Music as a System: Leading a Band


Last time on Music as a System, former president Dubyah examined band rapport and its importance in establishing and maintaining a musical career, or even just a positive presence within a music community. He compared the necessity for good rapport between bands and fans with his own experience as an educator relating to students in a fascinating discourse that can be viewed here.

To continue with the established theme, I offer here a comparison of my own experiences as a band leader with my weekend job: working with teenagers.

I’ve played in too many bands to count, mostly as a drummer. I’ve also done some gigs playing guitar or bass, and, on occasion, have provided vocals. Stylistically I usually play metal or rock, but I’ve worked with jazz groups, and even played in a funk band for several years. Never have I achieved any kind of commercial success or recognition outside of my home town, but I have enjoyed a rich and diverse musical experience.

Within the bands themselves I have performed a variety of roles, from sole band leader to simple fill-in session drummer, and anything else in between. All roles are important and enjoyable, but being the type of person that I am, I always find myself gravitating towards the leadership end of the spectrum — especially if I spend enough time with a group.

Almost two years ago I started working as a youth leader with a small group of teenagers, aged 12 – 17. It’s had its share of ups and downs, but I love the work enough that dealing with any issues that arise (and they do; trying to get parents to let their kids do things is like pulling teeth) doesn’t deter me from wanting to put in the time and effort to make the kids’ experience the best it can be.

Through my work as a youth leader I’ve learned a lot about dealing with people, and began to realize that, almost subconsciously, I was applying this knowledge to band situations, and it was working. Musicians and teenagers are very similar in many ways, and as the parallels between my youth work and my band began to become apparent to me, so did the advantages of approaching the situations similarly. Of course, not everything I’ve learned and done will be applicable to every band situation, but I will outline here a few of what I feel are the more important and universal points.

1. Musicians are like teenagers: They’re emotional, fragile, delicate little humans who aren’t sure of their place in the world, and they take things too personally. Musicians are presenting their work, their dedication, their art, to the world, and that’s a scary thing. A rejection of that art is a rejection of them as people. In the same way, teenagers are trying to figure out how to present themselves to the world so that they avoid rejection (everyone knows how scary it was to be the kid with no friends, whether it was for a day or for 12 years) and secure their popularity. Both groups of people are figuring out, essentially on a trial and error basis, what other people like and don’t like about them. Some people are better than others at dealing with negative response, but the effects still run deep.

“You have 80 years or so, maybe less, maybe more, to try and make some kind of sense of this random gift of life—this strange, cruel blip in time that is your life, your ego and your consciousness. Many years ago, I wrote an album called Signify for Porcupine Tree. The whole idea was to look at the ways we try to create some significance for our own life. So, even in my 20s, I was obsessed with that—the idea of making some kind of mark.” – Steven Wilson

Why is this meaningful? Knowing that a person or a group of people have a difficult time dealing with criticism allows you to explore avenues of communication that will draw out the best in them. Oft times people have been too much on the receiving end of negative comments or feedback, and are disinclined to present what might be a great idea or riff for fear of immediate, hurtful rejection. Teenagers and musicians, in my experience, want to be treated like they’re adults. They want the freedom to explore things they enjoy or find cool, and to know that someone else is willing to explore it with them and provide positive encouragement along the way. This is crucial when writing music. Being a good band leader means letting go of the control and encouraging your bandmates to contribute as much as possible. Having multiple voices contributing to the writing process means your music stays fresh and alive, and most times I’ve found that my bandmates write much better parts than I do. I now mostly act as a director, piecing together parts and guiding the music to become a song, which brings me to my next point.

2. These people need direction: That’s why you’re there. The kids in my youth group are bright, creative, energetic, fun, and funny, but they’re unsure of what they want to do with their lives. They don’t know enough about life and the world to be able to look at their situations and know how to deal with them — they simply lack the wisdom that comes with age and experience. While they could eventually figure it out on their own, having someone in their lives who can give them advice, guidance, and a push in the right direction every now and then can save them from a world of hurt and trouble. The same is true in a band setting. Musicians are often bright, creative people who produce a never-ending flow of music. However, unless they’re able to take a step back and critically analyze their own music, they often end up with a song that feels like a jumbled, directionless, mess of riffs. Individually, the riffs might have sounded cool, but in the context of a song the listener has great difficulty knowing what to grab onto. Sometimes this is deliberate (and can be quite effective), but it often feels accidental. Case in point:

I know I don’t have to try too hard to have everyone hate on Periphery, but compare that track to this one:

It’s like night and day. One is a mess of riffs, screaming, and general unfocused wankery, and the other one is a catchy, well written single. Hate the band if you will, but you can’t deny that the second tune is a much better song than the first.

Why is this meaningful? Being able to be the person who can step back and tell their bandmates, for example, “no, that part doesn’t work,” or, “can you play the same rhythm with less notes?” is indispensable. Musicians, much like teenagers, don’t have the experience to know when simplicity is best. You don’t often have to tell someone to make a part more complicated, but time and time again you’ll have to force someone to simplify a part, because it doesn’t make sense in the context of the music. There’s a time and place for complexity in music, and it’s not all the time. As a leader, you have to know when to make those calls; you need to be able to see the bigger picture, the vision of the song, and make the sacrifices necessary to bring that vision to fruition. Of course, most musicians are like teenagers (as I’ve noted), and so such control over their music (which they take very personally, of course) can be met with sadness, rejection, or even hostility. That’s why as a leader you need to inspire confidence and trust, as I will explore in my final point:

3. You need to create a safe place: People won’t listen to you criticize them if they don’t trust you. Teenagers will often distrust adults because they see them as being the enemy: people who treat them like kids and not like equals. We all remember how infuriating being patronized is, and dealing with band members is no different. If you do nothing but criticize and control and ignore everything I’ve said in the first point about allowing creative freedom, your band members won’t listen to your direction.

“I was feeling part of the scenery; I walked right of the machinery.” 

Why is this meaningful? Obviously, if your band members don’t trust you as a leader, you’re not going to be doing any kind of meaningful leading, regardless of how clear your vision is. You need to convey to your fellow musicians that their ideas are quality — they simply lack refinement. We’ve all seen bands whose members change on the regular due to control issues. It gets harder and harder to believe that the bands are the same each time old members leave and new members join, until you end up with a situation where none of the original band remains. It’s disappointing to see it happen to an established band; it’s impossible to keep up on an informal level. Local bands couldn’t survive constant lineup changes; eventually you’ll have tapped the entirety of people who ever wanted to be a part of your group. Creating a safe space for your band circumnavigates the entire issue. If your band members feel comfortable showing you a riff, you’ve successfully applied the first point. If you’re able to critique that riff in the context of a song without making the same member angry, you’ve successfully applied the second point. But nobody is going to show you a riff or a song, much less let you critique it, if you haven’t created that safe space.

So what do you think? Every situation is different, and you need to have the discernment to know how to approach your own, but I think the points I’ve outlined here are broad enough that anyone can apply the concepts to their unique circumstances. Is there anyone else with anything to add to being an effective band leader? Anyone who’s experienced anything different? These are my thoughts; what are yours?


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