Radford, G. P., Cooper, S. D., Kubey, R. W., McCurry, D. S., Millen, J., and
Barrows, J. R. (2002). Collaborative Musical Expression and Creativity Among Academics: When
Intellectualism Meets Twelve Bar Blues. American Communication Journal [Online] Volume 6, Issue 1,
The Professors are a blues, rock, and sometime
heavy metal band made up of communication
professors from a number of New Jersey
schools. Formed in 1995, the band has played
in clubs in New York City as well as a number
of academic venues, including the annual
conference of the International
Communication Association in Chicago in
1996 and the annual conference of the
National Communication Association in New
York City in 1998. The Professors have been
featured in both local and national press,
including the Chronicle of Higher Education.
When we learned of the call for papers for this
special issue of the American Communication
Journal addressing the creative endeavors of
Communication scholars beyond their regular
research agendas, we were delighted to have
the opportunity to reflect upon the place of
musical creativity within our lives as working
academics. What follows in this paper are the
thoughts of a number of band members, past
and present, who trace the relationship of the
musical, the creative, and the intellectual in
terms of their own personal histories and
Keywords: creativity, music, academia,
The Professors are a blues, rock, and sometime heavy metal band made up of communication professors
from a number of New Jersey colleges including: Rutgers University, Monmouth University, Rider
University, and Fairleigh Dickinson University. Formed in 1995, the band has played in clubs in New York
City as well as a number of academic venues, including the annual conference of the International
Communication Association in Chicago in 1996 and the annual conference of the National Communication
Association in New York City in 1998. The Professors have been featured in both local and national press,
including the Chronicle of Higher Education ("The Professors:
Where Research Meets Riffs," 1997; "Gary Radford: Rocking with the Professors" 1997).
The Professors have composed an impressive collection of original songs, many with a direct academic
spin. "Untenured Blues," written by Gary Radford and Marie Radford, concerns
the travails and fears of a
new assistant professor encountering the realities of university life; "Peer Review,"
written by John
Barrows, takes the peer review process, so prevalent in academia, as a metaphor for the professional and
personal troubles of a young man’s life; "Foucault Funk: The Michel Foucault
Postmodern Blues," written
by Gary Radford, Stephen Cooper, Marie Radford, and Michel Foucault, sets to music some key passages
from Foucault’s The Archaeology of Knowledge (Foucault, 1972) and The Order of Things (Foucault,
When we learned of the call for papers for this special issue of the American Communication Journal
addressing the creative endeavors of Communication scholars beyond their regular research agendas, we
were delighted to have this opportunity to reflect upon the place of musical creativity within our lives as
working academics. What follows are the thoughts of a number of band members, past and present, who
trace the relationship of the musical, the creative, and the intellectual in terms of their own personal
histories and academic interests
MUSICAL CREATIVITY THROUGH THE DISTANCING OF PERFORMER AND AUDIENCE
GARY P. RADFORD, GUITAR AND VOCALS
There are two musics (at least so I have thought): the music one listens to, the music
The two musics are two totally different arts, each with its own history, its
own sociology, its own aesthetics,
its own erotic; the same composer can be minor if
you listen to him, tremendous if you play him (even badly) (
Roland Barthes, 1977, p.
These are the opening lines of Barthes’ (1977) essay “Musica Practica.” They do much to describe and
the creative experience of playing in The Professors in its early days in 1995. The Professors began
the front room of Robert Kubey’s house in Highland Park, New Jersey. The room was
small and Bob’s
drum kit (which he borrowed from former student, Craig Brown) filled half of it. The furniture
back to the walls, extension cords criss-crossed the floor for powering amplifiers, and bottles of beer
adorned the fireplace. The reason for these get togethers was an overwhelming desire to play. Not to play
but to play music in Barthes’ sense. These sessions consisted of 20 minute jams, usually around the
classic 1-4-5 blues chord sequence, with T-ski and I trading the rhythm and lead guitar roles.
didn’t go anywhere. They didn’t have an end point. They couldn’t be repeated. We enjoyed
them in the moment of
their playing, in the act of their playing. As Barthes notes, this music would be awful
to listen to,
but tremendous to play. I remember well the looks of horror on our wives’ faces as we exposed
them to this noise.
