Tag: education

Great Expectations: The Composer’s Progress


Photo courtesy of Calsidyrose on Flickr.

I turned 40 last year.  This transition made me think a lot about career trajectories for composers.  It doesn’t feel like a particularly old age, especially in a career that often involves schooling well into adulthood.  So I began to think of what, exactly, the career expectations for composers are at various stages in our lives.

Composers are always being reminded of their age.  Early on, it’s all about opportunities.  Many (too many, perhaps) opportunities for composers focus on that golden developmental period of ages 18-ca. 35 known as “emerging career” (with the occasional variant for “young composers,” which can mean the same as the “emerging” demographic, or may refer to a younger age group, typically high school aged or earlier).  This is so common a distinction that its unfairness is something of a cause célèbre in our field.  Beyond age restrictions on opportunities, the emerging demographic—when narrowed to the group of composers finishing graduate school—is also primed for entry into the academic job market.  As we age, we transition into what is known as “mid career,” although it feels strange to suggest that we enter this at the tender age of 35.

When I began my schooling, I fully expected to spend around ten years in the academy, through the completion of a DMA or Ph.D. program.  Upon finishing my training, my plan was to find a relatively comfortable teaching position and settle down into the life of an academic composer.  This is a fine, noble career choice, and an attractive one given the relative security and the perquisites of research assistance by way of grants, fellowships, and sabbaticals.  Yet this has become an increasingly tough path to follow, and the door to academic job security remains closed to many.  I myself, regardless of my original expectations, never found my way onto the tenure-track academic path (at least, not yet).  Because of this, however, I’ve had to be resourceful and instead found a path that has often been fulfilling, sometimes rocky, and always surprising.

Beyond mid-career, there is the fabled world of the “elder states(wo)man” further down the road.  This may mean emeritus status at a university or having the kind of career that allows one to charge large fees simply for attending a rehearsal.  This stage also brings with it a level of recognition that comes with a responsibility to mentor younger and less famous composers but also the perks of portrait concerts, retrospective boxed sets, and the occasional festival celebrating your work during an important birthday.
For each of these stages, however, there are a number of composers who don’t conform to the model, and the truth is that there really is no typical career trajectory for a composer.  My expectations for my own career were typical of a certain, mid-to-late 20th-century attitude towards music composition and don’t seem to jibe as well with the expectations of young composers coming of age today (although I’m often surprised by how many still expect to re-enter the academy, as professors, upon exiting it as students).  With the myriad ways to network and disseminate our music available today, many young composers are developing important careers even while still working on their degrees, at times going as far as winning significant prizes once held for only a long-established elite.

The only way to navigate a career as a composer, I have found, is to be prepared for anything.  Developing strong contacts, nurturing the “mutual benefit balance,” and being a good musical citizen are all ways to guarantee, if not a long career as a composer—I’m not sure I can speak to that at the moment, frankly.  Ask me again in another 40 years…—at least the ability to weather the storms that any life transition may throw your way.  Flexibility, savvy, and a strong network are the only ways to truly guarantee a fulfilling life in the arts.

And, if you watch out for others in the process, they’ll watch out for you when you need it.

To Jury or Not to Jury

For those of us who mark our days according to an academic calendar, activity is winding down–for a few weeks, at least. However, the end-of-term stresses that plague most subject areas are usually absent from music composition because, by the very nature of our medium, our work is front-loaded into the first half of the semester/term. By the time everyone else is cramming for final exams and performance juries, composers should have already completed an appropriate amount of music and either have it performed and recorded or at least have created a decent aural mock-up to present to others.

Music students are usually expected to take part in performance juries as the “final” aspect of their private lessons. These juries, for the uninitiated, are where performers are brought into a room to play through selected repertoire and, depending on their level, demonstrate various proficiencies on their instrument. By comparison, many composition studios do not have any end-of-term experience or expectations for their composition students; the last lesson comes and goes, and while the past semester’s work may be discussed informally, there is no comprehensive structure for assessing the students individually and the studio as a whole. This was my experience going into my doctoral studies at the University of Texas, and when I discovered that students there were expected to take part in composition juries at the end of each semester, I asked the same question that I’ve been fielding since I instituted them where I teach: What happens in a composition jury?

As I see it, composition juries serve several purposes for the student. First, they provide students with the opportunity to collect all that they have created during that term and reflect on what they have accomplished. The expectation for cleanly edited scores helps to ensure that that bit of drudgery is completed in a timely manner. The pressure to respond to criticism and critique by the entire composition faculty is probably the least enjoyable part of the jury, but it does help to prepare the student for the critiques to come post-graduation. Finally, the student is expected to “perform,” though not in the same way as in an instrumental or voice jury; it is very important for composers to be able to defend what they have created, concisely explain their process, and provide cogent proof that they are not only aware of their own artistic philosophies but that they are aware of how those philosophies are evolving over time.

I am aware that this end-of-term assessment concept is not universally held; many highly respected institutions forgo any such thing, and it took a bit of convincing to bring my own department around to the idea. If anything, the juries serve to emphasize how important it is for composers to both understand what they’re doing as they create and gain the proper skills to convey their ideas to the outside world. “Let the music speak for itself” is a noble concept, but in today’s age of pre-concert talks, grant proposals, and public interaction, running the gauntlet of a composition jury can help to prepare composers for what is to come.

Learn How To Learn How To Learn: On Being a Self-Taught and a Non-Self-Taught Composer

Last week, NewMusicBox published an unprecedented breadth of content under the rubric “How We Learn Now.” Each of the contributing writers, and especially “education week” mastermind Molly Sheridan who tied it all together, is well-deserving of kudos, as is every reader who managed to get through it all—it was a lot to read. I know, I read it all! However, I decided to remain on the sidelines rather than contribute an essay to the mix. This was principally because I was madly working away at next month’s NewMusicBox cover. (To experience that, come back tomorrow.) But my decision not to write anything last week was also, I must confess, because of a somewhat ambiguous relationship to music education throughout my life.

