Author: Karsemeyer, John

Social Reinforcement and Bluegrass Music

Ima Pickwood loves bluegrass music. She's been playing since the age of twelve, and she just turned fifty. Her fingers are long and slim, no signs of arthritis so far. She never made it “big” in bluegrass music, as few people do. If you are ever going to “make it,” you usually drop a few hints by the time you are thirty.

She knows this, but keeps playing anyway, for twenty or thirty bucks, a meal, and liquid refreshment for each two hour gig. Ima and her band, The Occasionals, play at local venues. A pub, cafe, fund raiser, and occasionally a bluegrass festival (small stage) is where they can be found. Sometimes she and her band travel an hour, or two, just to play a gig, with the monetary compensation being just enough to break even for gas. Way back when, when she was in her twenty's, she sometimes got to open for a major, well known band. So the pay was better and the audiences were bigger. Once in awhile that opportunity still presents itself. By any basic standard of sound economics it isn't worth her time and efforts to keep traveling this musical journey, but there is some kind of strange force that keeps Ima playing her music.Her musical income is supplemented by a part time job, preparing “free-range” chickens for “Colonel Clucks” fast food restaurants, nation-wide. She qualified for this position by picking up a Bachelor of Science college degree, majoring in Animal Husbandry, minoring in the Art of Cuisine.

A couple of years ago a television documentary show, “50 minutes” (10 minutes for commercials) interviewed Ima. Ostensibly, on the surface, the show's producer had a keen interest in the “free range” aspect of chickens (what with the national focus on the humane treatment of poultry, before being transformed into meals delivered via drive-through windows to customers in their automobiles). But the real reason for the interview, the deep-down, hidden, dark-side reason was different.

The producer, was a “recovering vegetarian,” who used to eat nothing but, yes, vegetation. However, after years of therapy he came to the guided revelation that he really hated vegetation, and his eating of the same was an unconscious form of aggression. So he changed his eating ways, and now he just loved to eat chicken, especially fast food chicken. At one point in his previous vegetative state he vowed never to eat any kind of food that came in a bucket, but that was then and a man can change (if he has to). He was now a drive-through junkie, a leg and breast man. His unending quest was to find the magic chemical ingredients to a certain recipe for chicken made at the aforementioned fast food establishment. So far he was unsuccessful. This was the true reason he wanted Ima on the TV show. To dig, and dig, and dig some more to extract the secret formula from Ima. He had a hunch that Ima knew the secret, even though he didn't ask her before the show. His plan was to wait and catch her off-guard, in front of millions of viewers on live television.

On the TV show the producer asked Ima, “How do you prepare the chickens? How do you do it? What's the secret? The world wants to know. I want to know! What do you really do to prepare the chickens?” Ima stared straight at the camera, didn't say a thing for fifteen seconds, and then spoke, “Oh, to prepare them I just tell them that they're going to die.”

Her instrument of choice is a guitar. It is a 1973, dreadnought size body, solid woods, Indian rosewood back and sides, with a sitka spruce top. It cost her a month's pay, but well worth it (to her). It's “birthplace” was Magalia, California, and it's maker is Carl Fred Marvin (whose great grandfather made guitars in Germany in the 1800's). The headstock has bold, mother of pearl, vertical block inlay, that jumps out at you, “MARVIN.” A mighty fine guitar, it is.

It has always been a mystery to Ima as to why she keeps on keeping on, playing her music, year in and year out. Early in her life she crossed the line. The line that leads to trying to make a living doing what you love to do, playing bluegrass music full time. The line that most of us do not cross, choosing instead to be gainfully employed in some perfunctory, pedestrian job, which leads to having just spare time to play this addicting bluegrass music.

Even though she crossed the line, Ima needs her part time job to make a living. Although bluegrass music is not a full time occupation for her in the world of reality, she keeps hoping that someday it will be. She knows how old she is, she knows the odds, but she also knows about Grandma Moses and other late bloomers.

And Ima knows one thing for sure. When she is playing on stage in front of an appreciative audience, the rest of the world goes away. She doesn't worry about just barely making it, that there are wars being waged all over the world, Wall Street terrorists in our midst, riots in other countries that have oppressive governments, or any of the other negative stuff that endlessly streams from radio and television, twenty-four-seven.

And that audience applause, that's the big thing for Ima. That overwhelming good feeling that just grabs her is too good for words. “It keeps me going,” she tells others.

An almost divine revelation of insight regarding her musical performances that keep her captive, on the brink of poverty, came to Ima at a recent bluegrass festival. She was jamming with a mandolin player who just happened to be a psychologist, full time, when the festivals aren't happening. At one point in their brief musical relationship (after consuming a little more than her usual amount of alcohol refreshment) she told the psychologist of the mystery that has kept her playing for so many years as an impecunious entity.

“Oh, you are a victim of social reinforcement,” he remarked in an enlightening manner. Questioningly Ima replied, “That's good to know, but what the heck is that?”

The psychologist went on to explain that social reinforcement is an impact, a force upon us when we are congratulated by others in the human race. When we are praised by our peers, our friends, our family, or for that matter, just about anybody, it is a “Wow” experience. And when we are applauded by someone, a few, more than that, maybe hundreds or thousands of people, it has a Gargantuan positive impact on us. More specifically, an impact on our brain.

Music, by itself, releases chemicals in the brain that make us feel good. These chemicals are called endorphins. But when we are playing music around others, a social situation if you will, and they applaud us for performing music, well, we get a bigger “hit” of those endorphins. These chemicals are a powerful, powerful thing, that make us feel really, really wonderful. “Biology's natural drug, free of charge,” is how the psychologist expressed it to Ima.

So, if we keep playing music, and if we keep getting applause from the audience, it socially reinforces us, and makes us want to continue to keep doing what we're doing. We all like acknowledgement from others (either on a conscious or unconscious level). If we are trying to make a living playing bluegrass music, it's a job. For the majority of musicians doing this it can pay very little and have little or no tangible benefits (health care, vacations, sick leave).

But for many musicians that doesn't matter. To play is the thing. Scrapping by. But it is a job, and not just any job. What other kind of work is there that when you finish doing what you're doing you get applauded for it? That applause, that audience, that limelight, that stage, is what floods our brains with naturally released chemicals, and socially reinforces musicians/singers to keep on doing what they do best.

What about those of you who just play part time? Does this social reinforcement also apply? Definitely. If you are in a band, part-time, that gets paid, it works the same way. What other kind of a job is there that you would drive to that may be an hour or two away, play until midnight, drive all the way back home, and end up with $20 or $30 in your pocket (sometimes not even that much). There is a force present that drives you.

What about if you just play, for no pay? It works the same way. Some folks will drive for six to eight hours (or more), rent rooms, and spend money they usually wouldn't just to jam for two days or a week. Some folks go to festivals just to play bluegrass with others, and don't care about the bands on stage, or don't care about being on a stage themselves. Sure, the love of the music is enough to embrace the whole experience, but if you think about it, somewhere during the experience you are getting applause (and positive social reinforcement) from someone or a group of people. You may get comments like, “Wow, you play really well.” “I like your music.” “What a great voice.” “You should be in Nashville!” Right, you've got it, social reinforcement strikes again.

Social reinforcement is not a bad thing, or a good thing. It's just a thing. But it's good to know what forces exist that cause us to do what we do.

In any case, it's a good thing to have something in life that we are passionate about. And if that something is bluegrass music, well, you know don't you.

Posted:  2/12/2011

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