I also remember their polite condescension as they told us how “good” we sounded.
They seemed to know and
understand that this music was for us, the players, and not necessarily for them,
In these early sessions, the idea of an audience was quite irrelevant.
This gap was between players and audience was explicitly recognized and exploited in many Professors’
For example, one of the Professors’ earliest original compositions was entitled “Crap.”
The title was
derived from the reaction we expected from the people who might listen to the song. T-ski
would introduce the song in performance by saying: “This next song is called ‘Crap.’ Just in case you call
this music crap, it is crap!” In other words, we don’t care if you think this song is awful because we know
Another song which addressed this self-reflexive recognition of the purposeful distancing of the
was T-ski’s “The Arrogant Song.” In explaining the rationale of this song, T-ski
notes the following:
When we perform in a club, there is a certain tension. Every band wants to be original
every band wants to be liked. They want to perform and do things that they
hope the people
will enjoy. I was thinking that, instead of being like everybody else, we
should be arrogant and obnoxious. We
just come on and say that basically we don’t give
a shit about
you (personal communication, May 31, 1997).
This cavalier and arrogant attitude displayed in those early days was really a defense mechanism against our
insecurities about our abilities as musicians and the deliberate shifting of identities (from Professor to
rock guitarist). Yet the deliberate and self-reflexive invocation of this defense mechanism also worked to
space in which we could play and write where the fear of outside criticism and judgment became
diffused. In effect, we transposed the principle of academic freedom from the classroom to the
jam session and,
ultimately, to the performance. As classroom professors we had the right and the privilege
to express ideas
without fear of reprisal. As musical Professors, we had the right to make music in any form
we wanted without fear of criticism. This mindset of academic/musical freedom allowed us to be creative
original. It enabled us to rationalize away, to a large extent, any potential negative feedback of our
The beauty of the original Professors was that we did not work from music that was written down. As
rightly describes, this music was not inscribed in chord charts. It was inscribed in the body: in
of the left hand struggling to find the right notes on the fret board; in the fist of the right hand as
hits the guitar strings; in the biceps and triceps of the arms pounding the drum skins; in the foot tapping
frantically up and down keeping the time and rhythm. Barthes (1977) describes this kind of music as:
an activity that is very little auditory, being above all manual (and thus in a way much
It is the music which you or I can play, alone or among friends, with no
other audience than its participants...; a
muscular music in which the part taken by the
sense of hearing is only one of ratification, as though the body were
hearing - and not
‘the soul;’ a music which is not played ‘by heart:’ seated at the keyboard or the music
the body controls, conducts, co-ordinates, having itself to transcribe what it reads,
making sound and meaning,
the body as inscriber and not just transmitter, simple
receiver (p. 149).
One of our early jams was given the title of Retro. It consisted of three chords and a
guitar riff and
emerged spontaneously, as these things do, from a chord sequence I was fiddling with during a break
between songs. T-ski soon joined in, and then Craig Brown on the drums. The sequence evolved into a
25 minute jam which Bob Kubey captured in its entirety on video. Bob’s video represents
Barthes musica practica
perfectly. He pushes the camera into contorted faces, with close ups of fingers,
hands, ringing guitar strings, and
knees pounding up and down. In this video, Bob captured a music that is
“manual, muscular, kneadingly physical”
(Barthes, 1977, p. 150) which has no direction except that which
is spontaneously created in the moment of its playing.
It captures “that style of the perfect amateur”
(Barthes, 1977, p. 150), the great value of which touches off in
us “not satisfaction but desire, the desire to
make that music” (p. 150).
