Bluegrass Professionalism

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Bluegrass musicians are deeply ambivalent about professionalism. Perhaps they worry that becoming “professional” means losing the intrinsic spontaneous improvisational center of our music. Or they’re concerned that becoming part of a professional organization will serve to control their freedom. Or they just don’t see how a professional organization can benefit their advance as musicians or bands.
At the heart of bluegrass music lies the idea that we are one of the few, perhaps the only, music genres in which the fans are also widely seen as practitioners. Large numbers of bluegrass fans come to festivals, attend monthly meetings of their local bluegrass associations, or get together in music shops or restaurants to jam together on a regular basis. The skill level of these bluegrass jammers ranges from just beginning to pick to highly accomplished practitioners, some of whom have spent significant portions of their musical lives as touring musicians. The lore and etiquette of the jam permit this range, encouraging beginners and novices to sit around the fringes of a jam circle keeping time on their instruments, while more skilled pickers gravitate to or are invited into the center, where they carry the bulk of the musical load. For many bluegrassers, making the music is more important than listening to it. Many people maintain it’s at such events that the heart of bluegrass music is maintained and strengthened.

My observation is that many of the jams I see and hear along our travels are truly amateur, in every sense of the word. The music is played at a relatively slow tempo by people who love playing and singing together, but who are truly not highly accomplished. Often, when the selection of a song comes to many participants, they choose an old country song, partly because it’s the music they love and partly because many of these songs are easier to play than much of the blazing fast, instrumentally demanding bluegrass repertoire. Some of these get-togethers, however, develop into full-fledged bands which decide to perform during a festival’s open stage period (often held in the hour or so before the professional bands begin to play) or to compete in band contests for the privilege of earning a place in the lineup for pay on Sunday afternoon or, more rarely, next year’s festival. A few of these pick-up bands emerge as touring bands. The Bluegrass Brothers would be a good example of such a progression. An amateur bluegrass musician, then, is a person who plays bluegrass music for the pure love of the form and sound of the music. He or she may be highly accomplished, but often restricts playing “out” to local events, performing at Rolling Hills Rest Home, or getting together with friends and family on the proverbial front porch.

In conversations I’ve had with bluegrass professionals, a common thread is their having heard the music early in their youth, been deeply affected by it, picked up an instrument, and practiced maniacally for thousands of hours over a number of years. Larry Stephenson’s song, “The Sound that Set My Soul on Fire” captures the essence of this experience. The other common experience is that many professionals grew up in homes where instruments were always in evidence and began playing almost as soon as they could hold one up. The commonly accepted number of hours of concentrated practice thought to yield skill approaching professional competence is said to be 10,000. That’s three hours a day for ten years. The minimum standard for professionalism in bluegrass is having mastered an instrument to a level most will never achieve. Most of the people on tour are truly practitioners who’ve spent the necessary time in the woodshed and played with bands to the exclusion of other pursuits and interests for a number of years.

So, it appears that in most cases, an extremely high level of instrumental or vocal proficiency is the minimum necessary skill level for entering the ranks of musical professionals, but it is not the necessary minimum for success. It starts with being a brilliant musician. Unfortunately, it also seems to end there, also. Too often we hear a musician say, “It’s all about the music.” Well, it isn’t all about the music. Success in performing bluegrass music at the professional level is more about learning a range of professional skills that include musical performance, but which also require spending enormous amounts of time and energy in the business of doing business. That is, musicians must spend what they consider to be inordinate amounts of time building, planning, and promoting the business side of their enterprise. Music publicist Ariel Hyatt has written an essay called “The Top Seven Reasons Why Artists Resist Social Media,” which is must reading for anyone wishing to be a top bluegrass professional. Here’s a link: . Read Ariell’s take on this as an opener.

But Hyatt’s essay is only a beginning. Professionalism in music requires developing a business plan, making decisions on how a band will brand itself, involving advisers in a range of capacities where many musicians lack skills themselves (accounting, communicating verbally, planning, and more), and continuing to develop as a band. Bands that have persisted through years of success as businesses have shown themselves to be adept in these areas. Take a look at Doyle Lawson, Rhonda Vincent, Dailey & Vincent, and others whose attention to detail and careful promotion have helped them turn musical excellence into lucrative careers. And with all this, musicians cannot afford to rest on their laurels as performers.

Atul Gawande, a surgeon and New Yorker staff writer, has written an article called “Personal Best” (New Yorker, October 3, 2011, pp. 44 – 53) in which he examines the point in his professional life where he felt he had reached a plateau, the balance point between achieving the necessary skill level to practice his profession without any longer being aware that he was getting better. Through an experience on the tennis court and a series of interviews with musicians, singers, and teachers, he describes the process by which he came to understand the need for coaching as it applies to his practicing his profession and continuing to grow in it. Gawande’s experience raises the question of whether and how bluegrass musicians continue to become more professional in their approach to plying their trade. How many active musicians seek out a coach to listen to their play and give them feedback on how they’re continuing to improve? How many have the confidence to seek out ongoing advice from a professional mentor on their instrument or as a band? How much could they benefit from such an activity as it pertains to their becoming better instrumentalists and more consistently effective bands? What must musicians and bands do to stand out from the crowd as recognizably themselves?

Here are some other questions to ask. How often is your newsletter distributed? What’s the state of your email list? How effective are your street teams? How quickly can you communicate with your one hundred or one thousand true fans? How do you maintain your web site, Facebook fan page, personal Facebook page, and Twitter account? How are you building your management team? Incidentally, each of these questions was dealt with extensively in seminars at IBMA-WOB in the past two years. Careful attention to and application of any one of these seminars would have paid for your admission fees in increased sales and bookings.

These are the kinds of questions that professionals ask of themselves as they pursue a career. Recently I interviewed a professional musician who commented that many bands sound alike. He said it’s nearly impossible to identify most bands from their sound until well into a song and after the lead singer has begun to sing. Even then, many bluegrass bands sound very much alike. Some contemporary bands are almost instantly recognizable: Blue Highway, Dailey & Vincent, Steve Martin & The Steep Canyon Rangers, Rhonda Vincent, The Gibson Brothers, Del McCoury. Others are very good, but don’t imprint themselves as thoroughly. How have these bands established a distinctive sound that has contributed to their becoming a brand? This is what every professional bluegrass musician and band needs to ask itself. Finding the answer and then selling it to an increasing crowd of bluegrass fans is the challenge.

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