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On Music, Relationships, and Making Music Spaces Safer for Everyone
Part II: Being together musically for good

Take a moment and think back on the lifetime of musical experiences you’ve had, in any role of listening, perceiving, or producing sound. As your thoughts float through your memories, focus your attention on an experience that evokes positive emotions and feelings. Who else was involved in that experience? Consider those that were present, but also think about all others that might have contributed to that experience, and the impact that it had on you. How would you characterise the actions of all of those that participated in the making of that moment? Where was their attention, individually and collectively, and where was yours?

That musical experience, I suspect, is the kind that you might find desirable or ideal, or that you might strive to recreate. It likely has had positive impact in many areas of your life, and might be one of the reasons that music is an important part of your life. It may also stand in contrast to other musical experiences which, if you recalled them, might bring up undesirable and painful emotions and feelings in the body. Those kinds of musical experiences, also intertwined with the relationships that brought them into existence, may have had a negative impact in your life, and perhaps have resulted in you distancing yourself from certain individuals, spaces, or types of music, as you seek to avoid further adverse impact.

In positive musical-relational experiences, a common thread among them is that the people present are orienting themselves towards attending to the wellbeing of each individual involved, and to the wellbeing of the collective as a whole. Individuals pay attention to the musical-relational needs of the collective, and the collective pays attention to the impact it has on each individual—there is a recognition of both individual and collective responsibility. 

Part of the reason that these kinds of experiences can be rare is that we live in societies that are structured to value and reward individualism, competition, and the maintenance of hierarchies of power in institutions and communities. In the music sector, this plays out in countless ways. Individuals compete for jobs, positions of influence, commissions, gigs, and grants by working within the status quo, implicitly understanding that threatening the status quo may mean that those rewards could be withheld from them. Instead of attending to the wellbeing of each individual and of a collective, we are often rewarded for attending to the wellbeing of the self alone. Unaddressed, this individualistic perspective can pervade musical activity.

Amidst these powerful forces that reward the alienation of individuals from one another, building spaces in music communities that prioritise attention to the wellbeing of each individual and of the group as a whole is a challenge. Anyone who has experienced any degree of isolation, harm, or pain in a musical environment can attest that this challenge is great, and might even seem insurmountable. 

To intentionally build spaces in music that are full of mutual support, trust, honesty, and respect, those of us within them need begin to practice new ways of being together. We who are performers, composers, engineers, producers, and otherwise involved in music understand the role of practicing in the development of our music careers. But as I discussed in Part I of this series, we’ve been taught to artificially separate our music practice from the practice of being together collectively in relationships.

Restorative justice is an area that has developed concrete ways to practice ways of living well together. Restorative practices help us to turn our attention to the needs of all individuals and of the collective, to focus on the dignity of each individual, to engage with each human being as a whole (e.g., not separating the musical activity of a person from their whole self), and to balance power and reduce possibilities for its abuse.

One of these practices is called a “connection circle” or, simply, a circle. A connection circle is an intentional relationship-building process implemented in a highly structured mode of interaction. In a connection circle, a group asks and answers this simple but rarely-asked question: how is it that we want to be well together? 

Circles take place in a facilitated format where everyone in the group voluntarily participates and commits to agreements at the start, such as speaking only when it is their turn, and listening and speaking with respect. Each person speaks (or can decline to speak), going around the circle one by one, in response to a question from the facilitator. The facilitator leads a few rounds of questions, which are designed to build trust and approach topics that allow participants to share what they need or want from the group as it goes about its activities, and for the group to establish its shared values. 

In my own work facilitating connection circles in music settings, I have witnessed moments where this structured focus on the dignity of each individual has had significant positive impact. Voices that tend to be marginalized or silenced—due to their gender, race, ethnicity, ability, or any other factor—have a platform to communicate their desires for the way a group operates. Those who are accustomed to taking up space agree to not interrupt others in a circle, and their own dignity is also valued even as they find they need to restrain themselves from habits they are accustomed to. They have time and space to listen to others and to be challenged, and the group respectfully supports them while maintaining high expectations for their behaviour. 

In a circle, not everyone has to agree. There is room for everyone’s perspective, as part of the purpose of the circle is working through differences. When circles I’ve facilitated have been particularly effective, participants have reported extraordinary shifts as more group members become committed to giving of themselves to musical projects, which I view as a synonym for giving of themselves to the relationships they have within those projects.

If this mode of connecting seems familiar, it might be that you have participated in a circle or similar format under a different name. Though restorative approaches have become more widely known in recent years, circle practices aren’t new. They have long been practiced, along with similarly horizontal or non-hierarchical ways of relating, in a number of Indigenous communities around the world, often as ritualised ways of building and restoring relationships (here’s one example).

Circles are not a one-time fix for transforming musical-relational settings into ones that generate positive and supportive experiences. Because they promote ways of being together that are counter to what societies, systems, career fields, and institutions reward, they need to be practiced. The old adage “practice makes perfect,” which all musicians know to be a myth,* runs counter to the aims of circles. In circles, we practice finding good ways to relate to one another musically. This practice won’t make us perfect, but it can make our musical relationships into ones where we do good to one another, and do good together. 


Read part I Here 

Read part III Here

Read Part IV Here


Dave Wilson is an interdisciplinary scholar, saxophonist, clarinettist, and composer based in Te Whanganui-a-Tara Wellington. He is a Senior Lecturer in Music at the New Zealand School of Music—Te Kōkī at Te Herenga Waka—Victoria University of Wellington.


Further resources on connection circles can be found here and here, and here.

* “Practice makes perfect” is a myth in part because it doesn’t direct us to what or how we should practice (and practicing the wrong thing or practicing mistakes doesn’t help), and in part because ideas about perfection in music are subjective and can support harmful hierarchies and destructive perfectionist tendencies.

Ideas related to connection circles in this post come from the work of Haley Farrar, a restorative practices specialist based in Te Whanganui-a-Tara Wellington, and from her book The Little Book of Restorative Teaching Tools (with Lindsey Pointer and Kathleen McGoey). This post also draws on ideas of Kay Pranis, a practitioner of restorative justice and circles for over 25 years and a co-founder of Living Justice Press. She is the author of several books, including Peacemaking Circles: From Conflict to Community (with Barry Stewart, and Mark Wedge) andCircle Forward(with Carolyn Boyes-Watson).

The title of this series is an adaptation of the title of the 2023 book On Music Theory, and Making Music More Welcoming for Everyoneby Philip Ewell, which examines race-based exclusion and white supremacy in the field of music theory, one of the countless structural manifestations of the musical-relational problems highlighted in this series. Clifton Boyd and Jade Conlee provide a review of the book at Music Theory Online that also resonates with the themes of this series.