Interpersonal Skills for Musicians

Musician' Assistance Program

Volume C, No. 1January, 2000

Jackelyn Frost, CSW

No doubt you have spent countless hours practicing your music, honing your skills as a musician. But music skills alone are usually not enough to make you a successful musician. Many other factors contribute to success, including people skills and the ability to remain healthy, clear-minded and thoroughly professional when dealing with difficult people.

Connecting with others through networking is essential, so that people will think of you when work becomes available. And if they know that you are reliable, easy to get along with, sober and prepared, you’re far more likely to get the gig. Convincing others of the value of your work is often accomplished through your words and personality – well before your music gets heard. How listeners hear your work will be greatly influenced by how they feel about you.

Dealing with difficult people is another important asset – especially in the music business, which brings together many people with strong egos. Often, people who can interact beautifully on a musical level with their fellow players have difficulty interacting on an interpersonal basis.

One reason is that our industry is a fiercely competitive field, where feelings of one-upmanship and peer envy often flourish. This is a destructive rather than creative frame of mind, however. Dwelling on feelings of resentment is counterproductive for you and those around you, and may alienate you from others.


Differences of opinion are unavoidable, and disagreements sometimes become monumental. Often, you can help defuse a troublesome situation by being conciliatory rather than confrontational. Professional behavior requires that we compromise at times, rather than always rigidly standing our ground.

You may be irritable because of these differences of opinion – or because of other things going on in your life which are unrelated to your work. The workplace itself can contribute to musicians’ stress level – because of lack of autonomy and control over the environment and the need to submit to the conductor’s will. Another major source of stress is the high sound levels that many musicians are exposed to.

Many people have difficulty dealing with authority figures, and this can come out in the form of resentment toward bandleaders and conductors. The need to defer to a conductor can make you feel infantilized, and then angry.

Certainly, authority figures are sometimes genuinely difficult to get along with, and some of them misuse their power. But if you want to keep your job you must find a way to get along with them. Finding an outlet for your feelings of frustration that does not alienate you or cost you work is your responsibility. (Perhaps this is why many musicians develop hobbies that allow them a high level of autonomy.) Try to accept advice graciously. Defensiveness and hostility alienate others, and can cause you to lose jobs.

If you are the leader, think about whether you are sometimes unreasonable, taking advantage of your position at the expense of others – and what might be the underlying reasons for doing so. There may be ways you can be more responsive to the other musicians, lessening their stress level and improving the overall performance of your ensemble.

Because it looks unprofessional, never argue onstage, no matter how angry you are at each other. Every group has conflicts. Resolve your problems at rehearsal or when there is no audience to see you. It is important to present an image of unity when performing.

Here are a few techniques you can use to improve your health and personal effectiveness when confronted by difficult colleagues:

  • Protect yourself by using a silent refocusing technique. When someone is angry with you, say to yourself silently and repeatedly: “Hear the valuable stuff. Ignore the anger. It’s not yours.” No matter how insulting or oppressive the other person’s behavior, you can maintain your inner strength and professionalism by staying focused and alert as you repeat this simple phrase.
  • Find the vulnerable spot. Noticing something imperfect, awkward or humorous about the other person can keep you from feeling intimidated. Identifying something about the angry person’s physical appearance, way of moving or way of speaking that is vulnerable or amusing can help you feel less overwhelmed.
  • Respond in a way that shows caring and professionalism. Rather than being defensive or argumentative, show concern and take the lead in offering to help a verbally aggressive person find a solution to the problem. In other words, rather than becoming this person’s enemy – or passive doormat – become a strong and professional ally, actively listening to him or her and involved in finding a solution. This will show that you deserve respect and trust, rather than additional verbal abuse, and it will keep you from taking on the role of victim.

If you are having difficulty coping with conflicts, are irritable and getting in arguments at work, or if you or your group are having difficulty communicating or working through problems, the social workers at the MAP office can help. You – or your entire group – can schedule an appointment for confidential counseling to begin to address the conflicts and what is troubling you. Call the MAP office at (212) 397-4802.

(Much of the material for this article came from the following books: How to be a Working Musician: A Practical Guide to Earning Money in the Music Business, by Mike Levine; Making Music in Looking Glass Land: A Guide to Survival and Business Skills for the Classical Musician, by Ellen Highstein; Does Someone at Work Treat You Badly? by Len Felder, Ph.D., and from an article, “Why They’re Not Smiling: Stress and Discontent in the Orchestra Workplace,” by Seymour Levine and Robert Levine, which appeared on the Symphony Orchestra Institute’s web site: