How to be an Effective Bandleader

Once you begin exploring opportunities to create or become a part of an all-star line up of talented musicians, it’s critical that you understand the importance of the various talents each musician may demonstrate, and the roles they can fill with these talents. Of the various roles we will be exploring, the bandleader plays the biggest part in a band’s success. Here, you’ll learn the characteristics of a strong bandleader and how to develop them.

No tribe is complete without a trusted and respected Chief. The bandleader will ensure that the momentum of the band is continuously monitored and carried forward. They understand how best to harness each member’s energy for the most efficient and effective progression of the band as a whole.

The Path to Progress

It is often a rare occurrence to have extremely skilled musicians working together in the same project. If the band does not demonstrate a clearly defined or shared bandleader role, the talented musicians will become frustrated at the lack of direction in the band, and move on to other projects that have a more promising future.

Crucial to a band’s success is the ability to move forward and attain tangible milestones with plans in place to do so, along with alternative solutions when these milestones are not reached. It’s imperative for the bandleader to understand why the milestones weren’t accomplished in the first place and ensure that they are aware of the best possible next step to continue moving forward.

When there is no bandleader or anyone taking accountability, there is no precedent and band morale takes a nosedive since nothing is being accomplished. It is the bandleader’s responsibility to create processes and continuously optimize practices to achieve the highest level of productivity possible. They must do this with a dedication to upholding democracy, where every voice is heard and empathised with.

Long story short: the bandleader puts the band’s needs first, and not their own.

Before we explore the role and characteristics of a bandleader, let’s look at the other commonly-encountered roles found in a band.


Although it is certainly possible for band members to display multiple roles at any given time, typically they will gravitate towards one of the three listed below.

As we will touch upon later, it is best for as many band members as possible to demonstrate bandleader characteristics. Members that have accumulated considerable experience and success in previous projects will tend to demonstrate bandleader characteristics. However, with less experienced band members/musicians, the roles they play tend to fall into one of three categories:

  • The Workhorse
  • The Contrary Mary
  • The Comic Relief

Let’s take a closer look at these roles and discuss ways that an effective bandleader can harness their characteristics for the greater good of the band.

The Workhorse

The Workhorses are the ones that not only execute their assignments, but go above and beyond the call of duty and may even expand a little into additional areas associated with the assignment. Often, Workhorses do not feel comfortable delegating tasks to others, but do enjoy the structure of having clearly defined expectations of them so that they can deliver the goods.

Workhorses are traditionally punctual and are the last to leave practice, staying to ensure they know exactly what is expected of them for next practice.

Hardworking people in a bandDue to their strong work ethic and dedication to getting the job done, they are the first to become very discouraged when there is lack of order in the band or no sense of tangible accomplishment.

An easy way to keep band morale up as an effective bandleader is to positively reinforce the actions and tasks completed by the Workhorse. The idea is to have them lead by example to allow the other members to see how their dedication is contributing to the band’s success.

This allows the bandleader to accentuate the positive when there are gaps in productivity between members, and not have to single someone out directly that may be falling behind. This in turn allows the Workhorses to feel noticed and appreciated, thus continually keeping their spirits alive knowing that their hard work and efforts have not been in vain.

The Contrary Mary

Typically, there is that one member in the band that is not afraid to go against the grain and regularly challenge the band’s proposed working agenda or dynamics.

The Contrary Mary tends to see the worst in any situation. They are the doomsday proclaimers and are always voicing every possible thing that could go wrong in a situation.

Although these individuals may appear to bring morale down on the surface due to their ever-present dissonant attitude, their critique and alternate perspective are extremely useful and can be effectively harnessed by a strong bandleader for the betterment of the band.

An effective bandleader may utilize the Contrary Mary’s perspective to take into consideration all the possible holes in the overall game plan. As disappointing as it may seem to be reminded of potential negatives, it is incredibly rewarding to have a proactive Plan B in place for when anticipated shortcomings show their face.

Contrary Mary or Misfit?

One thing worth noting is that sometimes individuals join bands that they are not the best fit for musically. For example, their genre preference may not be aligned with the band’s agreed-upon style.

It’s useful to understand the difference between a Contrary Mary who genuinely loves the genre that the band is performing in but seems to focus on what could go wrong, and those that are simply a genre mismatch and would be happier performing in another project. Keeping open and honest communication with every member is the best way to truly understand what’s in their hearts to take note of any incongruences.

