those parts need to contribute equally. This environment is where new ideas can grow, and where that “magic” is. It’s not necessary for each band member to always speak the same amount during every decision at every rehearsal, song writing retreat or band meeting. It is necessary that when it’s averaged out however, that every member is speaking the same amount at the end of the day.
Another key norm is that the team leader listens to the team members. Furthermore, that the team leader shows genuine concern for the the individual’s well being as well as their goals for themselves. Does the leader listen attentively as someone is speaking and wait until they’re done, or do they get impatient part-way through and cut off the individual because they see a flaw in their idea? The team leader has a responsibility to set group norms by example, strengthening the team and creating psychological safety.
To make the band really work, to make the experience of hearing them play together something engaging, the above qualities should be transposed to the music. In other words, each individual should play/sing out as much as the other individual players. Their voice should be heard and the other players should listen when their bandmates play. A sense of psychological safety should be present so that the musician feels safe to play whatever it is that they are feeling.
Music is a language of emotions. I believe that a musician must be willing to feel their emotions in full in order to be really effective. Expressing our emotions can be scary business if we fear judgement. Anxiety can prevail. If we think of anxiety as the fear of future pain, and if we are in the business of expressing ourselves in a language of emotions, we need to know that it’s safe to do so. If a sense of psychological safety is not present, we tend to shut down, to edit ourselves, and to ultimately stunt our creativity.
By now you might be imagining this shiny happy group of people, always respectfully waiting their turn to speak and patting each other on the back just because they made a suggestion. This is not necessarily a fertile hotbed for creativity though. Conversely, according to Duhigg, arguing and in-fighting is common in highly productive and successful teams. Even a sense of competition can be healthy. What must prevail in those situations is still the sense that it’s safe and even essential that individual members speak up, that they aren’t made to feel shame or guilt about contributing. Then, even though big egos may champion their own ideas or people may feel passionately that somebody’s idea is a huge mistake, the flow of ideas is uninhibited, and people can feel safe to express themselves and have a sense of autonomy within the group project.