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Andrew Hodges
Category: Improvisation

Toxic Forms of Improvisation

Part of The Mastering Chaos: The Musician's Way Series of articles on how we as musicians work together as a group and what non-musicians could learn from us.  

The Mastering Chaos approach employs music improvisation methodology as a very effective lens to examine team building issues. Group free improvisation is one of the most effective ways to develop your team and your own leadership skills. To many reading this for the first time this may seem astonishing. 

This article looks at what can go wrong. It happens in musical situation. It happens in non-musical situations. What are the parallels between the two?  What can we learn from toxic musical patterns? 

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 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. As you are reading through this you might become aware of memories of situations you have experienced which you might feel the need to re-examine as a result. Sometimes things happen for which at the time you have no real explanation. You knew something wasn't right but weren't sure quite what.

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. 

To illustrate this here 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. 

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 author of this article was performing with another band at an improvisation concert. One of the other bands hadn't met up for ages and just gone on without connecting with each other. The result was exactly as described. 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. This actually happened in an improvisation session at the retreat centre we used to own in Normandy.

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.

Members of the band may eventually become aware of the above behaviours and be able to alter the start of a fresh improvisation but this doesn’t necessarily mean that the behaviour will stop.

There is one other toxic musical behaviour which is far more subtle and that is the use of the held note. 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 change the meaning of the events.

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.

How is toxic musical improvisation experienced?  

Confusion, uncertainty and doubt are the simple answers. However as you might imagine it is a little more complex than on

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