V.com weekend vote: In what type of ensemble have you experienced the worst toxic personalities?

November 1, 2019, 12:14 PM · Ahh, what a privilege and a blessing to play beautiful music with other people...except when it's not so beautiful, and the relationships are not so harmonious!

Toxic Trio
Toxic Trio.

This vote idea comes via viola-composer and longtime V.commie Scott Slapin, who mentioned that "a friend and I were discussing our worst musical experiences (personality conflicts with other musicians), and they were both in small chamber ensembles."

Of course, personality clashes can happen in any kind of ensemble, small or large. Disagreements are inevitable when people make music together. They can be about the music itself: is everyone in tune? In time? Should we do a different dynamic here? Is the music we're creating expressing the right feeling?

The key is how the group handles arguments: is there respectful dialogue? Mutual respect? A balance in the power dynamic? Or is there egotism and inflexibility that leads to resentment and hurt feelings?

Conflict also can arise over non-musical matters, both trivial and not. Has anyone seen the 2012 film, A Late Quartet? In it, a longtime quartet portrays how deeply dysfunctional and toxic such relationships can become. Of course it makes for juicy drama: professional resentment, secret affairs, disloyalty, etc. etc.

Where have you found to worst personality conflicts? Is it as a member of a small group? Is it as a member of a larger orchestra? Or maybe you find the worst personality conflict with yourself, and being in a group is a relief!

Please pick the answer that best fits your situation, and then tell us about it in the comments. Also, do you have any ideas for preserving the dignity and fellowship among members of a group? Or do some people simply make it impossible to get along?

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Replies

November 1, 2019 at 05:25 PM · Well in two situations, chamber group and orchestra. Managing conflict is not always easy...

November 1, 2019 at 05:54 PM · It seems the rules of courtesy are somehow suspended in a musical setting and certain insecure types can become mercilessly critical to assert their dominance. Or the appointed leader can insist upon repeating a passage ad nauseam to the detriment of the rest of the material to be practised, falling into that annoying start-and-stop, start and stop rut that is ultimately unproductive. Polite and meek types can get pummeled and intimidated, turning a lifetime source of joy into an ordeal. I don't care how rudimentary of a musician one is, a good musician and teacher always encourages, guides, and marshals his fellow musicians in a kind and loving manner. It's one of the rules of the road.

November 1, 2019 at 05:56 PM · I'm compelled to abstain -- fortunately! -- because I have not really encountered toxic personalities in my ensemble playing. All of the orchestras, jazz groups, etc., that I've played with have pretty much all been "good people." Of course when there are lot of young people in an ensemble, then sometimes immaturity can play a role in their behavior, but even then I've found that "violin kids" are generally a prett good lot.

November 1, 2019 at 06:54 PM · Laurie, I think you need more categories. I wasn't going to check any due to lack of experience, but I wanted to see the votes! I did check off "quartets" because during the two years we "auditioned" cellists for ours, there were a few oddballs of various sorts. Our filled-out quartet members all get along well. Sometimes there are little snits here and there, but we all respect each other and are grateful for each other, so we ultimately rise above it.

November 1, 2019 at 07:04 PM · All of the orchestra conductors I have known and worked with as an adult have been wonderful. But as a child/teen I ran into a couple of toxic conductors on power trips. Fortunately I didn't have to work with either of them very much and was able to limit contact with them and their ensembles. I think the problem there was similar to a toxic teacher/student relationship in a non-musical subject, which sometimes happens, regardless of field.

November 1, 2019 at 07:12 PM · My most toxic encounter was with a conductor in my youth - so orchestra gets my vote.

November 1, 2019 at 07:34 PM · I voted Other Small Chamber Groups because one of the last two or three pianists I played concertos/sonatas with is more toxic than myself, and way more so - Further, I need to drop him anyway, because of his character.

November 1, 2019 at 08:30 PM · I concur with Paul on this one, for much the same reasons.

November 1, 2019 at 08:31 PM · Abstention. In my over 40 years I've only, and briefly, had to deal with a toxic conductor of a multi-generational community string orchestra. They invited a local violin pedagogue who was a Julliard graduate to conduct.

He was a screaming, overbearing, threatening perfectionist who (I guess) thought we were a professional orchestra who could sight read anything. He lasted two rehearsals at which point all of us told the leaders of the orchestra the he had to go, or we would.

November 1, 2019 at 08:34 PM · I have fortunately never been in a "toxic" ensemble. Chamber music would have to be the danger zone because there is usually no single Music Director to make the final interpretive decisions. I heard somewhere that the Budapest Quartet would not travel together, share hotel rooms, otherwise socialize, but would only come together for work. They stayed together for decades. Not toxic, but very annoying to me, is the practice of orchestras and chamber music groups asking the musicians to print their own parts from the internet. And also annoying is pop/commercial band leaders sending me you-tube audio clips to learn how to play, instead of written music, often in a different key. Or, sending me a guitarist's chord, assuming that I can improvise something brilliant.

