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The Mastering Chaos: The Musician's Way Series

Toxic Forms of Improvisation – The Coercive Controller’s Tool Kit


Let’s be clear. This article will be upsetting for some. The scope of this article is very much the far end of the leadership spectrum. This is where Autocratic becomes toxic. It is important, despite how distasteful the subject, to be aware of this domain which lies far off the end of what would be considered a ‘normal’ leadership style. As you are reading through this you might become aware of memories of situations you have experienced which you might feel the need to re-examine as a result. Sometimes things happen for which at the time you have no real explanation. You knew something wasn't right but weren't sure quite what.

There are considerable parallels between how humans in groups work together (or not) and the way in which musicians interact. In fact it is possible to employ models of music group interaction to act as a means of examing how humans interact beyond the field of music. 


To illustrate this here are examples of human patterns of musical behaviour which might at best be described as unhelpful. I have chosen to discuss musical improvisation in this article largely because it reveals the issues so readily.  Improvisation, everyone will recognise, is about ‘making stuff up’. Musical improvisation can be a beautiful thing. This almost goes without saying. But even in the music domain it is possible to have toxic events occur. 


Sometimes the improvisation can seem stuck. It can become entrained with everyone holding a texture or a rhythm afraid to move off. They may fear that expressing themselves in these circumstances can be too challenging. Those of us that might want to find a way out are afraid to upset the status quo. We feel trapped in the ‘groupthink’.  It’s almost like speaking out and saying “you’re all wrong”; echoes of the Emperor’s New Clothes.

Improvising groups stop listening to each other. They are so focused on their own sound that they lose connection with each other. This situation often occurs when some of the individuals in the group arrive with their minds almost ‘elsewhere’. A kind of ‘loosening up’ time is required before the real music starts. Sometimes someone in the group needs to remind them of this before getting started. What happens here usually results in a kind of musical ‘shouting’. Each wants to be heard but no-one’s listening. The author of this article was performing with another band at an improvisation concert. One of the other bands hadn't met up for ages and just gone on without connecting with each other. The result was exactly as described. Beyond the field of music it’s easy to bring to mind meetings you may have experienced with similar outcomes.

Then there is the beater of the solitary rhythm. This is usually exactly the same pattern repeated ad nauseum. No-one can escape its grip. Often behind the drum beat is anger, frustration or insecurity and a blind need to impose on the group regardless. This actually happened in an improvisation session at the retreat centre we used to own in Normandy.

It’s hard to imagine that anyone in a musical improvisation can ‘ridicule’ someone but it is possible. The simple act of imitation will do it under certain circumstances. Again it forms itself into a pattern. The victim can’t get away from the sheer stupidity of the response.

Members of the band may eventually become aware of the above behaviours and be able to alter the start of a fresh improvisation but this doesn’t necessarily mean that the behaviour will stop.

There is one other toxic musical behaviour which is far more subtle and that is the use of the held note. Holding a note firmly anchors a piece to a given tonality.  It can be a very useful device musically. It can be used to change the musical landscape. Say, for example, an improvisation has settled into something akin to an uplifting major key. For those of you with some musical knowledge will know that F major has one flat in its key signature. The piece can settle into the tonality of F quite easily.

However anyone with a sustaining instrument can introduce a held D. This subtly alters the mood as it begins to offer us a feeling of D minor which still has one flat but invokes a kind of darkness. This mood is easily sustained by holding the note and the group in its grip. In many ways this is akin to what happens in the black and white movie “Gaslight”. The other players continue doing what they’re doing but the lights dim just a little with the introduction of that subtle D.  So in effect by altering things slightly the perpetrator can change the meaning of the events.

What we notice in all of these behaviours is their repetitiveness and their pattern. The behaviours themselves are often quite acceptable. It is the way they are employed which enables control.

How is toxic musical improvisation experienced?  


Confusion, uncertainty and doubt are the simple answers. However as you might imagine it is a little more complex than this. 


Let's now look at the process from the receiver’s point of view. It may be that there isn’t the intention to upset or disturb the other members of the group but nevertheless it is experienced as such.


At first the sounds that emerge will almost certainly appear as they always do. As the improvisation begins the usual musical offers are made and musical responses received. It is anticipated that, as usual, there will be a sense of wholesomeness, a degree of flexibility and connection being sensed. As things progress there is often a feeling of working together and becoming settled accompanied by a willingness to accept new material as and when it occurs.

Sometimes though, it doesn’t work. A few players feel overpowered by what’s happening. Others stand by rather hopefully but not knowing how to get in. A couple of others will sit passively waiting. Moments later the ones who haven’t yet played join in. The improvisation becomes a game of assertive persuasion. Afterwards the players may give themselves the opportunity to feedback to each other that all they ended up doing was shouting. The loudest wins? That’s not a good outcome. It might reflect where they were emotionally but it certainly wasn’t the right place to start. If they recognise this they can adjust.

The solitary drummer captures the entire space. In effect this is the musical bully. The perpetrator isn’t necessarily intending to bully but that is how the other members of the group experience the behaviour and that’s how they feel forced to react. They are forced into the rhythm and can’t break away. It becomes a real imposition. The others feel completely trapped. Undoing it requires considerable strength of purpose and assertiveness. The experience is ultimately disrespectful of the others and their value.

Imitation is more subtle. It is a kind of ridicule. The interchange on its own is nothing. It is the repetition which nauseates.  As in the case of the holding note it’s like you are being held or even pinned down. Ultimately it can act like a strangle hold.