The Retro Jam, March 19, 1995
Gary Radford - Guitar; T-ski - Lead Guitar; Craig Brown - Drums
I often use this video in classes as a demonstration of Barthes’ musica practica. Barthes laments that musica
practica has disappeared and that “concurrently, passive, receptive music, sound music, is become the
music (that of concert, festival, record, radio)” (p. 150). Barthes (1977) continues: “So too has the
performer changed. The amateur, a role defined much more by a style than by technical imperfection, is no
longer anywhere to be found; the professionals, pure specialists whose training entirely esoteric for the
public..., never offer that style of the perfect amateur” (p. 150). I offer Bob’s Professors video as an
example of a form that is not as dead as Barthes implies, and that musica practica is alive and well in front
rooms and garages all over the world. I compare Bob’s video with a video of Pink Floyd’s
of Thunder” tour (Marvis & Isham, 1989), where the music is overshadowed by the expertise of the
technician “who relieves the listener of all activity, even by procuration, and abolishes in the sphere of
music the very notion of doing” (Barthes, 1977, p. 150). The comparison works well and makes the point
vividly for the students, who are also pleased and surprised to see their professor in a black t-shirt and jeans
wailing away on a guitar with way too much distortion.
THE PROFESSORS IN FLOW
ROBERT W. KUBEY, DRUMS
Merge the two stereotypes of a fractious faculty meeting and prima donnas in a rock band fighting over
status issues and you will gain a glimpse, but just briefly, of the worst moments of the first five years of The
Professors. In reality, the great percentage of the time, it was a terrific creative experience of exciting
performances, camaraderie, and regular escape and tension release from the daily conflicts and minutiae of
Only rarely has a musical band sent and received more email messages to one another, both about the
band’s creative direction and always over the play list prior to each gig. Email helped most in quickly
communicating when and where we would next practice. But being verbal and critical folk by training, if
not by nature, there were all too many attempts in The Professors to also work through creativity issues by
One lesson from The Professors’ efforts to manage collective creativity is that too much email time and too
little face time does not a happy band make. And I rather suspect the same goes for many academic
departments, although the adage that familiarity breeds contempt may also be one of the reasons that
academics gravitate to email, i.e., interaction without really interacting. The Professors never tired of one
another’s physical company. Things were much better in person than in cyberspace. Sometimes email did
give us a way to deftly deal with a conflict that couldn’t be dealt with in person. Private phone time
sometimes seemed conspiratorial.
We too often incorrectly assumed that we could apply our critical minds and verbal abilities through email
to resolve our creative differences when over and over we learned that things were better worked out in
session and through the music itself. When in doubt, play! Having worked and written a good deal with
Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, I, for one, should have known this, realizing that the band needed to spend more
time deeply involved in session obtaining the “flow state” that Csikszentmihalyi describes in Beyond
Boredom and Anxiety (1975) and Creativity (1997) than trying to work things out via email.
Flow is the state of enormous engagement that each of us experiences when intensely involved in an
activity where challenges and skills are equally matched and where positive feedback comes regularly and
quickly. “In flow experiences, people report very high concentration but ease of concentration - they feel
active, strong, and in control. Concentration is so focused during flow activities that people typically report
a diminished awareness of their surroundings and they lose track of time (‘time flies’)” (Kubey &
Csikszentmihalyi, 1990, p. 141).
Musical performance is one of the prime activities that will engender flow. In a band, when a group is
improvising and “in the groove” and the music just keeps getting better there is nearly nothing better in life.
The Professors were often in flow, especially when we would abandon the playlist and just jam, or
improvise within a well structured blues progression. We found that one of the hardest things to do is to be
in flow and feel free and creative when recording in the studio. We learned a lot from that experience.
Trying to capture our best, live funky garage-band sound when layering tracks in the studio was nearly
One of the great advantages that well funded musicians have is vast amounts of time in the recording studio
so that they can become familiar enough with the surroundings that their creativity is no longer constrained
by the $50+ an hour fee of renting someone else’s space and the precious time of a sound engineer and
producer. As audience members we all learned this from the Beatles creation of Apple Records and even
more so from The Band’s Big Pink album. As older readers will recall, The Band rented a large pink house
in the Catskills, moved in together, and recorded many classics that would never have been produced in
someone else’s alien studio.
