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Everything I Know About Collaboration, I Learned in a Punk Band

Everything I Know About Collaboration, I Learned in a Punk Band

August 6, 2014

by Allison Eltrich, Philanthropy Northwest
photo credit: The Family Curse

Playing in a band may seem glamorous. But behind the smoke and speakers is a group of people that have come together to create something that they could never accomplish alone. Musicians rarely leave their egos (or their personal baggage) at the door, and yet many bands manage to form an effective collaboration with shared values, a clear mission (to rock) and a vision for the future.

When I’m not consulting for philanthropists, I play in a punk band. Much to my surprise – or perhaps not surprisingly at all -- I’ve realized that the lessons I’ve learned about collaboration from my bandmates are at least as valuable as any I’ve learned from my friends in philanthropy. Here are the most important lessons they’ve taught me.

  1. Who’s in the room is important. This isn’t to say that everyone needs to be easygoing or be best friends for life. It means that you’ve found the right mix of people and personalities that collectively move a project forward. For example, the bands that are most active often have at least one member that’s “at the wheel.” This person has the potential of being a bit pushy, rigid and easily frustrated but without them the music wouldn’t make it far from the practice space, they make sure practice-space rent gets paid, shows get booked and t-shirts get printed. Another example of a common participant that some bands find themselves with is a musician with some unpredictable emotional issues, while this is not a required component of a creative mind, I’ve personally found that they write really great punk songs. You know the mix of people is right when, regardless of the occasional disagreement, it’s hard to imagine the project without them.
  2. In the beginning, there’s patience. Patience to work through the songs you’re not sure about until you finally find the song that gives you all the chills. Patience to get to know your band mates, develop a shared language and gain respect for each other’s unique value and contribution. A band’s first practice is like a first date: the butterflies are the same and the anxiety of being part of an intimate and exposing experience with new people can feel like going on multiple first dates all at once. This beginning is always so exciting, then the real work starts and band practice will start to feel like a chore or a weekly obligation to devote hours to ambiguity. This period is critical since you have to make space for creativity, if inspiration comes knocking you better be home. Without weeks and months of just showing up you will never discover the actual fruit of your efforts.
  3. Embrace the mistakes, these are the most practiced part of the music experience. Sure, you’ve heard that James Brown would dock his band members’ pay for every wrong note, but for the most part a group practices every week not only to create a cohesive sound but also to practice messing up. Knowing how to play through a missed note or a bad cue is much more valuable than striving for ultimate perfection, and you’ll appreciate it much more when you find yourself in front of an attentive audience. Mistakes can also reveal moments unexplored and give a personality and character to your music. My composition professor once told me that “we must learn the rules of music theory so that we can break them on purpose.” While we may not make mistakes on purpose, we can bring an intention of curiosity and exploration in the way we react to them and possibly reveal new ways of playing music we think we know by heart.
  4. The beauty and the peril of performing is there is no real formula for success. “Success” rarely even means the same thing to different musicians. Any band that starts with a map to fame and fortune is immediately confining their ideas and creativity to fit within the lines. There is little room to dream and explore and understand what each individual hopes to gain from the experience. While following a tested formula can sometimes lead to results, whether that is truly satisfying depends on what you hope to gain from the experience. People love cover bands, people love pop music (myself included) and both certainly have their place; if money, success or fame is an end goal for your project then you should absolutely use the methods that are proven to work. Just know that if you want to find your own voice in a crowd of incredible music you have to navigate your own path and be able to measure success by the experience itself and not just the benefits it brings.
  5. Through music you create relationships with people you may have never considered spending time with. A shared vision, in this case a shared love of a particular sound, is an extremely effective way to really know and appreciate your fellow collaborators. You’ve heard it before, in the end, it's all about the music. The product may be grander than the experience but the common thread is a shared love of writing and playing together. If you can’t enjoy the process in some way, then the music will likely show it, loudly.

Our work in philanthropy is often informed by our lives outside of the office. Do you have any insights on collaboration that have come from unexpected places?