The Comic Relief

The Comic Relief is the band respite. Although it may seem to be an unwanted trait 90% of the time (read: when the band should be focusing and is interrupted), there are times that this member and their sense of humour will prove to be a band lifesaver.

When the band is being driven pretty hard and tension is rising between band members, the Comic Relief’s ability to sense tension is unlike any other. They will step in and provide the much-needed humour and perspective to remind everyone that at the end of the day, they are playing because they love music.

The Comic Relief is the tension release valve, and will sound the alarm whenever band tensions begin to rise past boiling point. A keen bandleader can use them as a band tension barometer, to know when to call for a break during a band practice or discussion.

Bandleader Characteristics

Now that we have provided some framework on the non-bandleader roles, let’s explore the key characteristics good bandleaders exemplify.

  1. Confidence
  2. Effective Listening
  3. Micro/Macro Awareness
  4. Task Delegation

These four traits help a bandleader manage the other members in a way that is collaborative and constructive, instead of bossy and belittling.

1. Confidence

No matter what you do in your musical career, or even life in general, confidence is one of the most important characteristics that will allow you continued success with each experience. Confidence is infectious; when you believe in yourself, so will others. As you accomplish each goal towards your success, you will gain a little more confidence along the way.

The only way to gain any real confidence is by taking action to gain more and more experience. You’ll never be able to become a bandleader if you lack the courage to take the first step and start acting as one. In the beginning, you will learn from every interaction and there is truly nothing to lose and everything to gain.

When you take yourself seriously in your ability to effectively act on behalf of the band’s best interest, it shows! The result: your bandmates will naturally respect you and follow your direction.

The More Bandleaders, the Better!

Although starting out there may be a bigger delineation between the bandleader and the previous roles mentioned in the beginning, as you become more successful and progress in your career with established musicians, you’ll find that experienced musicians will naturally demonstrate strong bandleader traits. Generally speaking, the higher the caliber of musicians in a band, the more bandleader characteristics each member demonstrates. These tried and true characteristics will realize success time and time again.

Experienced band members, regardless of what other roles they may have previously favored or demonstrated, will begin acting and contributing as bandleaders because they know the payoff is success; they interweave bandleader characteristics into their core fabric.

So when struggling with your confidence to be a strong bandleader, remember that it is not a competition or exclusive role to reign with an iron fist. It is an ideal perspective and principle that every member in a band should consider moving toward to optimize the band’s chance of success.

2. Effective Listening

To be an effective bandleader, you need to understand what is truly going on within the band dynamic to be able to create lasting change.

Listening EarWe have all been around people that just wait for your lips to stop moving so that they can blurt out a random point that has been addressed previously. Had that person actually stopped focusing on the point they felt was relevant and understood that communication is a process of data transfer between two individuals, time would be saved and everyone would be working smarter.

Regardless of how insignificant it may seem, when a band member is voicing their opinion, it is imperative to listen carefully to break down all of the areas of concern that may need to be addressed or further investigated.

A good technique to employ to become an effective listener is to repeat what you “think” you heard back to the band member and ask for validation. Doing so will help enable the band member to feel comfortable with your position as a leader, knowing that the band is working as a democracy and that their voice is being heard.

Furthermore, effective listening and understanding will also foster better communication. Better communication will allow you to discuss difficult items of concern such as the possible dismissal and replacement of a band member.

These discussions are best started with a side conversation with the member in question to see how they truly feel and coordinate any possible alternatives to keep the progress of the band moving forward. When communication is open and honest, challenging situations such as replacing a band member could be a positive experience for all individuals involved.

3. Micro/Macro Awareness

An effective bandleader must be diligent to listen for parts that are consistently not being executed correctly. It is equally important to understand when momentum and the cost benefit reward of focussing on such intricate details is not contributing to the bigger picture.

Macro – Big Picture Awareness

A bandleader should have a big picture understanding of items that need to be completed, why they need to be completed, and what date they should be completed by. It’s important to remind yourself of the big “macro” picture throughout every band practice to ensure that what you are doing today is going to have a significant impact on the goals that matter most.

A band message board is always a good idea. Dry erase boards seem to be visually stimulating, and are easily accessible and easy to update. The band should agree on what the most important big picture/long-term goals are. Together as a band, write the agreed-upon goals on the dry erase board as a reminder and holding place.

