By: Jessica Hopper
Are you a musician? Is your group having issues? Ask Fan Landers! Critic Jessica Hopper has played in and managed bands, toured internationally, booked shows, produced records, worked as a publicist, and is the author of The Girls' Guide to Rocking, a how-to for teen ladies. She is here to help you stop doing it wrong. Send your problems to her — confidentiality is assured, unless you want to use your drama as a ticket to Internet microfame.
I play guitar for the band, [Redacted]. Our lead singer is a bitch. Honestly, she isn't a bitch at all, she just isn't good a communicating and comes off as a bitch. I finally figured this out and learned to disregard and negative vibes I got from her, but our new drummer and bass player have a hard time doing this. She will comment on the way they played something, the bass player or drummer will get totally offended, retaliate by launching an insult at her, and a battle breaks out which ruins our practice. Half the time someone quits the band, only to show up at the next practice. Our shows are great because there is no negative conversations during the set and everyone plays well because it's fun and happy. But at practice, there is such a crappy vibe that everyone plays poorly, causing others to point out their mistakes, pissing everyone off more, causing them to play even worse until someone threatens to secretly switch our regular coffee with an antifreeze / bleach blend. What do I do?
This is a really common problem, actually. No one likes criticism, few are humble enough to accept it, especially and maybe particularly from a lead singer who doesn't play an instrument and who has an opinion about everything. You, given your blessed powers of discernment, have come to understand she is not a bitch (how charitable!) and so it's your job to talk to her and to your new band mates and see if you can sow some understanding and keep your bandmates from poisoning each other, literally or figuratively.
Set aside some time to talk to your singer, outside of the confines of the rehearsal space. Daytime, over a meal but not more than one drink, and not immediately following a band practice is ideal so it's not charged. Start out easy, talk about how she thinks the new kids in the band are working out, tell her what you think is working, partake in a little creative assessment and then, in a gentle way, address the issue of how she communicates with them. Tell her you understand that you want things to be perfect too, and it stresses you out as well, and that you think that she is coming off in a harsher way than she intends and you fear she might be scaring the new bandmates off — that they react really defensively you feel like it's really impeding your work as a band.
Keep it simple and direct, and do not use the word bitch to her face. Women, in and out of bands, who have vision and are not timid about their power, who know what they want and work towards it, women who are driven and ambitious or aggressive are written off as bitches their whole lives long. Keep that in mind in this situation, that your singer may be used to getting that kind of pushback and is coming in defensive and ready to fight for her opinions and ideas. Your approach to her has to be neutral and encouraging, but real about what all this negative vibing is doing; she's no baby. Tell her it makes you not want to come to band practice sometimes. Let her know her behavior is having repercussions. Remind her that you know her and don't take it personally, but you think the new hires do.
Are her criticisms nitpicky? Does she usually have a good point? Are her expectations too high? Do they serve a purpose? Or do you think that it's a matter of wanting control? Being in a democratic and uncontrolled creative situation can be tough for control freaks. The next two-three practices, try to really suss out whats going on so you can be straight about it. Perhaps she can hold the critique until the end of practice and then say something, or bring up whats not working and everyone can go over the song once or twice to try specific changes.
Also, are you guys coming straight to practice from work? Does she have a job she hates? Has everyone had a meal or a snack before practice? These are factors. I was in a band where we kept granola bars on hand for this reason because we practiced at 7 p.m., everyone was coming in rumpled and grumpy with low blood sugar and our rhythm section would straight up BEEF. You cannot come to practice that run down and expect anything good to come of it.
Ok, so once you talk to her and get her to be thinking about how she is communicating, go to the other two and tell them that you are not blind to the fact that your singer can be painfully tough–but they need to stop insulting her because there is no room for that in this band, that it's inhibiting to creativity and obviously just makes practice awful. It's only making things worse. Tell them that you have learned not to take it personally, that she is just "intense" or a "perfectionist" and that you know she is working on trying to chill out and make your practices a bit more peaceful — and that you need them to do the same, to reel it in and toughen up a bit. Ask them how they feel things are going otherwise, hear them out, see if there are ways to placate their hurt feelings. You may need to referee a band meeting and clear the air if this doesn't change anything.
Beyond that, I think you might have to occasionally just step up and intercede. If they start going at it, leave the room for a few minutes or address things immediately as it happens when they start acting like children. No one likes being told what to do, being in a creative collaboration only makes it worse because you are already vulnerable; I remember hating my best friends after practices when someone got bossy or when someone refused to take criticism. It's kind of the nature of being in a band. If someone does actually honor their threat to quit, maybe you should consider it a blessing and find someone who is more agreeable and a better fit with the group dynamic.
Best of luck,