Studio recording, we found, was an enormous challenge that we never had the time or money to even begin
to master. The drummer (me) is cordoned off in a separate glassed-in room, and so too are the singers.
Everything that makes a band a band is broken down (deconstructed?) and interfered with in the recording
studio. One is separated from others. One could not even see all of one’s fellow musicians in the studio we
used. Everyone wears earphones to hear the track and the other musicians. All the chances for the
interpersonal contact needed to creatively collaborate and work off of each other are muted or removed.
And layering the tracks means that you aren’t even playing together any more in real time. No wonder the
sound seemed more synthetic and less live. It was the biggest mistake we made, trying to layer tracks rather
than simply recording live; although we did have a great professional producer who did his best with us and
our limited resources (all profits from gigs were plowed back into recording and the purchase of our own
Over analysis also impedes flow. For most of the years of the band’s existence there was jostling over our
oeuvre and in the definition of our sound and image. Some members wanted to play more identifiable cover
songs that audiences could readily dance to, while members on the other extreme wanted to do originals
only. Unless you really hit a groove, unless they are already warmed up, audiences are reluctant to dance to
material they’ve never heard before.
Art and creativity can be a struggle and collaborative art involves particularly complicated interpersonal
struggles. While managing creativity in a five person band may not be as complicated as what television
and film producers do routinely (Ettema & Whitney, 1982), a lot of good communication, whatever that is,
is necessary to maintain a band’s creative edge.
DATA ANALYSIS, FLOW THEORY, AND SONG LYRICS
JOHN R. BARROWS, GUITAR, HARMONICA, KEYBOARDS, VOCALS
Despite lengthy professional writing experience in the public relations business, and several dubious but
serious forays into poetry, I was never able to write songs. For many years, I was content to play other
people's music, and I wondered why I was unable to bring my enthusiasm for wordplay to the creation of
lyrics. Eventually, I succeeded in writing some couplets to the tune of another song. Knowing that I could
never proudly display a song comprised of my original lyrics but Bob Dylan's music (although this was the
primary compositional practice of Dylan's muse, Woody Guthrie), I eventually sent the lyrics to a friend,
who set them to music, creating something entirely original and compelling.
This inspired me to set about writing lyrics at a furious pace, but I quickly found that there was at once both
a limitless number of things to write about, and nothing to write about. There seemed to be fresh material all
around me, just beyond arm's reach, with every idea or scrap of couplets seeming to just repeat the efforts of
other writers before me, all of whom inevitably had far better captured the essence of the song.
It was during these weeks that I first began studying flow theory, the premise that there is a process which
guides breakthroughs in creative thought (see Csikszentmihalyi, 1991). One of the consistent events that
occurs in this process is a deliberate stoppage of effort against a particular challenge or project, putting all
conscious thought aside for a period of time. It is typically during this time, when the conscious mind is not
actively working on the matter at hand, that a solution appears. Often the best ideas I had for new songs,
new lines, new ideas for songs, occurred to me while I was most deeply absorbed in academic challenges,
such as statistical analyses, or thinking through the ramifications of a new theory contemplated for the first
time. Some of these ideas were songs tangentially about academia, including "Peer Review" and "The
Space Left Empty," the latter inspired by the writing of Michel Foucault.
Eventually, it occurred to me to see if the reverse could be achieved. I spent a summer and fall analyzing a
dataset and looking for something new, arranging and re-arranging the variables and subjects into different
combinations, looking at different approaches from related and unrelated fields of thought, with little
success. During these months I had begun a routine of walking around the perimeter of the gymnasium
where I exercised each morning, to cool off after a workout. The rhythm of my footsteps always lent itself
to song writing, and I came up with many ideas in this manner. I decided to see if I could think about my
academic challenge during the workout but then put the matter aside and concentrate on songwriting during
the walk; it did not work. Eventually, I gave up on trying to force flow theory to bend to my will,
acknowledging that there was little in the literature to support the notion that it could be wielded quite so
much like a socket wrench.
