The Great Equalizer

Anna Culver

Often when playing music, I am struck by how sharing music with one another mimics conversation or the range of human vocal expression. As well as the range in human experience. Tonalities of instruments, including the voice, often mimic tonalities of speaking, crying, laughing, moaning. When making music with others, we communicate with one another as in deep conversation. We sing songs with themes of heartbreak, loss, joy, hardship.

One thing I appreciate about bluegrass is how our culture of jamming and collective music-making helps us learn to be better musical “conversationalists.” We learn to be better listeners, we learn to help each other shine, we bond over harmony-singing, we are humbled by the great equalizer that is playing music in a group setting. The practice of strong respectful connection is, at its best, at the heart of jam etiquette.

I’m also struck by how, just like in everyday conversations, musical settings sometimes exhibit unhealthy or unhelpful communication as well. Too often, in “regular life” or in music, this unhelpful communication falls along categories of privilege and oppression. Just like we talk over each other, we sometimes play over each other. Just like we so often value talking over listening, we also forget the vitally important role listening plays in music-making. Just like already-marginalized voices are more likely to be unheard, passed over, minimized, not listened to, the same is far too often true in group musical settings.

I thought it would be interesting to take a look at some of the tools often discussed in nonmusical settings for encouraging connection across difference, and noticing any parallels with music. I got to thinking in particular about “community agreements” that are set in some social justice communities that I’ve been involved with at different times to establish norms of behavior.

Here’s a list of community agreements I found from the Anti-Oppression Resource and Training Alliance (I highly recommend checking out their website at http://aorta.coop; it’s full of useful content!):

Here’s some community agreements that can be helpful in meetings, to get you thinking:

ONE DIVA, ONE MIC Please, one person speak at a time. (It can also be useful to ask people to leave space in between speakers, for those who need more time to process words, or are less comfortable fighting for airtime in a conversation.)

NO ONE KNOWS EVERYTHING; TOGETHER WE KNOW A LOT This means we all get to practice being humble, because we have something to learn from everyone in the room. It also means we all have a responsibility to share what we know, as well as our question, so that others may learn from us.

MOVE UP, MOVE UP If you’re someone who tends to not speak a lot, please move up into a role of speaking more. If you tend to speak a lot, please move up into a role of listening more. This is a twist on the on the more commonly heard “step up, step back.” The “up/up” confirms that in both experiences, growth is happening. (You don’t go “back” by learning to be a better listener.) Saying “move” instead of “step” recognizes that not everyone can step.

WE CAN’T BE ARTICULATE ALL THE TIME As much as we’d like, we just can’t. Often people feel hesitant to participate in a workshop or meeting for fear of “messing up” or stumbling over their words. We want everyone to feel comfortable participating, even if you can’t be as articulate as you’d like.

BE AWARE OF TIME This is helpful for your facilitator, and helps to respect everyone’s time and commitment. Please come back on time from breaks, and refrain from speaking in long monologues...

BE CURIOUS We make better decisions when we approach our problems and challenges with questions (“What if we…?”) and curiosity. Allow space for play, curiosity, and creative thinking.

NOTE: There’s a few community agreements that participants often bring up that we don’t tend to use or bring with us. Two of the most common ones are “assume best intentions” and “default to trust.” The reason we don’t use these is because when someone is unable to do this (say they’re feeling untrusting of someone, or unsafe), having a community agreement telling to do so isn’t going to change anything. Put short, these agreements aren’t always possible, especially when we take into consideration that when people have been harmed by sexism, racism, homophobia, transphobia, classism, they/we build up necessary tools to take care of and protect themselves/ourselves. Agreements we offer instead that capture the spirit of these are “we can’t be articulate all the time,” “be generous with each other,” or “this is a space for learning.”

(Source for this worksheet: x)

Looking at this list, I’m reminded of jam etiquette and the community agreements we have as bluegrassers. I’m reminded of our own norms of behavior. And also, this list speaks to other dynamics that go unchecked in any group setting, including music. It seems to me that anti-oppressive behavior is highly related to practicing good jam etiquette.

As we work to create more inclusive musical spaces, at jams and elsewhere, how can we make our bluegrass etiquette specifically anti-oppressive? What are ways that we can practice some of these skills and stick up for one another when we are in a musical setting? How do we respond when we get skipped in a jam? When we witness another woman getting skipped in a jam? How do we ensure women or other marginalized groups aren’t carrying the burden of responsibility for addressing these questions? How do we include this in the jam etiquette conversation?

Bluegrass has set a powerful precedent for democratization, for fostering good listening skills, for teaching how to play music with others, for gathering with others to connect over a song, for community-building. When navigating our questions, we can look to these values and see that we all have a place at the table—or we should, and it’s something worth fighting for.