Hiding out in the section

Psychologists have noticed that a person working in a group will do less work than he or she would do if working alone. This behavior, which goes by the name of the Ringelmann effect, has been verified in many studies. In one, the more people there were in a group of people who were asked to shout, the softer each individual person shouted even though everyone was always asked to shout as loudly as possible.

As a rule, the more people in a group, the less each work each individual does.

David McRaney writes about this behavior in his book You Are Not So Smart. “[W]hen you join the efforts of others toward a common goal, everyone has a tendency to loaf more than if each was working alone.” He calls this behavior “social loafing.” Employers are well aware of social loafing. That’s why they track each individual employee’s productivity. I worked for a large corporation many years ago, when it wasn’t so easy to track an employee’s productivity, and I can attest that there was no shortage of social loafing occurring in the hallways between the cubicles and offices.

I imagine that many band and orchestra teachers have noticed this social loafing behavior among their students, but we just call it “hiding out in the section.” It’s well known among band teachers that if there are eight flute players in the section and all are playing the same part, each student will play it less well in the group than he or she would individually. And some will take it to the extreme and hardly be able to play their part at all, probably hoping that no one will notice.

I met a woman a few years ago who told me that she played flute in her high school band but never did anything more than pretend to play. She would just blow and move her fingers randomly. Amazingly, her band teacher never noticed (or at least, being stretched to the limit, probably noticed but didn’t say anything). Being in a group takes the pressure off.

I’ve found myself feeling a bit annoyed by this phenomenon. When it comes to playing a challenging section of music, I ask my students to practice at home, but they often don’t. Why? I think it’s because they know that others are playing the same music, so their not being able to play the part individually won’t be so noticeable. They are trying to hide out in the section.

The antidote. The one thing that counteracts the Ringelmann effect is what McRaney calls “evaluation apprehension,” in other words, a test. If you know that you are going to be tested individually on the material, you will work harder so as not to sound bad in front of your peers. You can’t hide out in the section when you are the only one playing. That might explain why instruments that tend to play by themselves, such as the tuba and the piano, prepare their music thoroughly. There’s no section to hide in. Every note you play is heard.

Musical training, if done right, encourages each person to think of their part as essential to the overall character of the piece. Mature musicians learn to think of themselves as soloists, no matter what part they play, whether third trombone or first violin. When Michael Tilson Thomas took the job of conductor of the San Francisco Symphony, he is reported to have told the musicians in the orchestra to think of themselves as soloists. That doesn’t mean that the tuba should play so as to obstruct the sound of the first violins. It’s not willfully playing your part louder than others. It’s realizing that your part, even when part of the “hidden” inner harmony, deserves to be played at the highest possible level. Such playing takes maturity and humility, which may explain why not every musical ensemble plays at the highest level or why young musicians must learn how to do it.

To address my annoyance, I’m going to try to get around the Ringelmann effect by having my students perform the challenging sections of their music in front of the class in a short recital format. For example, if the alto saxophones have an especially challenging eight measures of music to play in a particular arrangement, each player will be asked to perform those eight measures as a recital in front of the class with the expectation that these “recitals” will improve the overall quality of the ensemble. We will see how it goes.