The equivalent of the held note in the non-musical is even more subtle. Have you ever had the experience of someone working into a meeting and the timbre or tone of the meeting suddenly dropping? It may be that you notice a shift in the room but not necessarily notice the cause. Nothing need necessarily have changed in the participant behaviour but nevertheless something about the quality has changed. Someone holds the tone of the room and its not good. The positive energy shifts almost inexplicably. 

Toxicity and Intention


All of these devices are useful musically and the result, with the right intention, is often beautiful. Intention is a complex concept in music improvisation. On the one hand, it is often seen as the opposite of spontaneity, as something that is planned and controlled. On the other hand, intention can also be seen as a necessary part of improvisation, as it provides the framework within which the improviser can make choices.

One way to think about intention in improvisation is as a set of goals or objectives that the improviser is trying to achieve. These goals might be specific, such as playing a certain melody or chord progression, or they might be more general, such as creating a certain mood or atmosphere. The improviser's intention will influence the choices they make, and it will also affect how the listener perceives the music.

Another way to think about intention in improvisation is as a process of discovery. The improviser may start with a general idea of what they want to do, but they will often find themselves going in new and unexpected directions as they play. In this sense, intention can be seen as a way of exploring and discovering new possibilities.

Ultimately, intention is a fluid and dynamic concept in music improvisation. It can be both planned and spontaneous, and it can both guide and be guided by the improviser's choices. It is a key element in creating music that is both meaningful and surprising.

However with the wrong intention, even though at some level it is still musical, the experience feels, at the very least, awkward. 

If these toxic musical patterns were to persist in this group then they would need to take a long hard look at themselves before returning for some more.

Musical toxic patterns and their relationship to other forms of human behaviour


Let’s now take a look at toxic patterns from a non-musical perspective. Many of the behaviours so far described aren’t in and of themselves dangerous. Equally they can be enacted without malicious intent even if the experience is perceived as unpleasant.  The experience can still feel controlling and manipulative, and certainly isn’t ultimately healthy.


Coercive control is a form of abusive behaviour that involves a pattern of behaviour that seeks to control and manipulate others. It can include a range of behaviours that can result in such as feelings of isolation, monitoring their movements, and controlling their finances. It is often spoken of as applying only in domestic situations but it can occur in other circumstances too, such as at work and in the community. 

The relationship between the perpetrator’s behaviours and coercive control is complex and not fully understood. However, it is clear that patterns of behaviour are capable of being used as tools of manipulation and control. The behaviours on their own are often minor.  In many ways though, they are experienced as ‘below the radar’.

There is a growing body of research that suggests that there may be a correlation between the perpetrator’s patterns of behaviour and coercive control.  For example, they may improvise ways to isolate the victim from friends and family. In effect a false yarn can woven by the perpetrator around an accepted truth which creatively sows the seeds of doubt in the mind of the victim.


Hideous though it sounds there is evidence that we can learn to recognise what's happening. A suspicion can emerge of the existence of being controlled by looking at the musician’s way of processing behaviour. We musicians sense when something isn’t right well before we work out what’s gone wrong. In sensing it, our attention is drawn to the patterns which underlie the interaction. 

There is a wisdom which is sensed before we can get into the detail. Confusion, uncertainty and doubt might be experienced at the time of the performance. However sometimes we experience this hours or even days later. These feelings are powerful clues and should not be ignored. As has already been mentioned there is pattern within the improvisation. It might not be obvious but it will be there. Improvisation, like life, has form and structure even if on the surface it seems to be a mess.  Humans like to repeat things, especially if they are getting some kind of gratification. This applies as much to the coercive controllers of this world as it does to the many of us who want wholesome, fruitful outcomes. The perpetrator is often driven to repeat the behaviours because they never achieve a true sense of satisfaction. They never get a sense of being heard and so are forced to repeat their incessant behaviour. So the pattern emerges from the need to repeat.

For the recipient the feelings are the same both musically and non-musically. This is the start of recognising that something is going on which needs investigation.  Is there a pattern? There will be something somewhere.  Don’t ignore the small things.  They may on their own do no damage but the hurt is through the repetition.  When do these events occur? What stimulates them?

Humans are creatures of habit but most of the time our habitual patterns are invisible to both the giver and the receiver. It is often difficult in most human interactions to expose and name the drama. However the extra-musical feelings and their patterns are very similar to those in live musical creativity. Even in music we can experience the overly autocratic.


Perhaps though, we notice the feelings more readily in the milieu of music.

Are You A Victim Of Coercive Control?

If you think you may be a victim of coercive control, there are a number of things you can do. First, it is important to remember that you are not alone. There are many people who have been through similar experiences, and there is help available.

Second, it is important to trust your instincts. If you feel like someone is trying to control or manipulate you, it is probably because they are.

Third, it is important to reach out for help. There are many resources available to victims of coercive control, including domestic violence shelters, hotlines, and online resources.

If you are concerned about someone else who may be a victim of coercive control, there are also a number of things you can do. First, you can offer support and understanding. Let them know that you are there for them and that you believe them.

Second, you can help them to get help. There are many resources available to victims of coercive control, and you can help them to find the right resources for them.

Third, you can raise awareness about coercive control. The more people who know about coercive control, the more likely it is that victims will be able to get the help they need.

UK National Domestic Abuse Helpline 0808 2000 247

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