My grandmother grew up on the edge of the Cumberland Plateau in East Tennessee. She, though only an eighth-grade graduate, was a self-educated woman. She was also a songstress. I loved to hear her sing various folk songs such as Pretty Polly in her Tennessee twang. Pretty Polly was a bloody, mournful song that taught caution with new relationships. Most of her songs and stories were cautionary tales.
My grandmother and grandfather met at a church sing-a-long. Throughout her marriage to my grandfather, who died before I was born, she and my grandfather would travel to the bedside of the sick and dying. In acappella, they would sing hymns for comfort. One day Mom accompanied them to the home of an old man stricken with diabetes who had both feet amputated. The man was so moved by the beauty of the song that tears streamed down his cheeks.
When I was about 10, Mom bought an upright piano from a friend. To hide its worn exterior, she painted it antique green. Mom, my sister Sylvia, and Grandmother often gathered around the piano. Sylvia had taken a few lessons and could play a number of songs. Grandmother, however, used a different book with shaped notes. With her worn book of songs filled with these unusual notations, she was able to sing any song. She couldn't read convention music notation and Sylvia couldn't read shaped notes. But together they played and sang beautifully.
According to Wikipedia, shaped notes are usually associated with Christian music and were introduced in 1801. They have historically been used by vocalists without instrumentation and were popular in churches that ban pianos or organs in their houses of worship.
There are several varieties of shaped notes but I don't remember the type used by my grandmother. I do remember her hymnal was the only place I ever saw them. They seemed strange and mysterious to me as a young boy.
I loved music but never spent the time to learn any instrument as a child. In my early twenties, I took piano lessons for a year and even played in church a couple of times. Later, I bought a cheap guitar and a series of lessons with little success.
I wish I had taken an interest in my grandmother's shaped notes. I know she would have taken the time to teach them to me. She has been gone for thirty-six years and I regret missing the skills she could have taught me. There are learning opportunities that come to us throughout our lives. Some of them we capitalize upon and others we let slip by. A continual learning focus and the ability to know what they don't know and what they need to know are characteristics of the most effective leaders I have known. The best leaders identify important learning events or issues for their businesses and seek to educate themselves and their employees. In an era where so much is changing around us, the key to success is targeted learning.
R. Glenn Ray, Ph.D., is the president of RayCom Learning. To learn more about Ray's new book, "Tons of Stone above my head: Coal Mining Stories with Leadership Lessons," visit his Web site, www.raycomlearning.com. Everyday Leadership appears each Wednesday on the Business page.