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  • Writer's pictureKelsey Jacobsen

The secret to successful music relationships? Boundaries.

A singer and bassist performing together
Musicians Collaborating

PEOPLE ARE HARD. Whether it's school, work, family or friends, navigating relationships is a tricky ordeal. Many of us turn to music for peace of mind, but what happens when the connections you've made in the musical community impact that peace? What happens when the band butts-heads or you're having a creative disagreement with a recording engineer or booking agent? Suddenly it feels like playing music is just as stressful and frustrating as school or work.

Here is my first piece of advice: you can't control other people, period. No matter how nice, mean, or indifferent you are, in the end people will do as they please. What can you do? Know your core needs and limits. If you are really clear about what you need from a situation and what you cannot put up with, then how you interact with people changes. For example:

Stacey and Joe have been putting together an original music duo. Stacey has been writing all the lyrics and progressions, and Joe is creating background harmonies and lead guitar parts. They gave themselves 6 months to organize their material before the first gig. 3 months in, Joe is coming to practice unprepared. He doesn't remember the harmonies from previous rehearsals and didn't spend any time creating guitar parts that might work with the material. Stacey is frustrated.

What would you do if you were Stacey? Here I remind you (and Stacey) that you can't control anyone outside of yourself, so let's clarify the core needs and limits:

  • Stacey wants to put her original music out into the world (need)

  • She wants to be prepared (need)

  • She wants to co-create with - not manage - someone else (need & limit)

By checking in, she now has a very clear way of explaining to Joe her needs and wants and how their collab may or may not be fulfilling those needs. So, how would she turn this into helpful discussion? Maybe like so...

Joe, I am really excited to finally play these originals in public, and I want to be as prepared as possible because I perform best when I'm prepared. I've noticed that you haven't been working on the material on your own, and we keep reviewing the same things in rehearsal. I am looking for more of a collaboration than what is happening, what are your thoughts?

With total kindness, and no assumptions about why Joe wasn't practicing, Stacey voiced her expectations. By leaving the conversation open, she made it possible for Joe to communicate any problems he might be having. Joe could respond any number of ways, including:

  • I know, just haven't had any time because ___ (too busy)

  • I just haven't been able to come up with anything (uninspired)

  • I have been practicing, but it just falls out of my head (not skilled enough to collab at Stacey's level yet)

  • I was just jamming to see what works (goal miscommunication)

  • These songs are not really my style and kind of boring (defensive and not good at honest communication)

Most of these answers are really informative: too busy, uninspired, not skilled enough, and defensive are all collaborative red flags. Joe probably can't be the co-creator Stacey wants at this time and so it's Stacey's responsibility to communicate that. However, if it was a goal miscommunication, then YAY! That's easily correctable and should put the duo right back on track.

No matter the relationship, Stacey needed to know her own wants and needs and be prepared to uphold them. She can't expect Joe to fulfill her goals if they aren't also his goals, because every time he fails to do so would build resentment and disappointment. No musical project thrives on resentment and disappointment (unless you're Ginger Baker, I guess...).

So, take a good look at your current needs and limits as a musician. If you're struggling in your musical relationships, what are you putting on other people that you shouldn't be? How can you be clearer and less reactive in your communication? And if those connections are in fact a dead end, what other steps can you take to ensure you still achieve your goals? You have much more power than you think once you acknowledge what you actually have control over.

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