November 1, 2019 at 09:02 PM · Great poll! ;)

I've seen a few toxic conductors for sure, but then you're usually a target briefly and they have to move on to others. In a small chamber ensemble, there's no "hiding out". You can be in the line of fire nearly the entire time.

My worst experience in this regard shall remain without specifics. Let's just say it was nearly twenty years ago, and that I still remember them should say something!

November 1, 2019 at 09:14 PM · Never really experienced toxic people in either professional or college orchestras...However, I have played a couple of gigs as a "ringer" in community orchestras on several occasions and my...Bad players, gigantic egos, no respect for music...Never again...

November 1, 2019 at 09:44 PM · I’ve had problems in both chamber groups and orchestra settings, but I can choose who to play chamber music with!

November 1, 2019 at 09:45 PM · Amateur community orchestra. Someone would ignore the bowings, play loud crunches on accents, be immediately fortissimo when cresc. was marked, and insist on sitting where she wanted, amongst many other examples of not being a team player. No positive outcomes came from discussing these issues with her over many years.

Eventually, after violin numbers dwindled so low that the orchestra was unviable, the concertmaster agreed to a trial of her being excluded. Violin numbers are bouncing back nicely and everyone is much happier.

November 1, 2019 at 11:10 PM · Orchestra. Although I got along well with all of my desk partners, there were always the few quirky prima donna members in the ensemble -- people I preferred to avoid. They didn't have to interact with me directly or do anything overtly toxic. All they had to do was be there. It didn't take me long to pick up on who and what they were.

Then there were a few conductors, stuck on themselves, who would talk too much -- or spend 10-15 minutes fine-tuning balances between woodwinds and brass, while string players grew restless. No thanks.

From childhood, I had my sights on becoming a professional symphony player; but now that more years have passed and I have a longer perspective on life, I am, oh, so thankful I decided at 21 to quit doing orchestra -- though I listen to orchestra music just about every day. As a serious amateur player, no longer an aspiring professional, I find that small chamber work suits me far better. Unlike orchestra, it's not an enforced relationship. We're together because we want to be together.

November 1, 2019 at 11:48 PM · I have played in orchestras and chamber groups, and have never experienced toxic personalities.

November 2, 2019 at 01:19 AM · When I was teaching at the University of Montana, I played in the Missoula symphony. The conductor was rather old, and not so effective. However, the other principals (I was filling in as CM), including the UM faculty, were blatantly disrespectful to the conductor, and it produced a chaotic and hostile atmosphere.

November 2, 2019 at 02:54 AM · My experience is similar to 172.90.249.214: I've never encountered toxic personalities in the semi-pro orchestras or serious community orchestras I've played in, only more casual ones. Not to say that casual community orchestras are bad in general, it's only that my toxic experiences have all been in that type of group.

Almost all of the toxic members have been older people with oversized egos and questionable ability -- and I don't remember ever encountering a toxic personality who was younger than 40. Some feel entitled to sit in the front of the section and/or argue with the conductor because they've been in the orchestra for 30+ years. Some are ageist: they can't believe anyone under 60 is a competent musician (often because "music education isn't what it used to be") and condescend to anyone without gray hair. I've gotten some highly dubious unsolicited advice on how to play my instrument, and even had someone at the back of my section (where I was principal violist) try to dictate fingerings to me. Some just vastly overestimate their own abilities. Sometimes they seem to have a double standard with older vs. newer members -- for example, in one orchestra, the principal cellist got on my back for missing one rehearsal, even though I had informed the conductor and CM in advance and was actually the only principal string player who had not missed multiple rehearsals that season. (Again, not saying older musicians are generally like that -- this is a minority of the seniors in these orchestras. But they're a loud enough minority to make life unpleasant.)

I've never had an encounter with toxic personalities playing chamber music.

November 2, 2019 at 08:46 AM · I wasn't going to respond "orchestra" since I thought toxic conductors were as unavoidable as death and taxes, but my string quartet has never yet had a fist fight like the Fugue so I'll cast my vote with the largest faction

November 2, 2019 at 08:49 AM · I wasn't going to respond "orchestra" since I thought toxic conductors were as universal as death and taxes, but unlike the Fugue I've never had a fist fight in a string quartet so I'll cast my vote with the largest faction.

November 2, 2019 at 01:37 PM · At this point, 2 1/3 years into playing a violin, I don't really have any experience with string ensembles. When I do play in public it is solo tunes in student recitals, soirees for adult student string players, or more recently at open mic shows in the basement of a restaurant here in Portland Thus, my experiences don't really fit any of these categories.

In the recitals - one in the fall and another in the spring - the atmosphere is one of support for each other. I've never run into any ego problems other than a four year old girl who boldly told our teacher, "I'm going to be better than you." A lot of people smiled, some rolled their eyes, but that was that.

In the adult soirees, we simply have a lot of fun. Everyone plays one or two tunes, then we have some wine, cider, and snacks. Nobody goes bonkers with their ego. We're all happy to get through it as well as we can.