There were no musicians in my family, but I was exposed to music at a very early age. Admittedly most of what I heard in the first decade of my life was mainstream popular music or worse—my mother owned and kept in heavy rotation the complete discography of Engelbert Humperdinck (not the composer of Hänsel und Gretel). But more interesting sounds managed to seep through on an unconscious level. I grew up, for the most part, in New York City, and there were many opportunities to hear a wide variety of music involuntarily just walking down the street. The music that was happening around me during the era I was growing up—the late 1960s and early 1970s—was chock full of experimentation in almost every genre and the lines between those genres were extraordinarily porous. Long before I ever heard the name Karlheinz Stockhausen, his face was among those assembled for the cover of The Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, which was released a month after my third birthday. While I did not own a copy of that record until my friend Charles Passy gave me one during my senior year in high school (by which time I was obsessed with Stockhausen), the first movie I was taken to see was Yellow Submarine when I was four (although I’ve been told that I cried through the whole thing). But more importantly, upright pianos were in the homes of most of my relatives and tinkering around on them, without really knowing what I was doing (or, more importantly, what I “should” be doing), started me off on a lifelong path. If only I had been exposed to other instruments in a similar way…
I began writing my own songs when I was nine and my family noticed my interest in music, although it would be several years before I actually had any kind of music lesson. I apparently briefly played a viola I borrowed from an elementary school teacher, though I have no memories of it. When I was in fifth grade, I took guitar lessons in a mall which was a mile away from the Miami trailer park I lived in for two otherwise musically lackluster years. Ironically, those guitar lessons were more of a straitjacket for me than a path to musical creativity—the teacher never deviated from the books he was teaching me from. To this day, I play the guitar somewhat awkwardly since I never found a way around the instrument on my own. I also have vague memories of a music teacher at the Miami elementary school I attended. On weekends he played in a retro rock and roll band; all I remember him talking about was the early history of rock and roll, which effectively turned me off to that music until decades later.
Once I moved back to New York City, I continued to tinker on pianos and by that point was notating the songs and short instrumental solos I came up with, so my family sent me to Greenwich House Music School for piano lessons. When the teacher asked me to play for her and I did, she exclaimed that my fingering was all wrong and I’d have to start all over again from the very beginning. I had fingered a major triad with my thumb, index, and middle fingers. I was supposed to have fingered it with my thumb, middle finger, and pinky. She said that unless I learned to finger it the right way, I would never be able to develop proper technique; I said if I fingered it her way, I wouldn’t be able to add sevenths and ninths to that triad. She would not relent. I ran out from her class and never returned.

Despite my wayward musical ways, I was accepted to the High School of Music and Art where I played the piano and sang Broadway material as well as my own music for my audition. Music and Art did not offer piano or composition lessons, so I was assigned to the vocal department. I had one champion among the music teachers at that school, a man named Lionel Chernoff who taught music theory and had a Medieval and Renaissance music performance class, an elective I gave up my lunch period to be in for two years. Chernoff, it turned out, was not only an aficionado of early music but an omnivorous listener who had a passion for Brazilian music. He was also the first person to mention the names Harry Partch and Philip Glass to me. For decades after my graduation, he came to performances of my music whenever he saw my name in newspaper concert listings.

However, the teacher during high school who wound up having the deepest impact on my musical development was, ironically, my math teacher Jim Murphy, who has remained a lifelong friend and mentor. Though initially he did not offer anything to me that could be construed as musical training per se, Murphy made me mindful of always being open to otherness. He also instilled in me a disciplined approach to exploring patterns as well as exploiting formal possibilities. After all, he was a math teacher. At the same time, he was extremely unconventional. He often exclaimed that he was not primarily concerned with teaching us math, but rather teaching us to “learn how to learn how to learn”—a mantra worthy of Gertrude Stein. A prolific poet, Murphy, in one math class, taught us all haiku and traditional Chinese five character, four line lyric poems which were the ancestor to haiku. An inveterate contrarian, he also set an extremely impactful example of how to interact with the world. The Rubik’s Cube was all the rage at that time and in one class he showed us how to always solve the puzzle—by ripping the pieces of it apart and then putting them back together again! At one point he decided to give me a ton of books, volumes of poetry and hardcore mathematics, but he purposefully made it difficult for me. He gave me nothing to carry the huge stack in and I lugged them in both my hands from room to room as I went to each of my classes and then back home on the subway at the end of the school day. I credit him not only for my lifetime obsession with acquiring books and recordings, but also my ability to not be deterred by the impracticality of schlepping them back from all over the world, frequently in less that optimal circumstances. More importantly, Murphy’s own poetry and his daily writing regimen became an important model for my writing of both music and words. Eventually he played recordings for me that introduced me to the musical traditions of East Asians and Native Americans, as well as old blues and country music. I began to try to find a way to incorporate those other musical systems into the personal musical language I was trying to develop. A series of 14 of his sonnets became the text for a lengthy musical composition of mine which I began during my senior year of high school and which is the oldest music I still acknowledge some 32 years later. By the time I wrote that piece, I had already identified myself with the moniker “composer” even though I had yet to have a formal composition lesson.

Celebrating Murphy

To celebrate his 75th birthday earlier this year, his son Jonathan Murphy (far left), Charles Passy (center), and I took Jim Murphy (right) out for an elaborate meal in Chinatown. As per usual, Murphy was teaching somebody something. (If you look closely you can see that he’s demonstrating a string figure to a member of the wait staff.)

In the middle of the first semester of my freshman year at Columbia University, Max Lifchitz, then an adjunct professor in the music department, had learned of my compositional activity and suggested I attend his composition class. I already had a full schedule and it was too late to enroll for the class, but the following semester I studied privately with him. Although he attempted to give me specific assignments (one was to write a solo flute piece), I was in the middle of several large-scale works that I wanted to write and I just continued working on them. He was fine with my rebelliousness and even offered some valuable pointers on that aforementioned song cycle which I revised accordingly at that time. One of those revisions was a brief piano intro before one of the songs, which he suggested I write in order to give the piece more variety, and it is my favorite passage in that piece to this day.

Despite this positive experience, that one semester marked the beginning and end of my formal training as a composer. At the time, I believed that the aesthetics of the people teaching composition at Columbia were completely antithetical to my own and so I refused to interact with them. In my senior year there, I stopped taking music classes altogether and took enough credits in English for it to count as a second “concentration”—not quite a “major” but having the two “concentrations” was enough for me, in 1985, to be the first member of my family ever to receive a bachelor’s degree. At that point in my life I thought I was done with school altogether, but after graduation I could not figure out what to do with my life and, on Murphy’s advice, I became a public high school teacher. Though I managed to secure licenses to teach both music and English, I wound up teaching English as a second language in East New York, Brooklyn, which was then an extremely tough inner city neighborhood. After four years in the teaching system (years during which my compositional activity at one point completely stopped since I zealously felt it was a useless pursuit that gave nothing back to the world), I reached a dead end.

How We Learn Now: Education Week

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So I applied to the doctoral program in ethnomusicology at Columbia and they accepted me with a full tuition fellowship. I refused to study composition there, and I never considered applying to schools anywhere outside New York City to study composition. (Believe it or not, my two less-than-happy childhood years in Miami convinced me that I should never attempt to leave New York City again; I did not start travelling until I was in my mid-20s.) I believed that ethnomusicology would be the ideal subject for me since it would give me more exposure to a greater variety of the world’s musical traditions (which I could then incorporate into my own music). I quickly learned, however, that that was not what ethnomusicology was, at least not how it was practiced at Columbia at that time. I should have known better. I lasted a year in the program. I managed to get a master’s degree, but that was the end. However, I was actively composing music again.

But I had to get a job to support myself. I landed a four-day-a-week job for a music PR firm and wound up going to a lot of free concerts. Through it all, with whatever spare money I had, I bought records, tons of them, and was listening to music constantly. In 1998, I joined the staff of the American Music Center. You know the rest of the story. Well, not quite. Though I never took another formal composition lesson after my freshman year at Columbia, every time I prepare to talk with a composer for NewMusicBox I completely immerse myself in the related recordings and scores. Many times, after the conversations are recorded, I feel like I have learned some extremely valuable things that have found their way back into my own music by and by.
Though once upon a time I used to downplay that single semester of composition study at Columbia and brag about being a self-taught composer, I now realize that the truth of my education is much different. I have tons of teachers to thank, though most were not people I formally studied with. And the most valuable lesson I learned and which I have devoted my entire life to continuing to learn—thank you Jim Murphy—is to learn how to learn how to learn.

