Tuesday night I played music at a barbecue joint near my house with my friends Jean and Sue. We’re called Just Roses & Friends, and I’m the “& Friends”, as Jean and Sue have played together for a while. Sue holds everything together with the guitar, Jean provides almost all the vocals, and I muddle along on the bass. My contributions run the gamut from not great to pretty good, depending on the song. We’re playing every Tuesday night this summer.

Jean and Sue and I all live in the same very small town. It’s four blocks by four blocks, or about 0.14 square miles. I met them five years ago when I learned they were hosting a monthly women’s music circle in Sue’s basement. (In fact, I logged onto Facebook just now to get the awesome Miss Piggy poster, and the first thing I see is Facebook telling me that Jean and I have been friends on Facebook for five years, and that we should celebrate our friendversary!) Other than playing music with my family and a couple of brief stints in ensembles in college, I haven’t played with other people since high school. I am a passable guitar player and singer, and would much rather play with other people than by myself, so I started going. I knew Jean’s name because I had been feeding her cat, Blake, on my back deck for years, but I’d never met her in person.

At a music circle, you basically go around in a circle, with each person picking and (usually) leading a song, either a favorite, or an original, or whatever. Many circles have pretty strict protocols around who joins in on songs and who gets to solo and who gets to sing harmony and what sorts of songs are appropriate and how much chitchat is allowed pre- and post-song. None of those things are bad, but they can make joining a circle a little scary for newcomers, especially those who aren’t as musically experienced.

Sue and Jean wanted to have a circle that was much more inviting for beginners and others who don’t “play out” (in front of other people, like in a bar or coffeeshop), was a little more free-form, and was only for women (or “gurls”, as we call ourselves). They have succeeded in spades! We’re not big on protocol, and pretty much anything goes. Some of the women play in public a lot, some have never sung in front of anyone but their family, and everyone else is somewhere in between. We even have people who just come to listen, or take pictures and post them to Facebook (hi, Carolyn!). We bring snacks and drinks, talk about kids and weddings and concerts we’ve been to, and play a lot of music. Someone might say, “Hey, can I….?” and the answer is always, “Hey, it’s Gurls Circle, so do whatever you want!” Sometimes as few as two people come (we called it The Annie and Sue Show), other times we have as many as 15. You never know who’s going to show up and what songs they’re going to lead. As far as I’m concerned, it is awesome.

Long story short, I ended up getting an electric bass and started playing that at Gurls Circle. I wasn’t that good or creative, but I had played a little bluegrass bass in high school, and I play well with others (by which I mean I can keep a beat and am good at following other people playing guitar). I got better at executing my limited skill set, even though I only played once a month at our circle.

A couple of years ago, Jean and Sue invited me to join them for a gig at a small coffeeshop, then they invited me to play with them at an open mic night they were running at a cafe. Sue invited me to play some bluegrass with her and her husband, who is a banjo player, and last summer we played bluegrass at the local farmers’ market. Jean, Sue, and I also played at the farmers’ market. This winter, I played with both “pairs” at our town music night.

This spring, Jean announced that we would be playing at a local barbecue joint every Tuesday this summer. The three of us would play from 5:30 to 8:30, with a break in the middle, during which another woman musician that Jean invites would play a short set. We played our first night on June 21.

Photo by Carolyn Miller

When making the set list for this past Tuesday, Jean suggested that I take the lead and sing a few of the songs I sing at music circle. This week, Sue and I played through the break, accompanying the guest artist, Nikki, while Jean sang some harmonies. Then Nikki joined us at the end of the night to sing our last few songs. We were also joined for the whole night by Jean’s congo teacher, Karen Smith.

If you are still reading, you may well be wondering what on earth this has to do with math education, so here goes. As I was practicing with Sue and Jean this past Monday, I realized, “They’ve invited me. I’m now part of this local music party. I feel welcomed. I feel valued. This is exactly what Kaneka was talking about in her ShadowCon16 talk!”

Honestly, it was almost an overwhelming realization, that Jean and Sue have done for me (and other women) in music what I’ve always tried to do in math, and what we all need to be conscious of doing more. If you belong to a community that you value and that values you, you invite other people to join in and participate. The math community, or the “party”, isn’t any different. Just like any community, those of us who are active need to invite and nurture new members. We need to help people realize and understand that they belong and they have something to offer. Watch Kaneka’s video for more.

After we finished playing Tuesday night, we were all sitting at a table, eating our barbecue (free food and drinks for the band? I’m in!) and talking about how much fun it had been to all play together. I jumped in and said, “Hey, if I may be reflective for a minute.” I briefly told the story of Kaneka’s ShadowCon talk. Much like you were probably wondering why I was writing about music, I’m sure they were wondering why I was talking about some math thing! Then I explained the parallels that I saw in these two situations, and expressed my gratitude to them for inviting me to the party.

I added, “You know, this is so important to me, I’m going to write about it and share it with my math peeps.” They asked if they could read it when I was done, and I said, “Sure, I’ve got a blog. I’ll make sure to send you the link.” (Yes, we finally got access to our blogs after The Long Transition.) So here it is.

As we were carrying the last few things to the car a little later, I said to Jean, “You know, I meant what I said. I really am grateful to you guys for inviting me and letting me play with you.”

Jean’s reply was better than any conclusion I could write to this story. She said, “Well, inviting people to do the next thing is the only way we all grow and get better.”