How do I take the first step to resolving a conflict in my band?
March 18, 2015 10:51 AM   Subscribe

I've been playing music with four others, and I communicate well with all of them, except one. It's getting to the point where I'm stressing about it, feeling apprehensive and sad, and ultimately walking on eggshells around the guy. I want things to get better, but I'm concerned our difficulties communicating on a day-to-day basis will be an obstacle in actually starting a conversation about how to improve things between us.

Darren (not his real name) is a few years older than I am (we're both in our thirties), and he's got much more musical experience than me, not to mention raw talent. On the other hand, he doesn't have any formal training or book-learning musical know-how, and I have just enough of that to be dangerous. (We're talking high school band plus a couple of university courses. Just the fundamentals.) We've had difficulties communicating about basic things - for instance, the difference between a verse and chorus, or the difference between a beat and a bar. I don't hold it against him, but he seems sensitive about it. I feel like Darren gets defensive when these sort of misunderstandings arise, which sabotages any efforts to establish a common language. I feel like he thinks that such efforts are some kind of ego exercise for me, like I'm attempting to position myself as superior to him. That's not where I'm coming from at all, though.

Last practice things came to closer to the breaking point. Darren and the guitarist were talking about tempo, and I realized that Darren had misunderstood what the guitarist was trying to say. I noticed this and I asked if I could "bridge the gap" in communication that was occurring. Darren shut me down and claimed there was no such gap without even giving me an opportunity to explain that, in fact, they were not on the same page. (As an observer, it was plain as day that Darren was not responding to the question that the guitarist had asked.)

It's getting to the point where I feel uncomfortable even trying to talk about musical things with Darren, which is unsustainable, considering we're making music together. We're going on tour in a few months and I want to sort this out before it becomes a major problem, and I'd like to do it outside of practice, and away from the other members of the band, because it's ultimately an issue between Darren and I. At first I felt like the cause of the problem was that I was doing a poor job of communicating, but after walking on eggshells and being delicate for awhile, I now feel like Darren is being straight-up unfair to me.

I'm completely willing to own up to my role in the ongoing communication troubles, but I really don't know what I could be doing differently, except to avoid having to communicate with Darren at all. I'm considerate and empathetic to a fault, and I truly want what's best for the group, not for me. I'm engaging with the group in good faith and none of my actions in the group context are for the sake of my self-importance. Either that, or I lack the self-awareness to recognize that the truth is different. I'll entertain any possibility at this point, even if it involves utter self-abasement.

I feel like the only hope we have is to talk it out. I'd like to arrange a sit-down with Darren, maybe over lunch or something, where the two of us can talk about this stuff away from the band, but I'm having trouble even imagining how to initiate the conversation in such a way that doesn't put him immediately on the defensive. I feel like if I were to claim there was a problem between us, he would deny it, just as he denied there was a misunderstanding last night.

Where do I start? Is there anything I can do if he's unwilling to acknowledge his role in the whole thing? Is it possible that I'm the problem? Thanks for your time.
posted by blue t-shirt to Human Relations (14 answers total)
Sometimes you just meet someone who is an asshole. You're a nice person who wants to fix the problem, so you try and try, and when that doesn't work you spend a lot of time beating yourself up about it. All of this is pointless. Assholes just gonna asshole. First talk to the other members and make sure you're on the same page. Then leave Darren alone. Don't talk to him, don't try to help him, don't get into conversations he's having with someone else. Exchange the least information possible to play your songs. Route around him. If he doesn't like it he can leave.
posted by bleep at 10:58 AM on March 18, 2015 [6 favorites]

I'm sure your intentions are benign, but he can't read your mind, you know? All he hears is you correcting him all the time and he takes it as an insult, a challenge.

I don't think it's really unfixable, though. I'd invite him out for a beer/coffee after practice sometime. Tell him, hey man, I wanted to talk to you, do you think we could grab a beer? Then say pretty much what you said here --- that you think he's an incredibly talented musician, but you keep feeling like you guys are talking past each other when it comes to this technical jargon. Put it on you "I mean, I learned about all this stuff in school, very formally, so I'm used to thinking about this stuff in this way, and I recognize that's not how you came up. I know that the jargon you use to talk about it doesn't have shit to do with musical talent or skill, which you have, which is why I want to keep working with you. So, what's the best way to do that? How did you learn all this stuff? How do you think about it? I want to figure out how we can talk to each other better so the music can be better."