Standards and Creativity

So how do you get to be a new music composer or performer today? How do you connect with the music and grow as a listener?

To these questions, I would add, “Why?” Why is it important how a composer becomes a composer? Why is it important that performers connect with and perform music of the here and now? Why should audiences give a care about anything other than music that they’ve already heard of? If composition “can’t be taught,” if new music is a niche-within-a-niche-within-a-niche that continually pushes performers to explore that which they do not know or are uncomfortable with, if the presenters and disseminators of live and recorded music base their decisions primarily on the advice of their marketing and subscription consultants, guidance based on the fear that listeners will head for the exits or change the channel, then why does any of this matter at all?
National Coalition for Core Arts Standards
I’ve been asking myself these questions often over the past eight months as I’ve been taking part in an initiative to update the National Core Arts Standards. These standards, voluntary in nature, are “intended to affirm the place of arts education in a balanced core curriculum, support the 21st-century needs of students and teachers, and help ensure that all students are college and career ready.” Last updated in 1994, the standards have driven many of the curricular and pedagogical decisions that have been made in arts education and arts teacher education ever since.
Not to get too deep in the weeds here, but for context’s sake, the 1994 standards for music were broken up into a total of nine topics, including:

1. Singing, alone and with others, a varied repertoire of music
2. Performing on instruments, alone and with others, a varied repertoire of music
3. Improvising melodies, variations, and accompaniments
4. Composing and arranging music within specified guidelines
5. Reading and notating music
6. Listening to, analyzing, and describing music
7. Evaluating music and music performances
8. Understanding relationships between music, the other arts, and disciplines outside the arts
9. Understanding music in relation to history and culture
The 2014 music standards, which are currently being revised, are based on the following framework:
1. Creating
2. Performing
3. Evaluating

Each of those concepts is being looked at by several different subgroups of professionals from around the country, each from the point of view of a different aspect of teaching music. Traditional ensembles (band, orchestra, choir), “emerging” ensembles (mariachi, rock, steel pan, jazz, etc.), harmonizing instruments (piano and guitar), and composition and theory comprise the four main subgroups, and I’ve been working as a member of the Composition and Theory subcommittee since the beginning of the year.

(Yes, I know that discussing subcommittees and 20-year-old guidelines for public school teachers is probably the fastest way to chase a reader away, but stay with me for a sec—I’m getting to the good stuff.)
The changes that are being made—which will be made public on September 30, so I can’t go into great detail—are important for several reasons:

1. The concept of “creativity” is being focused on to a much greater degree than before. The environment in which most young students experience music in school or in private lessons has always been primarily performative in nature—you learn how to play an instrument or sing, and then you perform at a solo recital or with an ensemble of some type. The creative element in this paradigm is negligible; some would say interpretation is a big part of it, but there’s little room for interpretation when so much emphasis is placed on learning notes, rhythms, intonation, balance, etc. With this shift in focus, it is hoped that students will be given opportunities to tap into their own creativity to a much higher degree than before.

2. Composing is one of the most daunting concepts for music educators for many reasons, not the least of which is that most of them have never composed before! Composition is rarely included in music education curricula (with the exception of general music, where only the most basic materials are used) and this inexperience makes it likely that not only will those educators’ students never be exposed to composing, but students who discover composing will not get much help or support. The work that my group has been doing is centered on providing educators with clear guidance as to how to work with students who are composing for the first time, those who have some experience with composing, and those students who compose at an advanced level.

3. In other creative fields, exposure in education to contemporary examples is commonplace—incorporating contemporary poetry, theatre, dance, visual art, and filmmaking is considered a natural way to connect with younger students. It is only in music that artworks from the past are elevated to the almost total exclusion of those from the present. However, if students are introduced to creating music themselves at an early age and encouraged throughout their formative years to continue exploring music through creating it as well as performing it, their interest, acceptance, and passion for new music will grow naturally. I’ve seen many examples of younger composers who had a limited musical vocabulary suddenly blossom when introduced to repertoire from the last 20 years as well as the last 100 years.

The reason that many in music education push back against this new concept of emphasizing creativity through composition are plentiful and diverse, but they mainly stem from the performance-heavy aspect of teaching music—the assessment-driven nature of today’s teacher education system limits how much exposure emerging teachers are given to contemporary literature, and it’s easier to teach students and assess how they’re progressing if the teacher has a great amount of experience with the music at hand. If the music is new and unknown, this creates a challenge for the instructor. If the music is not only new but was created by the students themselves, that challenge is heightened exponentially.

How We Learn Now: Education Week

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Will these changes in the public schools affect the new music community directly? On the surface, I’d give it a solid maybe. There will probably always be a number of driven and talented individuals who will emerge from the vaunted halls of our conservatories or the “streets” of Brooklyn, New Haven, Baltimore, or Chicago. There will probably always be new premieres by the same big orchestras from whatever composer pool seems to be thriving at the given moment. There will probably always be non-traditional performance opportunities in lofts, bars, salons, and elsewhere. These changes may increase or diversify the number of creative artists from around the country, which would hopefully enrich our culture and our understanding of who we are.

But that’s not the important part.

Just as any music educator would say that the point of playing clarinet in a public school setting isn’t to prepare for a career in a symphony orchestra, the intent of giving children—and anyone, actually—the opportunity to create music of their own and collaboratively with others should not be to mold the next generation of Rome Prize recipients or next year’s lineup at Le Poisson Rouge. By allowing students (of any age) the chance to imagine an abstract idea, to plan how they could bring that idea to life, to make and play and make some more, all the while evaluating, revising, re-evaluating, and revising again, to experience the culmination of that idea and finally to look back at the entire process, evaluate it, and to dig into the next project with a greater understanding of what came before, by doing all this we allow them to see themselves, their work, and their life through a new, creative lens. With so much need for creativity, resourcefulness, and understanding in the world around us, we will require those visions all the more.

Austin Soundwaves: A Challenge Like Nothing Else

Video by John Elliot

When considering new directions in music education, examining how students are taught is important, but so to is developing ways to reach students who otherwise might not have the opportunity at all. Many youth ensemble directors will tell you that if they could choose one characteristic in their students it would be enthusiasm, and my conversation with conductor/composer Hermes Camacho revealed a group here in Texas that has that particular attribute in spades. Camacho is on faculty at Austin Soundwaves where he conducts the wind ensemble, teaches violin, and coordinates the theory program. Austin Soundwaves is part of El Sistema USA, a “support and advocacy network for people and organizations inspired by Venezuela’s monumental music education program.” Through El Sistema, hundreds of thousands of Venezuelan musicians have been educated over the past three decades; Los Angeles Philharmonic Music Director Gustavo Dudamel is perhaps its best-known graduate. Growing from just a handful of programs in the US to over fifty in just a few years, El Sistema USA is now providing ensemble music lessons to thousands of underserved students throughout the U.S. as well.