Regarding digital band communication, although we have today at our disposal the ability to use technology such as Google Drive and other cloud/cyber based locations for band communications, these cyber locations tend to get overlooked and forgotten. I have found that tangible displays, such as a dry erase board located directly in the band practice room, seem to serve for communicating band goals better than cyber locations.

At the beginning of every practice, the bandleader should be especially cognizant as to what the game plan for that day’s practice will be, and how it relates to the big-picture goals on the dry erase board. At the end of the practice, the bandleader should document what happened during the band practice in a journal. The following questions should be answered:

  • What was planned?
  • What was and wasn’t executed?
  • What were the reasons something was or wasn’t executed?
  • How was something difficult or challenging able to get executed?

Lastly, put everything together to determine what the agenda of the next band practice should be, and how it relates to the big picture. Using previous successes and challenges with similar items, you can then devise the best way to tackle the items on the agenda.

Remembering our previous characteristic of being an effective listener will assist when devising a game plan. Consult with band members for their feedback to devise the agenda for the next band practice, and best ways to execute it!

Micro – The Devil is in the Details

As your musical career progresses, there will be a minimum level of expectation set for the band to execute songs at the appropriate proficiency level. It’s important to catalog and improve the “micro” elements that consistently being underperformed.

As mentioned above, it is recommended to have a journal available for documentation at every band practice. It doesn’t matter if it is logged on your phone, an excel spreadsheet, or a notebook.

Band dramaWhen a song is practiced, it is a good idea to take a mental log of all of the areas that could use better execution. As soon as the song is done, quickly jotting down bullet points of areas to focus on and bringing them to the attention of the band in an open-ended way will help prevent anyone feeling like they are being singled out.

Instead of saying:

“Lizzy and Jim need to be more tight during the bridge!”

Try more open wording, such as:

“I’m not sure if I heard something a little off during the bridge, but I’d feel more comfortable if we played this song again, and I’d like to ask everyone to pay extra attention to this section to help me figure out what might be off”.

The first approach comes off as criticizing Lizzy and Jim, whereas the second approach is much more collaborative and productive, as you are asking the entire band to help you figure out what is wrong with the song as a team and how to rectify it.

An added bonus of being able to pay careful attention to a micro level while performing is that it actually makes you a better musician. In order to simultaneously listen for opportunities for improvement from the band while performing your part, you will need to be proficient and performing your part from muscle memory.

4. Task Delegation

Rather than thinking of task delegation as barking orders at others and telling members what to do, think of it as a way to stimulate and encourage their inherent skills and creativity.

Outside of being talented musicians, your band members will have strong qualities and experience that may help the band accomplish some of its administrative goals that need tackling. Being able to keep any smaller administrative tasks in-house will ensure a greater deal of control over the end product, and even help keep costs down as an added benefit!

As a bandleader, you now see how there will be plenty of tasks to stay on top of. The more administrative tasks you can delegate to fellow band members, the more you can focus on continually refining and optimizing the band’s goals!

Being able to see potential in band members to execute certain administrative tasks such as designing band flyers/logos/website, managing social media, and creating set lists will help allow them to tap into latent areas of creativity just waiting to be ignited!

Remember to play to people’s strengths; it’s more effective to ask for volunteers and explain why you think one member might be a strong candidate for that assignment, rather than dictate that someone do something they don’t want to.

Playing to Everyone’s Strengths

Band members showing their strengthsNow that you’re familiar with the many roles within a band and what they entail, along with the characteristics that are essential for effective bandleaders, you are one step closer to leading your band to success!

Being aware of band members’ personality dynamics to see what roles they most closely identify with will give you a framework to utilize their unique perspectives for the greater good of the band.

Putting a group of talented musicians into a room with a general goal in mind is simply not enough; in order to reach your goals, you must first have clearly defined goals with a process in place and ways to monitor your progress. Using the characteristics mentioned above as a template, you have everything you need to build a strong foundation to be an effective bandleader.

A final note: the best bandleaders encourage their bandmates to become bandleaders, too! There can never be enough bandleaders, and the more members acting in this capacity will dramatically improve the band’s chance of success. What are you waiting for? Your band is counting on you! Go out there, lead by example, and achieve greatness!

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