Basically, I think he needs a bit of an ego massage, that you need to come to him with open hands and get his defences down, and once he understands that what you're about is the music, you can move past this. Not to say that he still might find it annoying if you keep being all...."well, actually, I think the word you want there is tempo" but you should be able to get to a working relationship.
posted by maggiepolitt at 11:22 AM on March 18, 2015 [6 favorites]

One more thing: I do think you need to approach him calmly and confidently for this to work, though. You are equals: approach the conversation as such. If you hem and haw and are all "I know you hate when I correct you all the time, but I only do it because I'm right, pleasedonthateme" that's just going to aggravate him more.
posted by maggiepolitt at 11:27 AM on March 18, 2015

It's hard to know what the problem is without being there or having more info. You could very well be problem, could be Darren, could be both of you, could be the band as a unit.

What kind of band is it? What instrument do you play? What does Darren play? What is the hierarchy of the band? Is there a lead singer?
posted by miles1972 at 11:55 AM on March 18, 2015 [2 favorites]

Best answer: We've had difficulties communicating about basic things - for instance, the difference between a verse and chorus, or the difference between a beat and a bar.

What would happen if the moment you understand what Darren means by "verse" and what Darren means by "chorus," you just go with it, right away and from then on? Screw what you learned in music classes; who cares what's objectively right. For purposes of this band, this is what a "verse" is and this is what a "chorus" is. It could make for fun liner notes. Or what if you talk around it, using the lyrics themselves to refer to the different parts of the song, referring to the part that goes "oh baby" and the part that goes "la di da" without specifying which one is verse or chorus?

Musicians from different countries who don't speak each other's language can often play music together. Pretend you and Darren simply don't speak the same language, and try to maximize how much music you play, instead of talking so much about it.

Darren and the guitarist were talking about tempo, and I realized that Darren had misunderstood what the guitarist was trying to say. I noticed this and I asked if I could "bridge the gap" in communication that was occurring.

Don't jump in. Wait until you're asked. If they never ask you, if they just continue to struggle with communication, then your challenge is to get comfortable with the discomfort of watching them figure it out on their own. They will, actually. With Darren's talent and experience, he will find a way to communicate what the tempo should be. Or else the guitarist will realize they're not getting the answer they need and will re-ask the question in a different way that Darren will understand. If you jump in to explain to both of them where they are misunderstanding each other, then yes, regardless of what your intent is, that has the effect of positioning yourself above both of them.

If I were you, I would apologize to Darren for acting like such a know-it-all, and don't say anything about how you didn't intend to come across that way, just say you're sorry. Separately, I would look for opportunities to let him be the expert on something, where you take his advice and genuinely say "thanks, I never knew that."
posted by Bentobox Humperdinck at 12:12 PM on March 18, 2015 [16 favorites]

I have been in similar situations in bands, and I've found that the easiest thing to do is avoid technical terminology as much as possible -- try to communicate everything so the person with the least technical understanding can grasp it. You know what the terminology means, so you can find another way of expressing it without using terminology. If I was playing with someone who couldn't count measures but only beats, then we'd count beats. Or if they can't count beats, come up with a non-verbal signal to go into the next bit. Or if they didn't know where a verse/chorus/bridge/whatever begins and ends, I'd say "That part where you do [thing]. Do that x times, then we'll do this." Since he knows his way around his instrument, he knows how to do everything you're trying to communicate, he simply doesn't know the specific words. I would default to the words he's comfortable with.
posted by The Great Big Mulp at 1:06 PM on March 18, 2015 [1 favorite]

It sounds like the specific message you are trying to communicate is "look, when I correct your vocabulary, I'm doing it to help the group, not hurt you. When you respond negatively, it hurts me."

My advice instead is to just not correct his vocabulary.
posted by samthemander at 1:22 PM on March 18, 2015

Response by poster: I'm not correcting his vocabulary. I've never done that to him.

It's literally like we're speaking two different languages and we throw our hands up in frustration.
posted by blue t-shirt at 1:29 PM on March 18, 2015

Response by poster: In practice, we're doing precisely what Bentobox Humperdinck suggested with regards to chorus/verse terminology - the verse is known as "the part that goes 'ahhh'" and the chorus is "the part that goes 'AHHHH'". We came about that after a conflict of the sort I outlined in my main post.