Austin Soundwaves rehearsal

Austin Soundwaves Rehearsal
Loren Welles Photography

Andrew Sigler: When did El Sistema come to the U.S.?
Hermes Camacho: I’m sure the ideals of El Sistema have been felt in the United States for quite some time, but the 2008 formation of the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra’s Orchkids program is generally recognized as the spearhead of the El Sistema USA movement. There are only about 35 programs in the country and only three in Texas. We are in our third year and this is my second year. It’s been great to be a part of something that is still new in that I’ve been able to have a lot of input and a real hands-on experience.
Austin Soundwaves pullquote
AS: How does one go about starting a program like this?
HC: There’s no official certification, but our program director Patrick Slevin completed the Sistema Fellows program at the New England Conservatory where they are fully immersed in the teaching culture and philosophies of El Sistema.
AS: What are those philosophies?
HC: I think of El Sistema-inspired programs like Austin Soundwaves in much the same way you might think of the Boys and Girls Club or other similar organizations which are focused on youth development, but in this case music is the vehicle. It’s a really amazing program; I gush over it, honestly. The staff and kids are great. It goes to show you that no matter what socio-economic background you come from, the reaction to music is the same. Often after a concert I hear, “I missed all those notes!” to which I respond, “No one noticed those, they heard the good stuff!” I’ve found that no matter if they come from a musical family or not, the kids have the same concern and drive to do it right.
AS: Are there particular similarities/differences between the original program and what Austin Soundwaves does?
HC: The emphasis on ensemble playing is shared between the two. It’s more about everyone coming together and working as a group. We teach sectionals, which are essentially group lessons, and last year started a music theory program which acts as a basis for fundamentals. I can count on one hand the number of students who have private lessons outside the program, so virtually all their music education occurs in-house. Also, Soundwaves has actively pursued new music opportunities for the students. Between performances at the Fast Forward Austin festivals in 2012 and 2013, as well as several premieres of new works for band and orchestra in the last year, we have made a point of bringing plenty of new music into the mix. Patrick and I have spoken about this on occasion, and he doesn’t know of any other El Sistema-inspired program that has as much new music activity as Austin Soundwaves.
AS: Are they doing any private lessons through Austin Soundwaves? Is there a private element to it?
HC: There is to a certain extent, but it’s not part of the structured curriculum. It’s really informal; if a student needs extra help for an audition or on their orchestra music they arrange to work it out with the teachers.
AS: Where is the program located?
HC: It is based at East Austin College Prep, which is a charter school. It’s co-ed and completely free and a big part of their goal is to provide opportunities to underserved communities of east Austin. Their emphasis is not only on getting students through high school, but getting them to attend and graduate college. In particular, it’s the goal of the Hispanic Alliance for the Performing Arts (HAPA), the non-profit organization that oversees Austin Soundwaves, to not only reach communities with limited resources but also target the artistically underserved.
AS: How many kids are in the program?
HC: Between the campuses of East Austin College Prep we have over 100 students in grades 5-10. At our finale last year we had nearly 100. In the three years it’s nearly tripled in size, starting with just under 40 students in grades 6 and 7.
AS: To what do you attribute that growth?
HC: I think that the opportunity to play an instrument is the big contributor. The students pay a $15 insurance fee, but everything else is covered. If you ask them, the answer is always, “This is something I wouldn’t get to do anywhere else.” They are jumping at the opportunity and recognizing the chance to play an instrument, to do something they wouldn’t otherwise be able to do. Also, there is often the stigma which is sometimes associated with playing in band or orchestra, right? In many schools, if you’re not playing a sport you’re not cool. None of that really applies to these kids. A lot of the “cool” kids are musicians, so there’s a social element that partly drives the growth. Speaking to that social aspect, a lot of the Austin Soundwaves kids also participate in football, volleyball, cheerleading, soccer, baseball, and a variety of other activities.

Hermes Camacho conducts the Austin Soundwaves Orchestra

Hermes Camacho conducts the Austin Soundwaves Orchestra
Loren Welles Photography

AS: What is different about this teaching experience relative to your past involvement?
HC: Many of the kids come in with a variety of challenges, socioeconomic ones being the most common. I’ve taught students in other programs who come from backgrounds where music lessons are a given, and sometimes those students are less personally motivated and more parentally motivated—do you know what I mean? Now, the Soundwaves parents are certainly supportive—they are extremely supportive!—but most of these kids are here first and foremost because they want to be here. In my past experience, there have been times where I wasn’t sure if a student was doing it because they enjoyed playing music or because their parents enjoyed them playing music. That has never been the case with Soundwaves; the kids are doing it because they love it. Also, the parents and siblings are always so excited! The applause at the concerts is deafening, every single time, for every single piece. And I’m talking about Go Tell Aunt Rhody and unison versions of Iron Man. They are cheering like it’s the best thing they’ve ever heard, and the enthusiasm is, in my experience, unprecedented. There is no pretense of formality in terms of applause or reaction, nothing is pro-forma. The kids say, “I wish we could have a concert every day,” especially right after a show, and before a show they are truly as focused as any group I’ve ever run, including college and professional new music groups. They do it because it makes them feel special. They are wholeheartedly throwing themselves into it because of their love of music. They work very hard on their own. And I find I can be harder on them, in a constructive way of course, than other ensembles. They respond well to discipline because they want to be good, they want to play well. They don’t hold it against you; they seem to crave it.

The other day the group was particularly rowdy and with six minutes left in rehearsal, I’d had enough. I said, “You’ve wasted most of this rehearsal today. You’ve wasted my time and your time. You are all better than this. For these last six minutes I want you to sit; don’t talk, don’t pack up. Just sit.” Two things happened afterwards. One was that most of the students came up and apologized, both personally and for the group, for their behavior. The other is that the other teachers and aides who remained with the students during the six minutes said that nobody moved, they sat there in perfect silence. The only exception was when, after several minutes, someone asked if it had been six minutes yet, which was met by a resounding “shhhhh!” by the rest of the students. These students know that when I get frustrated or angry, it’s only for the moment. It’s not something that I ever hold onto. Many of them have even said I don’t stay angry long enough. That I smile too much!

Post-concert meet and greet

Post-concert meet and greet
Loren Welles Photography

AS: It seems like the kids in general are quite enthusiastic. Have you had any students who are indifferent or treat it like a compulsory class?
HC: Well, one student comes to mind who was having some issues. He’s a tough kid, concerned about his reputation as being “very cool,” and had started talking back, missing rehearsals, and generally seemed like he’d grown indifferent. So we sat him down and had a talk with him and asked if he really wanted to be here or not. And he started crying. He said, “This is the best part of my day. It’s what gets me through the day. I don’t want to leave.” And that was the end of the issue.