Some time later, having forgotten about flow theory, I was walking around the familiar hardwood floor
humming a new melody and developing a new and, to me at least, compelling song premise, when out of
the blue a flash of energy pulsed in my brain and an obvious possible explanation for my data-set behavior,
one that had never been considered within the literature: a chance to contribute a new idea to the body of
study. This idea was prominent in an article that was recently published in the Journal of Communication(see Kubey, Lavin, & Barrows, 2001). From song lyrics to intellectual breakthroughs - it seems that both
musical and intellectual creativity are deeply connected.
IMPROVISATIONAL ENSEMBLE AS METAPHOR FOR GROUP COMMUNICATION
DAVID S. McCURRY, HARMONICA
Edward Lueders, an American poet, author, professor and one-time chair of the English department of the
University of Utah, once described to me a writing project he was working on. Something novel in length
(he has written and published poetry through most of his life) which involved his reflections on experiences
in World War II as part of the troop entertainment services (he was, and is, an accomplished jazz pianist as
well). The main storyline was set on one of the troop transport ships that carried thousands of soldiers and
sailors back from the China-Burma-India Theater of Operations at the end of the war (see Lueders, 1989).
The interplay of the characters and depiction of people going about their business was to be based on the
metaphor of a jazz group, improvising their individual parts, moving from solo to rhythm, combining in
duets, separating in constructive dissonance, all the while pursuing their interpretation of a familiar melody.
I remember listening to this description in my parent’s living room, on a break from college, over 20 years
ago. Edward Lueders is my uncle, on my mother’s side. All of this was particularly interesting to me at the
time since I was pursuing a psychology degree at the University of California, Santa Cruz, and, perhaps
more significantly, trying to balance as best I could that and the experiences of playing harmonica in a
rhythm and blues band. Balancing a professional academic career and the seemingly pedestrian pursuit of
“playing in the band” has enriched my teaching, and my life, for a long time now.
Like many musicians of that time and geographic space, the influence of the unique improvisational style of
the Grateful Dead saturated many “jam” band experiences. The ability to improvise was a necessary part of
playing the music we enjoyed. Improvisation, the way we experienced it in those times, was something that
bordered on the spiritual. We fleetingly believed that communication was possible in paranormal ways,
foolish us. By day, we read existential texts such as Martin Buber’s I and Thou (1970) and explored
concepts such as “transpersonal psychology.” By night, music allowed transcendence beyond normal
communication boundaries in the group.
We came to understand that there was something beyond the usual, direct speaking and exchange of
mundane ideas. It was all confused with emotion and thought. It was disturbing. It was ego and non-ego at
the same time. At one time soloing (“sometime the light’s all shining on me” - see Hunter, 1970), and then
sublimating the music to the group totality. Stepping out front to solo and being noticed, your band mates
supporting you with the rhythm and harmony, falling back to join the security of the group (strength in
numbers); raising your hand in class, speaking out, or just falling back and listening; the chronosynchronous experience of performance (of knowledge and skill) and learning. Communication, as
expression of the individual, was rearticulated as group expression - what “we” have to say.
I think that is why the concept of “band” has been so important for young creative minds, especially for
men, although I am not sure what the gender implications are. I suspect women likely have an easier time of
competently communicating within small groups of their own gender, but I’m not sure why. It is still a
mystery. It would seem entirely likely that academics (men and women) in all kinds of fields find creative
expression both within and outside of their “normal” milieu.
The model of my uncle, accomplished as an academic and author, performing and enjoying jazz, persisted
and made such expression permissible in my mind. The two always seemed compatible to me. The
“academic as artist” is a well-known archetype in our cultural history. It was no coincidence that his earlier
work involved the study of Carl Van Vechten, critic, author, and photographer of the Harlem Renaissance
and urban cultural landscape of the 1st
half of the twentieth century (Lueders, 1955). We study culture, and
we create it (Freire, 1998).