So instead of "let's start 8 bars before the chorus", I'll say "let's start about 15 seconds before the "AHHHH" part, about 7-8 seconds before the bass comes in." It almost works.
posted by blue t-shirt at 1:35 PM on March 18, 2015 [2 favorites]

Response by poster: At the risk of threadsitting, I feel obligated to respond to miles1972:

There are two people at the core of the group. Darren is in a relationship with of one of them, and they cohabitate. We rehearse/record in their home. Darren drums, and I'm a multi-instrumentalist.
It's worth noting that the group is only about a year old, but even still, I'm a relatively recent addition to the group, which complicates the dynamic somewhat.

Thank you for all the responses. I appreciate them all.
posted by blue t-shirt at 1:59 PM on March 18, 2015

Based on your follow-up, my advice is if you want to keep playing with these people, and as you say, you want the best for the group, and Darren doesn't seem to want to change things, then you need to accept this is how it is, or find a different band.
posted by miles1972 at 4:06 PM on March 18, 2015 [3 favorites]

I've been in the same band for about a decade and we've faced similar issues.
Our current line-up includes one member with a music theory degree, one member who can read music (me), and three spectacular songwriters who can't really read music but who understand progressions.
We are all operating at different levels.
No single level is better than the others. I occasionally get left in the dust by Mr. Music Degree. Or he'll say, "nah, you can't play it that way because it's wrong." And we have to gently explain to him that wrong is a pretty subjective concept in our funny little musical world. And sometimes I get pissy because I want a part executed a certain way each time (according to the notes, damn it, the way it was written) and that's my classical background roaring up to the surface.
It only works because we all appreciate that none of us are good, or better, or best. There is only the album, man. And maybe the album will be good, or better, or best. But at the end of they day we're all walking home with free beers and an equal split of the door.

Now, it hasn't always worked that way. We've had several members who couldn't get over their way = the right way and sadly those people are not in the band, they are in other bands, or they work at the bank or something. I dunno.

Forget what's right. There is no right. You've got to be thinking about the album, man.
posted by Baby_Balrog at 7:19 PM on March 18, 2015

There are two people at the core of the group. Darren is in a relationship with of one of them, and they cohabitate. We rehearse/record in their home.
From this, it seems obvious that either

a) you leave,

b) you work it out with Darren, or

c) you simply learn to stay quiet.

I believe you when you say that you're not trying to engage in some kind of ego conflict, but to me it sounds like Darren is very sensitive about this stuff and thinks you're attempting to challenge him. Like many musicians, Darren sounds like he's got talent, a big ego, and a very thin skin. It could be worse - he could be the guitarist or the singer.

It's not "fair" but that's showbiz. You should probably give some serious thought to whether or not you want to cut your losses and leave the band. If you stay, you're going to have to bite your tongue a lot. Is the music worth it? It may be.

You don't really say anything about the other people in the band, but I'm going to speculate that Darren does not share your view that this should be between you and him. Which is to say that he may well be trashing you and trying to get everyone to agree to ditch you. I'm sorry if that sounds paranoid, but - you really might want to consider how you'd handle the news.

Other people have suggested trying to talk to Darren and level with him and try to reach an understanding and etc. In my experience, that doesn't tend to work well in general, and works even less well in a band / musician / ego situation like this.

The one time I ever had true, long-term success with someone when we were grinding against each other like you describe was when I was in my 20s and we dropped acid together and hung out and talked for like 10 hours straight. I know it sounds all new-agey and shit, but we bared our souls to each other, really got down to the microcode level about our true intentions and our defenses and stuff, and amazingly enough, we ended up being good friends for years until he and I drifted apart after college. I don't think I'd recommend this approach to anyone, though.
posted by doctor tough love at 7:56 PM on March 18, 2015 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: I apologized, exactly how Bentobox Humperdinck suggested. I think it was well-received; I got a long response with his perspective on things, and yeah, you had him pegged. He feels I have a grudge against him (I don't!) and that I don't respect his talent (I do!!) and that I'm talking down to him (...I guess I am). I've resisted the very tempting urge to explain "what *I* actually meant was bla bla bla". I realize it cannot go well, so I won't... but I feel so misunderstood, y'know?

So my next challenge is remaining conscious of my tendency to let my enthusiasm run out of control and overstepping boundaries. Thanks again to all of you for your advice thus far, and if you happen to have tips about how I might accomplish this new goal, I'd love to hear them.
posted by blue t-shirt at 6:36 PM on March 19, 2015 [2 favorites]

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