How We Learn Now: Education Week

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AS: How would you describe your experience working with Austin Soundwaves? You are an active composer, new music ensemble director, and you teach at a university, so how does this fit in?
HC: I never take a job that I don’t want to do, and when I took the position at Soundwaves I thought it would simply be another teaching gig like the ones I’d taken before. But I’ll tell you that this has affected me personally much more than I ever could have imagined. A year ago, I never would have thought, “This is the best part of being a musician for me right now.” I love all the things I do, but this is the most rewarding and satisfying thing I’ve done as a musician. These kids make me want to work harder and to be a better musician, teacher, and person. It’s a challenge like nothing else.

On Lying To My Students

Music on blackboardSince I last wrote about four-part voice leading, questioning its educational value, I’ve had to eat my words a little bit. Now that I’m teaching this material, I’ve begun to see its immense utility as a teaching tool. I still have some of the same issues with how the material is usually presented but, more often than not, I find myself taking the same shortcuts my teachers did.

One of the most difficult things for me right now as a teacher is learning how to tell the expedient lie. For example, saying that parallel fifths are disallowed in order to maintain the independence of voices is a half-truth at best that elides over huge swaths of history and scholarship. But a diversion into this background would be completely inappropriate in the context of an intro course. Even worse, it could very well muddle the students’ understanding of the basic material. So in most cases, it’s best to stick to the simplified version, with maybe a metaphorical asterisk hinting at the larger issues.

The best thing about four-part voice leading is that it is an efficient and objective way to measure fluency in a field where objectivity is hard to come by. If a student can write a coherent chorale, I know that they also have a solid grasp of a host of other things including keys, intervals, chords, melody, and tonality. A more open compositional assignment would not necessarily reveal these things.

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But the limitations of chorale writing can make it very, very dry stuff, especially compared to the vividness and expanse of what’s possible in music. It can be, let’s face it, downright boring. Kyle Gann talks about being fed up with the rise of the professor-as-entertainer ethos, and I’m extremely sympathetic to his argument—it’s also something I worry about a great deal. But I do think we have a duty beyond simply teaching the material. We must also justify it and show how the knowledge we’re imparting is vital, interesting, and beautiful. Music theory, and the fascinatingly intricate way it interacts with actual music, is all three of these things. Four-part voice leading exercises are often none of these things.

I don’t have an easy solution for this. It’s simple enough to flip back and forth between the “here’s what you need to know” and “isn’t this cool?” modes, but I wonder if this doesn’t send the wrong message, that theory is more interesting…well, in theory. Better to infuse the material with interestingness every step of the way. I suspect this will be an eternal challenge.

Music, MOOCs, and Copyright: Digital Dilemmas for Schools of Music

I first heard about Coursera a year ago when I was carpooling to a gig with my friend Kate. She told me about a personal finance class she was taking. The class was free, the course materials were really great, and she was attending every Saturday.
“Oh wow!” I said. “So where’s the class?”

Turns out, the class was online. Kate was enrolled in a MOOC (Massive Online Open Course) at Coursera, one of the internet’s largest providers of online classes. Although I didn’t know it at the time, MOOCs are one of the biggest hot-button acronyms in education today. They’ve been hailed as both a revolution in access to information and a harbinger of corporatized educational doom.
Calarts MOOCs
At first glance, the opportunity to take free online courses from some of the country’s most prestigious universities—Coursera partners with schools like Stanford, Princeton, Rice, and Yale—sounds great. My friend Kate represents a relatively noncontroversial MOOC student: an educated adult taking a class in a non-university, not-for-credit setting. She’s what proponents of MOOCs would call a “lifelong learner,” and an ideal beneficiary of free, high-quality online education.
But for some educational stakeholders, organizations like Coursera—which is for-profit, funded by venture capitalists, and doesn’t classify itself as an institution of higher learning—represent a threat to higher education as we currently know it. MOOCs are particularly controversial when they are offered for credit in the setting of a university degree program. Holding up MOOCs as a fast, cheap alternative to a traditional college education—which for most American students comes with a heavy price tag—could result in a two-tiered class system in which rich students get face time and poor students get screen time.

MOOCs also raise concerns about attempting to replace or devalue real, live university professors. California legislators recently rejected a controversial bill which would have outsourced some entry-level state university courses to for-profit companies like Coursera and Udacity. The bill was uniformly opposed by professors in the California State University system.

In light of all this possibility and controversy, I was interested to learn that my alma mater, the Blair School of Music at Vanderbilt University, had become involved with the MOOC wave. I reached out to Cynthia Cyrus, my former dean and musicology professor who is now associate provost for undergraduate education. Cyrus has a career-long passionate interest in scholarship’s presence on the web. When she first arrived in the provost’s office in 2011, hardly anyone was talking about MOOCs, she said. Since then, MOOCs have become the focus of a national education debate, and Cyrus has helped oversee and develop the university’s partnership with Coursera. Cyrus described the work as exhilarating. “It’s not very often,” she noted, “that someone gets to start a whole new division of the university.”

In my conversation with Cyrus, I learned a great deal about the particular copyright challenges that schools of music face when it comes to using recordings and other media in the context of online learning. We also discussed how Vanderbilt is choosing to relate to the complex ethical questions that MOOCs raise, offering a window into the important decisions that higher education institutions across the country are making.
Berklee MOOCs
Ellen McSweeney: Vanderbilt initially wanted to have five Coursera offerings—one from each school. Is the Blair School of Music course up and running?

Cynthia Cyrus: One of the Blair School faculty is lined up and ready to teach for Coursera, and that was supposed to be one of our first five offerings. But the copyright questions in music are so much a higher hurdle to cross over that we haven’t actually brought that particular course to fruition.
Some of the other schools teaching for Coursera try to skirt copyright issues by linking to things on YouTube. But Vanderbilt’s policy is that if it’s a violation of copyright in one arena, simply linking to someone else doesn’t get us out of that moral dilemma.

We’re trying to be really mindful about the ways in which musicians are compensated as we move forward in this digital medium.

EM: What would your ideal solution be for the copyright issues that music MOOCs are facing?

CC: The strategy that I’d really like to see come to fruition is for Coursera to do negotiations with one or more of the music aggregators to say, “Wouldn’t it be wonderful if we could get access to the iTunes list, where students could listen for free during the course and then purchase it later if they’d like?” This is similar to what’s been done with textbooks. That’s my ideal, whether it’s iTunes or Naxos or maybe even a BMI or ASCAP relationship. I think it would be best for all concerned if we have a broad musical catalog to draw on for these teaching purposes.

The second model, which will be [Vanderbilt’s] default if we can’t get Option A to work, is to simply negotiate copyright for each and every example that the faculty member wants to use. But that’s a huge amount of money and a large amount of work. Last year, with no staff supporting the Coursera project, that was simply not an option, which is why the Blair course is still on hold.

EM: Face-to-face university professors can use musical examples without copyright concerns. Why aren’t the use of musical examples in Coursera considered fair use? Is it because the Coursera is for-profit?