Rock and Roll, the sweet release (our band’s name) of physical liberation and rhythm. These were the influences in our times, back then. In music, we found meaning, we communicated, and we communed. We
escaped what we felt to be a repressive cultural history (most of us were middle and upper-middle class,
white kids from central California and had no idea what repression really was) if only for short periods of
time by indulging in Roszak’s (1995) “counter culture,” using music and performance as escape velocity
vehicles from the gravity of normalcy and cultural assimilation. Creative minds, creative times.
Music as a metaphor for communicating seems all the more relevant now. True to the duality of popular
culture and counter-culture in American society over the past 50 years, today’s music seems similarly
fractured into Britney Spears Pepsi commercial sex rock rhythm and blues pop mélange and punk-grungemetal-ska counter rebelliousness, streaming silently from house to house over the new electronic communal
pathways in blatant disregard of commercial copyright. A safe and silent rebellion, our communication has
both increased and fractured our existence. In the midst of all this, I cautiously found myself involved,
again, with a group of musicians who would pull me away from my usual duties. This time though, they
were not fellow students, or casual acquaintances. They were colleagues.
A music ensemble metaphor can prove a useful framework for small group communications (Purser &
Montuori, 1994), especially in the process of learning. In a society and time that screams for the individual
to be heard, we as professors often must orchestrate listening space in our groups of students. Who is the
soloist? What is the rhythm in the group’s pattern of communication? What is the melody that they all have
in their heads? What are “they” saying? Does all this have anything to contribute to our academic pursuits,
or is it just avocational relaxation?
With graying hair, we play our own familiar melodies in a group called “The Professors” (as that path
seemingly chose us), balancing the fun of music with more serious pursuits. Our historical concepts of
“professing” seem rooted, like so much of communication theory, in the outward articulation of ideas,
dominated by foci in the communicator. In advertising, like politics, the focus is on “getting the message
out.” We hone the effectiveness of our communication through public speaking, for all intents and purposes,
a one-way process. But communication, we remind ourselves, is not always about the communicator.
Playing music, especially music that involves improvising, requires listening. Hearing others and the self.
Hearing the self in the context of others and, for all-too-brief moments, hearing the others in the self. (What
are they saying?) Perhaps that is why we are drawn to it. Academics are, mostly, creative minds. We are
scholars, researchers, communicators, teachers, musicians, and our choice of multiple channels for
expressing ideas, concepts, feelings and perceptions is not to be an unexpected thing. I don’t think it
diminishes our profession in the eyes of our students. Hey, my professor plays in a rock band! Why not? At
least I know a few of them are listening.
MUSIC, PERFORMANCE, AND CONNECTING WITH STUDENTS
JONATHAN MILLEN, DRUMS
On a number of occasions I have performed as part of a band for my students. I find that music is not only a
universal language, but also a discourse of connection. Music brings people together though common
experience. The pragmatics of music performance as a "speech act" thrusts students and educators into a
relationship in which the traditional norms of interaction fail. Students tend to see faculty as just that:
People whose job it is to teach and conduct research. But, using music as a kind of bridge, students often
experience a moment of epiphany: “Wow,” they say, “he's a drummer, too!”
In teaching a course on the social impact of rock and roll, one of my focal points is on the unique
experience of media consumption through live performance. When compared to radio, TV/video, and
personal music media (i.e., stereos), the live performance has the potential to create a fleeting
communicative identity (in the narrative sense of, remember when...) among the participants/members of
the audience. Performing for my students is in some ways an effort to do just that.