The open mic shows are interesting because for the most part they are all solo acts. Now, THAT is a place where ego seems to be the primal force in a lot of the action of the evenings. However, it frequently backfires. Since it's almost 100% singer/songwriter/guitar acts, it seems style - or a massive lack of style - carries the day. The 15 minutes of fame rule (or 7 minutes because of time restrictions) tends to save the evening. Someone will get up and swagger, look cool, mumble something like, "I just wrote this ten minutes ago", read the lyrics off a napkin, and assume the roll of the young, suffering artist. Then he'll open his mouth and, sadly, the rest of us will suffer through his song. Or, some shy person will get up, sing a beautiful song, and blow everyone away. It's an evening of dubious quantum mechanics wave theory - it's up for seven minutes, then painfully down for another seven minutes.

Subsequently, when I get up there with a violin, the focus gets even more skewed. I'm a 70 year old guy playing a medley of Scandinavian songs, or ancient Celtic tunes for people 40 - 50 years younger than I am. I get odd looks from the crowd. They frequently stop talking and drinking, and just stare at me. After all, I'm not really part of the my-heart-is-broken-my-parents-cut-me-off-no-one-understands-me throng. So, I guess in that context I'm the guy who doesn't fit in with the milieux. Oh well - every time I do that I get a little more performance experience. That's show biz!

November 2, 2019 at 02:20 PM · I can only recall two toxic incidents. One was the conductor of our city youth orchestra. I found him so unpleasant that I ended up leaving the orchestra. The other was the leader of a pit orchestra who I encountered once a year for the same amateur company. He was one of the nastiest people I've encountered in any context. For the rest, they have mainly been relatively problem-free, some great people among them. Although some of the 'pit' conductors were incompetent, to put it politely.

November 4, 2019 at 07:47 AM · I am a 12 year old violinist/violist in my school string orchestra (my friends and I are the oldest grade for this ensemble).

My friends and I were both disgusted and appalled to see our 10y/o juniors rudely talking back to our conductor. They were playing completely out of sync, causing the whole ensemble to have to stop. When questioned by the teacher, they rudely replied, "But teacher! It's not us! It's the other groups who are playing too slowly!" And kept arguing despite knowing that our conductor had about twenty years of experience in this field. We seniors could also hear that they were way too fast whereas the other groups were following our conductor, but when we sided with the teacher, they sent us death-glares and argued with us too.

Throughout the years I was in the ensemble with my seniors, none of us talked back to our conductor. The mood was always lively and everyone put in their best effort to harmonise, and I loved going for rehearsals. But after seeing my juniors like this (they also made fun of the 9y/o as if they were better, when truthfully the kid they were teasing had more potential than them), my enthusiasm for rehearsals was completely eradicated and I don't feel like attending when I'll be forced to stay two hours in a room filled with toxic juniors. Honestly the worst people i have ever met in the ensemble. They weren't even trying and still acted like they were perfect at violin. The only reason why they were put in Violin 1 was the lack of members (we only had about 20-30) but apparently they don't know so.

November 4, 2019 at 05:59 PM · I've noticed a lot of the comments here painting amateur players as crazy egomaniacs. Bad behavior is found everywhere, as most of it that I found was when I started getting paid to play. People have issues. Even Blair Tinsdale, author of "Mozart In The Jungle" called some of the musicians she worked with in Broadway pit orchestras "bottom feeders". Why is it any of her business?

I'll never forget I was doing a gig at a coffee shop, no less, when some woman I had never met who was a pro musician yelled at me at she was running out the door, "Play in tune!" The woman who had hired me was a pro musician herself, and I worked that gig for a solid year, sooooo………

In the end, speaking strictly for myself, I have found this: What really gets under these people's skins is the fact that I love playing despite the fact I don't have a music degree, a hugely expensive fiddle, can't play Paganini, don't beat myself up if I hit a wrong note, and work the cheaper gigs. I am a proud bottom feeder!

November 6, 2019 at 07:42 AM · Is anyone painting all or even a significant number of amateur musicians as egomaniacs, though? I thought I made it clear that my comment, for example, was referring to a small minority of people in a minority of community orchestras. I'm an amateur myself. I've played in 10 community orchestras now, either as a regular member or as a sub or ringer. I saw toxic behavior in just three of them; it was maybe 8-10 people in one orchestra and just one or two people in the other two.

November 7, 2019 at 02:15 AM · I detest the whole “maestro” ego crap that these lunatic conductors spew on musicians! They wouldn’t be anything without players! Most of them are just horrid individuals! No humility whatsoever!

November 7, 2019 at 07:32 AM · I've heard of conductors like that but never had one among the approximately 15 different conductors I've played for. Maybe I've been lucky. I've encountered several bad conductors -- as in, bad at hand-waving or rehearsal time management or such. There was one who was bad at managing egos because he was too much of a pushover. But never one with an inflated ego.

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