by Gregg Raybin
Every month, I do a fair amount of counseling and conflict resolution with recreational musicians, and it always comes down to this axiom: If you aren’t having fun making music, you’re doing something wrong. It’s a bit tongue in cheek—certainly there’s hard work, bruised egos, and occasional tears involved with any group musical activity. But the core truth remains: If you’re not doing it for fame or wealth, you should at least be having fun. So I use this mantra to get people thinking about what makes music so enjoyable for them. And I get many different responses: The challenge of executing complex material, camaraderie, the thrill of performing on stage for others, and the respect earned from peers, family, and friends. If they’re hoping for groupies, I tell them to forget it and just be happy if they have fans.
When someone tells me that they’re no longer having fun making music, I try to analyze it much like any other relationship. Since we’re operating on the assumption that recreational music making = fun, the next step is to take a look at the impediments to that process, as they are many. Among them are: infrequent/irregular rehearsal, irresponsible bandmates (late, absent, unprepared), an uninspiring repertoire, work/family objections, disagreement over direction/focus, and the many issues arising from the organizational structure (or lack thereof) of the group (See my previous article, “Rock ‘n’ Role Play” in November/December 2006 Making Music).
Once you’ve reaffirmed why you love making music, and identified the impasse(s), you’re ready to take action. External problems (those not involving anyone in the band) are simple, if not exactly easy to resolve. Make sure you address the other party’s (nonmusical) needs. For example, it should come as no surprise to one’s spouse how much we love making music, but if you put it in terms of how much it means to your mental well-being, negotiating the number of hours you play becomes much easier. I once assumed that I’d have lots of spouses angry at me for helping their other halves make music, but the opposite is true: They thank me for sending someone home who’s much more pleasant and well-adjusted.
When the source of your displeasure is within your group, things get trickier. You can change yourself, but you often can’t change others—so you’ll first have to decide if the situation is salvageable. Even if it seems inevitable that you’ll be parting ways with your band, I caution everyone to have a little open- minded, heart-to-heart dialogue with at least one other member of the group. Why? Because you’ll often be surprised that they’re harboring similar sentiments, and are eager to fix things. On many occasions, I’ve seen a simple change in musical direction completely re-engage and re-energize a band. And even if it doesn’t resolve anything, giving your peers a fair explanation and a chance to be heard shows a maturity on your part, and usually defuses some of the tension and resentment.
But maybe it’s not so easy—as in the case where someone (or everyone) is not keeping up technically, and no amount of practice or lessons is going to rectify the situation anytime soon. I’d spare their feelings by emphasizing that positive things that have come out of being in the group, but also make it clear that you need a change—that you want to try a new project with new people. It’s honest, takes responsibility, and avoids detailing anyone else’s flaws. Keep the door open, even if it’s unrealistic that you’ll regroup—you may be surprised a few months/years later when your feelings change and you pine for a reunion. Even if there doesn’t seem to be a possibility for progress/reconciliation/healing, you’re still better off letting your Bebop-leaning comrades know that you’d really rather be in a Kiss tribute. They may resent you in the short run, but they will eventually come to realize that having an unhappy camper in the group is bad for everyone. And when they see you having fun in the future, they won’t hold it against you. They’re musicians; they’ll understand.
Gregg Raybin is director of New York City’s Recreational Music Center The Jam NYC (www.thejamnyc.com).