Discursive identities in the classroom are constructed through a wide array of events including lectures,
question and answer sessions, exams, and pre/post classroom discussions. But our identities become much
more complex when students participate in a wider array of episodes with faculty. While the student
generation is arguably the rightful trustee of popular music, I find I develop a certain amount of Ethos with
my students after they attend a performance. Performing rock and pop brings us back up to the level of the student. We temporarily regain the wonderfully naive and unpretentious spirit that drives so much of the
music and is often missing from our lectures. On a related note, I also experience a sense of role conflict: If
I screw up a drum part, will I lose credibility in the classroom? While I have little sense of nervousness in
the classroom, with the same audience I am much more nervous behind the drum set.
Therein lies the richness of it all. By expanding the perspective through which my students see me, I invite
them to do the same in return. They have brought in their favorite CDs for me to listen to, played demos for
me of their own original music, and even invited me to jam with them. Others share stories of their favorite
concerts and bring in their personal memorabilia. The result is a relationship that transcends the typical
classroom boundaries as it embraces the notion that we all are far more complex than we may appear to be.
It seems everyone has stories to tell about the music in their lives, and when given the opportunity, will
share them openly and enthusiastically.
In general, playing in a band allows me to consider myself an artist. While scholarship demands a certain
creativity, music is bound by a less restrictive set of expectations. Similarly, I always have said that
teaching must be considered a performance. But with music, the reaction of the audience is more
spontaneous (and usually more critical!). We teach and write to some extent because we have to for
professional and economic reasons. We also play because we have to, but we are driven, like all artists, by
passion and creativity.
THE ROCK BAND IN REHEARSAL: SMALL GROUP COMMUNICATION THEORY AT WORK
STEPHEN D. COOPER, BASS GUITAR
A rock band in rehearsal is an intriguing example of small group communication. When the rehearsal goes
well, there are clear examples of an assembly effect and process gains
(Nunamaker, Dennis, Valacich, Vogel, & George, 1991). Even when the band members work well together,
however, there still can be indications of process losses (Salazar, 1995; Nunamaker et al., 1991; Steiner,
1972). In other organizational or social contexts, group communication typically includes primarily verbal
communication with an overlay of such nonverbal communication as paralanguage, kinesics, and
proxemics. In a musical context, however, an entirely new realm of nonverbal communication is added to
the group process in the form of aesthetic qualities of the performance.
This new level of nonverbal communication within the group is of extreme importance to the group’s work.
Ordinarily such variables as the volume balance of the instruments, timbre (i.e., sound color), competition
within the aural frequency spectrum (i.e., masking of each other’s sounds), and temporal coordination (i.e.,
rhythmic tightness) are thought of solely as aesthetic considerations. Such variables also yield insights into
the functioning of the band as an instance of group interaction, however. Table 1, below, begins to map
constructs essential to the life world of musicians, identified here in musicians’ jargon, onto related group
process variables recognized in the communication literature.
Musicians’ Jargon Related to Group Process Variables
Group Process Variable
in the pocket
out of the pocket
air time fragmentation
It is quite interesting to note that variables associated in the literature with process losses may actually
measure process gains in the context of a musical group. A striking example is the musicians’ practice of
“leaving holes,” which can be seen as a form of air time fragmentation. While Nunamaker et al. (1991)
categorize air time fragmentation as a process loss in a decision group, in a musical context “leaving holes”
is a much-valued enactment of turn-taking and a significant contributor to positive synergy. By contrast,
playing too much - in musicians’ jargon, “filling all the holes in the groove” - is a violation of group norms
in turn-taking, is likely to contribute to negative synergy, and may well be a form of dominance, just as
playing too loud is a form of dominance.
Collective Creative Process As Synergy
As performing musicians are well aware, even the most sophisticated musical notation simply cannot
specify all the aesthetic information crucial to a satisfying performance of the work. Perhaps this is most
apparent in classical music, where scores contain detailed information about pitch, volume, articulation (i.e.,
the attack and release of the notes), and tempo, yet there are striking differences between performances of
the same score by different orchestras, different soloists, and different conductors. In a very real sense, then,
a given classical musical performance is a time- and context-specific collective reading of a polysemic text,
no matter how explicit the notation in the score.