CC: It’s not just that they’re for profit, but also that they haven’t defined themselves as an institute of higher education. There is no case law to determine whether there is fair use in this area, and nobody wants to be the one to provide the case law! But there’s a real need, not just for Coursera, but many different providers of intellectual knowledge, to be fluent in the idioms of 21st-century culture that aren’t in any of the protected categories under U.S. law. There’s a real absence of legal framework for handling these kinds of issues.

That’s one of the reasons, if you look at the Coursera course list, there’s quite a list of things that can be taught without copyright-protected musical examples. Faculty members must deliberately restrict what materials they use as illustrative examples.
It drives me nuts a little bit. Without structural and legal support, we’ve categorized an entire area of culture as being off limits for MOOCs. And I have issues with that, coming from a school of music. Although it does remind me that there’s a reason that I like to work on [materials created by] dead people! The 15th-century nuns are not going to object to what I’m out there printing.

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EM: There are major ethical concerns surrounding MOOCs—about who’s funding them, who’s taking them, and whether they’re trying to replace higher education altogether. Where does Vanderbilt stand on those questions?

CC: Vanderbilt is treating Coursera as outreach, as a means of global penetration, and as a way to reach out to alumni and support continued engagement with the university community. None of our classes are available here for credit, and that’s an important distinction.
The model that the state of California was contemplating is worrisome on a couple of levels. First of all, using one school’s intellectual capital to meet your own institutional agenda is a way of ceding your authority as an institution of higher education. Coming from my faculty background, that makes me uncomfortable. The idea of taking, for example, our one-credit nutrition course out of the Vanderbilt environment and having another institution say, “Boom, you complete that course, you get one credit!” is problematic. That needs to go through a university’s faculty governance. Faculty should always be the ones to determine whether a course is meeting their educational vision. Here at Vanderbilt, we haven’t asked any of our faculty to review the MOOCs in a for-credit environment. That’s not what a Vanderbilt degree is about.

While none of our Coursera offerings are for-credit, faculty can use materials developed for Coursera as part of their face-to-face courses. Faculty have been able to do “flipped” classroom teaching, which means that students do passive learning—like watching lectures—at home. Professors then use class time for group activities and active learning that hasn’t always been possible, given the constraints of the schedule.

We’ve also done quite a bit of experimentation with what we call “wrapping,” in which a Vanderbilt professor can use a MOOC as part of their own course content. Professor Doug Fisher did this with one of [Coursera cofounder] Andrew Ng’s courses. Doug taught a class that was “wrapped” around Ng’s lectures. Doug’s course drew on those as a body of common knowledge and a jumping-off place for the students.

The crux of the issue is that what one does in a college class is more than acquire content. MOOCs are great for the content part, but the community insights, the ability to synthesize material, those higher-order processes happen because you are studying a common area. They are not themselves the common area of study. And the thing we know from longitudinal studies of students is that they don’t remember the content, but they do retain the intuitions that they developed while working through that content. That’s the part that we could lose when schools are relying too heavily on digital media.
EM: What do you see other schools of music doing with their MOOC offerings?
CC: Berklee College of Music has a number of Coursera courses, and they have opted mostly for subject matter that doesn’t require too many copyright-protected musical examples: Jazz Improv, Intro to Music Production, Songwriting, Intro to Guitar. There are a variety of music courses out there, but each one of them has had to invent its own solution to the copyright problem. Schools of music are not yet working cohesively as a team to get these issues worked out.
Curtis has a course live now on Beethoven Piano Sonatas, and another one on Music History through Performance that goes live in October. There, I think, they are probably capitalizing on out-of-copyright works. I don’t know what their solution would be for the 20th or 21st century. With older repertoire, they have to worry about performer permissions, but they don’t have to worry about the permissions of composers.

EM: Right! I’m writing this article for a contemporary music community audience, and realizing that we may have particular barriers to participating in the MOOC wave.

CC: Right. It is entirely possible that when we get into pulling courses together, people will be generous with permissions. However, most of the people we negotiate permissions with are lawyers. It’s not the musicians saying yes, I want to compromise and be part of this social good. We’re dealing with lawyers. To me, lifelong learning audiences need to and want to be engaged with the musical details of the music that they’re choosing to hear live. But it’s awfully hard to get through the hurdles of how to get that up and online without stepping on somebody’s toes.


It’s education week here at NewMusicBox, and since I’ve recently written a few posts aimed at students, I thought this would be an opportune time to share some thoughts directed toward teachers themselves. Having had some great and less-than-great teachers (as well as some great and not-so-great teaching moments of my own), I’d like to step back for a moment and identify some inherent problems in teaching, especially teaching creative skills like music composition.
Foggy River
A large part of teaching has to do with explication—working through new concepts and techniques with the student and rendering clear what was previously shrouded in mystery. And without a doubt, this is an essential part of the teacher’s role: turning the unfamiliar into the familiar, into something which can be understood and manipulated.

But the best teachers don’t stop there; they know that their truer calling is to engage aspects of musical experience that have become familiar and render them unfamiliar again. We need to unteach, as well as teach.

In my experience as both student and teacher, I’ve realized how it’s only too easy to resort to explanation rather than confronting the mysterious, and to privilege those concepts—and those musical works—which are easy to teach over ones less yielding to analysis. Helping students work through problems is certainly part of the point—but so, too, is making students aware of problems they never considered. A great teacher must both illuminate the world for his or her students and, at the same time, return parts of the illuminated world to a certain amount of mystery and confusion.

Although I still have very much to learn about being a teacher, it occurs to me that the first part of the equation—explication—is fairly obvious, while the second part—challenging precisely those areas of thought that seem pat and already clearly understood—is much more difficult to understand, much less apply in practice. Teachers—as well they should—often derive much satisfaction in helping students achieve clarity or a particular goal, like completing a composition; but perhaps (myself included) teachers at times require greater sensitivity to the fact that revealing unnoticed complexities that shake up a student’s world view (and—gasp!—deleting measures rather than producing more) are also a kind of progress; both modes of teaching must come into play for any student to develop critical thinking skills and develop as a budding artist.

Many young composers have already had significant experience teaching, both in and outside of academia and often while they are still students themselves. The next generation of teachers are our best hope for a better musical future; here’s hoping they did better than my teachers did, and better than I am able to do now. But if that is to be the case, I strongly suspect that such an improvement won’t be the result of better expository techniques, but the result of a deeper understanding that some mysteries need to remain unexplained, and some useful models called into question. After all, the students of the future need to find new and better models; they need learn from silence as well as explanation, from the rests as well as the notes.

How We Learn Now: Education Week

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As a beginning teacher, I was always quick to fill the blackboard with squiggles—clear evidence that teaching has occurred!—and I never asked questions to which I didn’t already know the answer. It was only gradually that I came to see the value in occasionally leaving a few questions open and few loose ends dangling unattended, just begging for some curious student to grapple with; and only after many misgivings that I came to see how inducing a certain kind of cultivated confusion could be just as helpful as explaining certain confusions away.

If I have one specific hope for the next generation of teachers, it’s that they come to redress this inherent imbalance in teaching better than my own generation and the generation who taught me. To paraphrase Aldous Huxley: “Let them be wiser but less sure, happier but less self-satisfied, humbler in acknowledging their ignorance yet better equipped to understand the relationship of words to things, of systematic reasoning to the unfathomable mystery which it tries, forever vainly, to comprehend.”

