You can learn a lot from bluegrass music. There is a rich history, form and structure but plenty of space to make it your own. My wife, four kids and I recently walked into an unassuming brick building that was surrounded by trendy restaurants, sleek office buildings and a Google fiber retail activation. Oddly enough, it was the modern pieces of the puzzle that seemed out of place. It was a rainy Sunday night in Nashville, TN and Station Inn was about half full. There was a mix of people shaking off the raindrops and musicians tuning their instruments in the center of the room with their black plastic cases lining the back wall. The one room hall was cozy, dimly lit by a few neon lights, and felt like a family gathering place. The smell of popcorn weaved through the air and pulled me in the direction of the bar in the corner. I grabbed a beer for myself and a popcorn, two Moon Pies and three Goo-Goo clusters to keep the kids entertained. We settled into the population of tourists and locals intermingled with a welcoming tone in the spirit of bluegrass music.
While bluegrass music has roots in Kentucky, Nashville took it to the masses. Bill Monroe and his band, the Bluegrass Boys, were melting the faces of music fans all over the south with this new sound. I can’t help to think that this music could probably have been the punk rock music of its day. It was different than traditional country music. It was driving and had this tremendous, almost off-the-hinges kind of energy. Many believe the official birth of the bluegrass genre didn’t actually happen until 1945, when Earl Scruggs added his three finger banjo picking to the already stellar line up that accompanied Bill Monroe on his ascent through the high church of music history.
The kick drum-like backbone of the double bass, the supporting 2 and 4 chop of the mandolin, the gritty carving of the fiddle bow to the strings, the texture and glue of the acoustic guitar, the racing and majestic swells of the Dobro, the jangling motor of the banjo and the intentionally stacked community of voices all set the stage for stories that are hundreds of years old and serve as the soundtrack of an era. There is a form that directs the collective sound. Within the form there exists pockets of time dedicated to individual moments of expression. During the performance of these forms, the musicians trade bars, or specific moments in time within the song, to improvise over the form. There is no more powerful tool for a musician than the two ears on the side of their head. Most bluegrass music is performed acoustically or around one or two microphones, so dynamic awareness, control, listening and empathy are as important as the chord structure and music theory. Unlike rock music, you can’t just step on an overdrive or boost pedal to elevate about the noise floor of the band. With bluegrass music, the band controls their own volume acting responsibly to balance the sounds of the collective train while dipping down to let the mandolin or Dobro rip out a few runs. There are patterns and structure to bluegrass music. If you learn the alphabet and listen well, you will find yourself in some inspiring moments.
Form and structure could be interpreted as limiting factors to creative expression, but they could also serve as the scaffolding that lifts the painter to the ceiling of a chapel. It is also the common language to communicate between the musicians within the performance. Clear communication is an enabler of productive collaboration, and ambiguity or distortion during the process can be disastrous. A brilliant idea, haunting melody or transformational story can be masked by the vehicle of its delivery and the audience of its reception. Like learning to write letters, form words, sentences and narratives, it all begins with mastering the twenty-six letters of the alphabet. Structure can actually feed creativity. Constraints are a puzzle to solve and not a bottleneck. True creative minds are problem seekers. Limitations provide the jolt that you need if you embrace diversity of perspective and employ divergent thinking. It’s not about inventing new paperclips, it’s about finding 100 new ways to use a single paper clip.
Bluegrass music, and many other genres, use the Nashville Numbering System, which is musical shorthand developed by session musicians to communicate across multiple instruments and tunings. If the song is a 1 – 4 – 5 in the Key of A, the chord structure would be A – D – E. If the banjo player called out a 1 – 4 – 1 – 5 in F, the chord structure would be F – Bb – F – C. This is the paper clip, and during a jam, the musicians improvise to find its 100 uses. If creativity is the unique rearranging of found elements, couldn’t limiting the amount of building blocks drive divergent thinking?
Nashville Numbering System
While our ego may tell us a different story, there is power in the art of listening. It’s the core of our learning process, and it builds empathy, understanding and connection between two or more people. Listening is nothing more than pure truth-seeking. Good listeners protect the windows of creative expression of others. Through radical open-mindedness, we can become master listeners and exponential learners. Listening is exploratory and isn’t meant to trigger an immediate generation of a response. You can’t listen and formulate a response at the same time. You can either invest in hearing a new perspective, or you can recycle and broadcast an old narrative created in the vacuum of your personal belief system. Can we really know anything with 100% certainty? Can we be confident in our belief system without truly understanding its counterpoint? None of this is possible without listening.
Put yourself in the middle of a bluegrass jam. You are a mandolin player surrounded by eight to ten smiling and nodding musicians on a beautifully chaotic runaway train of pure musical bliss. The guitar player signals to you that its your window. With a deep breath, you quickly compile your musical knowledge, dexterity and creativity to launch into an eight-bar solo. Two-bars in, the fiddle player jumps over the top of your notes squashing them down to a cantankerous cacophony indigestible to anyone in the group or the audience. The fiddle player could have had a question, wanted to interject to share his experience, tried to confirm or validate something you said, attempted to save you from repeating unfounded drivel, or felt the need to make sure everyone in the room knew he was smarter than you. Either way, it was a full stop to your creative expression. While this lack of listening and empathy is not commonplace in bluegrass jams, it happens everyday in meetings, presentations, phone calls and other interactions.
In listening and truth-seeking, we invest in moments to understand. Watching a bluegrass ensemble perform is a masterclass in the art of listening, which is something that we are not formally taught. It is also a confirmation that structure is not an impediment to creativity. In fact, intimate understanding of structure can actually enable creative expression. The lessons that we need are all around us. We don’t have to be in a classroom, lecture hall or conference to find them. I found a few on a rainy night in Nashville at Station Inn.
What did Bluegrass music teach me?
Don’t let structure or constraints be the reason you don’t make something.
Don’t be the fiddle that drowns out the mandolin.