My past is darkened with a shameful experience.

Many years ago I was in a quartet where I constantly dominated all discussion, told the others what was wrong, and let my ego run rampant. I was playing with younger musicians (I myself was 21) and was exploring for the first time these techniques I had picked up from my own experience.

It was a horrible failure.

One of the violinists taped a rehearsal and played it for our coach. Public humiliation followed. This lesson I’ll never forget: by constantly looking for what is wrong, I become a nightmare. To my three colleagues out there somewhere, please forgive my foolish ignorant behavior. 

Now I bet you’ve been in an orchestra, choir, ensemble or studio where you felt that you:

  • would be punished for making a mistake
  • always had to prove yourself
  • were being judged more than supported

But perhaps you’ve been lucky enough to be in an ensemble in which you felt “psychologically safe.”

Psychological safety is a shared belief that the team is safe for interpersonal risk taking. In psychologically safe teams, team members feel accepted and respected. It is also the most studied enabling condition in group dynamics and team learning research.

This New York Times article tells the story of Google’s million dollar investigation into team success. What did they find at the core of the successful teams? Psychological safety.

I’ve been experimenting with my choir to see if the attitudes of listeners make any difference in a performance. I’m amazed at the findings. Bad silent vibes from the audience are real.

Back to our harsh reality

We simply don’t have the ability to change all of the teachers, conductors, and critics who seek better results by old school motivation. Just a few days ago a dear friend was told something horrible by his conductor. Words that can never be fully taken back. My heart goes out to my friend, an amazing musician and outstanding human being with a heart of gold.

But we can become the new leaders and teachers. I have vowed to do what I can to create safe environments for people to find their true voice. Here are a few things I’ve learned:

  1. People are more important than any performance could ever be.
  2. From studying with the great cellist and pedagogue, Janos Starker, I learned to laugh at myself and not take myself so seriously.
  3. From studying meditation I’ve learned non-attachment, how to separate who I am from the music I make. For who I am seeks to express itself through music, but can never be defined by it.
  4. I’ve learned to surrounding myself with others who also choose positivity. By focusing on the good while striving for excellence, we create a vortex of successful energy that becomes addicting. Little by little, we create change in the world around us.
  5. Finally, I’ve learned to change the company of thoughts that I keep. By far the hardest, yet most rewarding.

Music is such a gift to the world. It is time that we create the psychological safety in which it can truly flourish. If it can work for Google, surely it can work for us.

Does “Psychological Safety” Help or Hinder Your Music?

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