In more improvisatory musical forms, such as jazz and rock music, the significance of the aesthetic
information filled in by the performers is even more obvious. In these genres, the written score - if any -
may consist simply of a melodic line with chord symbols and lyrics, and some minimal notation of the
overall structure of the tune. The significance of the ongoing interactions within the ensemble becomes
obvious, then, when one considers how much musical information is created during the performance itself
in a dynamic process. Much of the decodable aesthetic information in an ensemble musical performance
consists of the juxtaposition of sounds generated by individual performers. If we consider these
juxtapositions of sounds as double interacts (Weick, 1979), it is apparent how very complex and
multidimensional the interactions among performers are, in even the most pedestrian of performances. In
improvisatory forms the performer-as-listener is necessarily attuned to minute differences and similarities in
time, timbre, and volume (in addition to the more obvious dimension of pitch) which are contained in an
irreversible stream of auditory information, generated in a collective creative process.
For this reason the aesthetic success of a performance is in large measure the outcome of the group’s
interactions. It is appropriate that musicians often use the metaphor of “head” to describe the collective
creativity of a group. This usage can be seen in the term “head arrangement” for the collectively-generated
orchestration of a tune. Another example (indicating this author’s chronological age) is in the lyric of a
song by the British rock group Cream, referring to that group’s creative burnout: “Do you, don’t you, will
you, won’t you know when a head is dead?” While it is routine to physiologically distinguish various
component parts of the brain in an anatomy book, it is by no means clear where a given thought or
expression originates. So, too, is it possible to specify various dimensions of group interaction with a
scholarly degree of validity, yet be unsettlingly vague about the precise nature of collective musical
In this light, the synergy of a rock band’s performance is reminiscent of the synergy in the collaborative
authorship of a journal article, a spirited panel discussion at a conference, or the meeting of a wellfunctioning
committee. The richness and complexity of the verbal and nonverbal communication in those
contexts have been well studied. The roles, task-oriented and socioemotional, assumed by group members
have been well theorized. Those groups have been conceptualized as open systems, in which the whole of
the group is by no means the roster of its individual members, and the potential of the group is by no means
determined by its members’ individual limitations. The same logic applies to musical ensembles.
Unusual Routines: Negative Enactments of Positive Values
Unfortunately, repetitive negative interaction patterns can also evolve within a band’s communications,
interactions which Rice (Rice, 1996; Rice, Hale & Dare, 1996) and Cooper (2001) have named unusual
routines. Cooper and Rice (2001) define the unusual routine as “a repetitive interaction pattern which
generates negative outcomes for organization members or clients, yet proves resistant to feedback or other
corrective efforts” (p. 1). Such persistent communication dysfunctionalities are likely to cause band
breakups (entropy, leading to the termination of the group), changes in membership (withdrawal), or
negative synergy (musical performance below the band’s potential).
Cooper (2001) found the persistence of unusual routines - their resistance to attempts to fix the
communication problems symptomatic of the unusual routine - to often lie in underlying, implicit values
shared by group members. Paradoxically, values which are clearly positive in intent, and about which there
exists substantial intersubjective agreement as to their merit, can support clearly negative interactions within
a musical group. Artistic integrity is an excellent example of such a value. The appeal and merit of this
value is apparent; most serious musicians would say they share this value. Yet, musical groups frequently
terminate when disagreement over the appropriate enactment of that value leads to such process losses as
dominance (conflict about the volume balance of the instruments), cognitive inertia (creative stagnation
resulting from conflict over aesthetic questions), and negative synergy (impaired musical performance
resulting from the inability to develop shared understanding of aesthetic standards).
In sum, a rock band in rehearsal provides a surprisingly rich opportunity to apply both established and
contemporary work in group communication, to a creative process not often recognized as group
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This page last updated July 8, 2013 by
Gary Radford. Many thanks to Kurt Wagner,
Marie Radford, and Jon Oliver.