Inviting Possibilities for New Music and Music Education

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How would you feel if you heard your own or a colleague’s music emanating from a high school student’s ear buds or car speakers? How might you feel if, several seconds later, it is heard mashed up with the latest Katy Perry or Kendrick Lamar track? How might you respond to a teenager who is arranging the music for a group of her friends who play various instruments in a middle school ensemble? Can you envision yourself video conferencing with a group of elementary school or university students who recently posted video clips of themselves discussing new music on YouTube or who admitted that they would like to try transforming a piece from the genre into electronic dance music? These questions hint towards possibilities that some may find problematic and that others may consider appropriate and beneficial for new music, musicians, and students. While some might question the ways in which the young people in these images are engaging with new music and aspects of what might be considered participatory culture, others might find it out of place that these young people are even involved with new music in the first place.

Along with outreach and marketing, music education can play a powerful role in expanding the public’s engagement with new music. Closer relationships between new music and music education communities could increase the presence of new music in educational settings. First, though, we need to recognize different ways that people in new music and music education communities conceptualize “music education” and “new music.”

For instance, my default conception of music education conjures images of working with in-service and pre-service music teachers on contemporary approaches to teaching music or with groups of young people engaging with music in elementary, middle, and high schools. However, I understand that many involved in new music also engage in music education in university classrooms, practice rooms, lecture halls, studios, concert halls, online venues, and other settings. Others might wonder if music education still exists in schools (yes, and it is vibrant, thriving, and evolving in the majority of schools across America) or have vivid images of music education consisting of plastic recorders, marching bands, and a capella groups.

Similarly, music educators have different notions of what “new music” means. For instance, many K-12 music educators’ perceptions of new music are sometimes tied to whatever music is marketed to them in specialized magazines, publishing catalogs, or at professional conferences. For a large number of music educators, new music is limited to the composers last addressed in their final undergraduate music literature or theory course. Perhaps ongoing dialogue spurred by NewMusicBox’s education week may lead to an increased number of people who find themselves involved in both new music and music education.


The following scenarios are based on my experiences, observations, and thinking as a music teacher educator working with pre-service and in-service music teachers. They offer possibilities of what could be rather than actual descriptions of particular people and places.

Looking in on Contemporary Pedagogy

For years, Bob Hinton stood or sat at the front of his university classroom and lectured. Some of his students joked that he had made a permanent indentation in the floor. Three years ago, he began experimenting with flipping his classroom. In other words, he video recorded lectures and discussions of the music his students were analyzing and performing and posted them online for his students to view prior to meeting in class. This freed up class time to facilitate discussion and engage with music more actively. Last year, he leveraged the multimedia and interactive aspects of the cloud-based service VoiceThread to have his students upload their own text, video, or audio responses around his videos. This led to dialogue prior to class. Skeptical at first, Bob recognized that his students were more engaged and were beginning to make connections to the content in class in ways that many had not in prior years. Students of his who also studied pedagogy in their education courses were able to identify how Bob was transforming his classroom from one that was teacher-centric to a more student-centered setting.

Bob began borrowing strategies he picked up while collaborating with a team of colleagues on a grant that funded long-term partnerships between the music program, local music educators, and K-12 students. He lectured less and began spending more time facilitating projects. He found himself circulating around his classroom frequently as his students collaborated in groups on projects he designed. His students were creating, analyzing, discussing, performing, and researching music around questions such as: How do musicians relate or respond to their environment? How does music reflect or affect society? What is my role as a musician in the 21st century? He began observing how most of the key concepts he planned to address in class emerged from students’ work on their projects, particularly when he asked questions that helped them reflect more on what they were doing and how it related to the course content.

Bob felt himself shifting away from seeing his role as someone who imparted knowledge or delivered content to his students and moving more toward helping them construct their own understanding and meaning of the key concepts important to his course. While he still poked fun at the phrase “being a guide on the side rather than a sage on the stage,” it described his developing pedagogy. He was asking questions and guiding students’ inquiry in ways that encouraged them to problem-solve and think critically about the course content and its relation to their lives. He was beginning to see the possibilities of a contemporary approach to his pedagogy.

Looking in on Participatory Culture

Kelly Sutton only recently came across the idea of participatory culture at a music education conference presentation she attended. After eavesdropping on some of her students’ conversations and hearing about the song Radioactive by Imagine Dragons, she started searching YouTube to identify examples of participatory culture by observing how people engaged with the music beyond listening to it.

Kelly first found covers and arrangements of the song and was intrigued by how many different tutorials people had created to teach others how to perform Radioactive on guitar, piano, and other instruments. She didn’t understand why people would create synthesia videos of popular music but figured that it related to the type of animated notation that appeared in video games such as RockBand and RockSmith. She found mashups (NSFW), remixes, sample-based beats and produced instrumentals over which people could rap. Kelly was stunned by how much time and energy people put into creating solo multitracked a capella recordings, solo-multitracked arrangements, and parodies or satires. She still couldn’t quite figure out why someone would use the game Minecraft to create noteblock versions of a song and wondered what other types of technology people used to interact with music. Kelly found commentaries (some parts NSFW) that people posted about the song particularly interesting, since her students were also often interested in discussing their music.

Curious, Kelly looked up the names of other popular songs she found on Billboard’s Top 100 and searched for similar examples on YouTube. Sure enough, she found similar videos and realized how unaware she was of the ways that people engaged with music beyond those in her music program. She then looked for examples beyond a mainstream popular music context and found remix contests related to music released by Steve Reich, Yo Yo Ma, Eric Whitacre, and DJ Spooky. Kelly was intrigued by an app that allowed people to rework Philip Glass’s music and was surprised to find that the Berliner Philharmonic and Brooklyn Philharmonic had made recordings of Mahler and Beethoven available to the public for remixing.

As Kelly learned more about participatory culture and the ways that people were expressing themselves, engaging with music, and sharing their creations with others (Jenkins, Purushotma, Weigel, Clinton, & Robison, 2009, pp. 5-6), she recognized how several orchestral concerts she had attended incorporated this type of ethic. She remembered that some people used their mobile devices to tweet during concerts and had heard about blogs and other social media that concert attendees contributed to. She was also surprised to find out about initiatives that involved the general public collaborating on the creation of a symphony and an opera. Kelly wondered what might happen if professional musicians and cultural organizations such as orchestras expanded aspects of participatory culture related to marketing and outreach to connect with educational projects and long-term collaborations with music educators. She was also curious about the potential of integrating aspects of participatory culture into her own program.

