How to Avoid Toxic People in the Arts (and How Not To Become One Yourself)
The music industry contains some of the best people, and some of the worst. When I first joined the profession my starry-eyed idealism was quickly shattered by public feuds between piano teachers, sabotaging behavior between pianists, and a low-level rumble of tension felt at most piano professional group meetings. At first I thought it was a regional problem, but I heard the same stories while adjudicating students outside my home town and most recently—in response to a my post on burnout—I’ve learned that the problem is international in scope. It seems that whenever several musicians or music teachers gather together, there will inevitably be a toxic one among them.
Unhealthy people exist in every profession. The music business, however, seems to have a higher number than many other disciplines—perhaps because most of us are self-employed and as such answer only to our clients and ourselves. And because there’s no group governance of bad behavior, it can flourish for decades. Surviving and thriving in the arts requires us to not only identify toxic people, but to find strategies to interact with them when necessary.
Toxic people come in a variety of disguises: sometimes it’s the teacher who’s friendly to your face but sabotages you behind your back. Sometimes it’s the pianist who tries to steal a gig from you. Sometimes it’s an autocratic organizational leader who jealously defends her turf from any and all rivals. All of these people share a common trait: they’re motivated to destroy others, not to build them up. Whether it’s jealousy, egoism, or low self-esteem run amuck, these individuals leave swaths of victims in their paths. This is where the “gut test” becomes extremely important: if you feel drained or battered after interacting with someone, chances are you’ve been interacting with a toxic personality.
Once you know you’ve encountered a toxic person, the easiest and wisest course of action is avoidance. Don’t work with this person. Don’t try to be friends with this person. When I was young I thought all toxic people could be made into friends if I was nice enough to them. I now know that sometimes the best thing for that person and myself is to wish them well on their journey and stay out of their way.
Sadly, sometimes we can’t avoid the bad actors. This is a particular challenge for those working in academia where jealousy can drive vicious and bitter professors to destroy others’ students in juries. Other problem areas are musical groups such as orchestras, choirs, or chamber ensembles. When we can’t avoid working with toxic individuals we must choose to “take the high road” or risk becoming as toxic as the people persecuting us. This is simple to say, but deadly difficult to do. It means working above reproach (because nothing succeeds like success) and refusing to resort to underhanded means of retaliation.
Taking the high road doesn’t mean becoming a proverbial doormat. There are times when bad behavior is libelous or dangerous and this is the time to stand firm and to take steps to stop it. Sometimes this can be accomplished through a frank and direct conversation with the trouble maker. Sometimes the law has to get involved, as it did when a gifted teacher I know was publicly accused of being a child molester by a jealous colleague. Strength is the only thing a bully understands and respects.
The most important thing about dealing with a toxic person is choosing to not become one yourself. This has been my biggest challenge because it’s deadly easy to slide into negativity and petty acts of revenge. I had to learn that the healthiest reaction to bad behavior is to support and champion worthy musicians and teachers and to nurture relationships with colleagues who build up rather than tear down. This required me to learn to be the colleague I wanted to find in the profession—regardless of how other people behaved. And by becoming a better colleague, I found myself welcomed into a supportive network of pianists who have not only championed me and my work but have become friends.
The choice is ours: no matter how badly others behave, we have control over where we place our focus. It’s up to us to keep toxic people from pulling our focus away from all the good things about our profession, most importantly the music we love.