Looking in on Contemporary Pedagogy, Participatory Culture, and New Music

During a recent conversation in her evening grad class, Brenda Jayden realized that she had left a gap in her middle school music courses. Looking at the music in her curriculum and the posters of great composers lined up on the back wall of her classroom, Brenda recognized that her students could easily be left with the impression that composers were, for the most part, dead white men from Europe with funky hair. Brenda understood that this was problematic. Slightly embarrassed that she was unaware of anyone currently composing music in the state where she lived and only able to name six living composers other than those who appeared in the magazine from which she ordered music for her classroom, Brenda decided to address the issue head on.
Brenda developed a project with her students to familiarize them with examples of new music and the people involved in the new music community. She searched for and contacted people involved in the field to determine possibilities for collaborating on the project with her students. She also applied what she was learning in her grad class about participatory culture in the context of music education. After several Skype sessions and Google Hangouts with composers and a new music ensemble, Brenda and her collaborators generated the following questions to structure the project: How is music expressive? What makes new music new?
Brenda was unclear about how copyright, creative rights, and fair use applied in the context of her students engaging creatively with the composers’ music in her classrooms and ensembles. Out of respect for the professional musicians, she asked them how they felt about students appropriating their music in an educational context and tried to determine what she and her students could or should do with the music. Shortly after corresponding with the composers, one of them immediately expressed interest in the idea of Brenda and her students engaging with her music by creating covers, arrangements, remixes, and mashups. As students listened to this composer’s music, they discussed their perspectives on how it was expressive and “new.” They also created and performed their own “new” music that expressed what it was like to go through a day as a middle school student.
Several weeks into the project, students formed groups and chose aspects of participatory culture that they wanted to engage with in relation to the composer’s music. Some created remixes while others analyzed the music by copying and pasting recorded excerpts into Garageband along with their own commentary in the style of a radio interview. One group created a music video and one individual was inspired to create his own music inspired by the original. As the students worked on their projects, Brenda moved around to the different groups asking questions that forwarded their work and developed their musical understanding. The students were extremely motivated to work on the project and were gradually becoming fans of new music. They began wondering aloud how they might hear new music live.

The students and composer developed a 21st-century pen-pal-type of relationship, exchanging video posts, holding Skype sessions, and sometimes exchanging tweets. Some students became curious about other living composers and started researching music online. Others began generating playlists of new music on Spotify and purchasing new music on iTunes. One student proposed that the class work with a composer on a Kickstarter campaign to have new music for middle school students to perform that could also be remixed or used in mashups. Students updated the back wall of their classroom by creating posters of contemporary composers and ensembles with whom they felt a connection, having engaged with their music in ways that were relevant and meaningful to their lives.

After completing the project, Brenda maintained contact with several composers and performers in the new music community. They planned to apply for a grant to have a set of new works commissioned that would provide rights for schools to transform and appropriate the work in any way students wished for non-commercial purposes. The ensemble would provide schools with each part recorded individually as resources to use in creative appropriation and for teachers to use in their instruction. Brenda was reinvigorated by the possibilities afforded through participatory culture in her classroom and felt that her students had not only learned much about the expressive potential of music, but had developed as musicians and young people.

New Music in New Music Education?
Trading Ideas
Music education and new music will continue evolving. However, whether they do so apart from one another or in collaboration depends on our actions. The above scenarios invite possibilities that deserve dialogue and debate. A shift towards more student-centered classrooms and projects or inquiry-based learning can provide an excellent context for people to engage with and develop a deep understanding and passion for new music. Likewise, embracing participatory culture can provide people with opportunities to engage with new music in ways that generate interest, develop understanding, and are meaningful to their lives. Those in new music and music education communities might consider collaborating on projects that provide young people with multiple ways of interacting with and learning about new music.

Musicians involved with new music might release audio recordings of music to be remixed, covered, mashed-up, mixed into DJ sets, or manipulated in ways that assist educators in providing students with interesting ways of exploring and interacting with the music. Composers might also allow their works to be recorded and shared as individual parts, stems, or composite recordings for these and other purposes. Music educators experienced with contemporary pedagogies might expand their curricula and open their classrooms to new music. Furthermore, music educators might ensure that at minimum, students are aware of the ways music is being created, performed, and engaged with in contemporary society. Regardless of how intersections of new music and music education might play out, dialogue and collaboration are key in moving forward.

Continuing Conversations

The dialogue fostered by education week on NewMusicBox can catalyze ongoing and sustained conversations between multiple communities. This goes both ways. Music educators might identify and dialogue with organizations and individuals dedicated to supporting and forwarding new music. Music educators should also commit to maintaining awareness of the new music world by listening to the music as well as reading online magazines such as NewMusicBox along with related websites, social media, and the blogs of musicians engaged in new music. Likewise, those involved in new music might interact with music educators online, in K-12 or university settings, or at state and national music education conferences. New music communities might also increase their awareness of the varied perspectives and discussions taking place in music education by reading professional blogs or reading related research journals, several of which are open access. In the spirit of discussion and collaboration, I plan on holding a Google Hangout at some point during the Spring 2014 semester when I teach my Digital and Participatory Culture in Music course to foster related dialogue. I hope some of you will consider taking part in continuing the conversation.

The themes of contemporary pedagogy and participatory culture articulated throughout this article can be unpacked, explored, and critiqued in greater detail in whatever context makes the most sense to educators and new music practitioners. More importantly, however, is their potential for collaboration that can contribute to the musical lives of young people, develop the capacity for music educators to integrate new music into their programs, and support those most closely involved in new music.

How We Learn Now: Education Week

How We Learn Now: Education Week
Index of Education Week Articles















Whether it’s been years since you last sat in a lecture hall or only just this morning that you put a child on the school bus, September will probably always carry with it thoughts of the classroom. Yet despite these traditional specters, how we seek out and process new information has clearly evolved in the digital age.

While maverick music makers who build their art well outside traditional institutions were certainly not invented in 2013, advances in technology have multiplied and publicized the myriad routes students may follow. In parallel to the ways we’ve seen the boundaries of genre blur and meld, education and career paths have been derailed and resurfaced; others have completely gone off road.

So how do you get to be a new music composer or performer today? How do you connect with the music and grow as a listener? Fresh learning methods have opened up exciting possibilities when it comes to advancing music education and introducing new ears to new work, so this week (September 23-27) we’ve invited our regular contributors plus some special guests to each pick up a thread in this huge concept and tell us about a piece of this story that’s important to them.

While I don’t expect that any of them will dismiss the idea of music education completely, they may advocate for learning that occurs outside of traditional intuitions or that continues long after the graduation cap is airborne.

This, of course, isn’t the first time we’ve poked around under the hood of educational issues here at NewMusicBox. In recent years we’ve chronicled Detroit’s fight to save music in the public schools and examined how we measure learning among music school students. We questioned if education debt was really worth it and what kind of teaching methods are best for those who decide to invest in it.

I expect that lots of new ideas will be thrown around this week, and it’s my hope that you’ll be inspired to add your voice to these discussions as well, using whatever 21st-century messaging strategy you most prefer.
For my part, I’ll sign off with this YouTube video. Now, I’m not much of a performer, nor did I complete any advanced work in the sciences, but thanks to the internet I’ve been schooled by someone who clearly has both well in hand. So thanks, A Cappella Science Guy! You’ve illustrated the importance of music education even when it comes to STEM subject excellence: Sonic proof of concept for any naysayers, as far as I’m concerned.