Tag: music education

Incarceration and Musical Inspiration Part Two: The Human Piano

A 1932 State Education Department plaque on the entrance to Auburn Prison which reads: "ERECTION COMMENCED 1916, FIRST PRISONERS 1817 ASSISTED IN CONSTRUCTION, FIRST ELECTROCUTION IN THE WORLD 1890"
“I always knew you were a C sharp,” Gherald chuckled as Christopher looked at his card. Stuart Paul Duncan, the course instructor, had distributed large hand-written cards to the inmates, each labeled with a different pitch in the chromatic scale. It was our second month teaching music theory and appreciation at Auburn Correctional Facility, one of New York State’s largest all-male maximum-security prisons. Claire, my fellow TA, watched with apprehension as chatter broke throughout the classroom. Though Stuart had told Claire and me his plan during the car ride to the prison, neither of us was sure it would work.
“Alright, gentlemen,” Stuart called over the noise. He always addressed the inmates as gentlemen, to their great amusement (his English accent helped). He had their attention instantly. “We’re going to form a lineup!”

The men stared, not knowing if he was serious. “Take your cards,” Stuart continued, “and stand in order of the chromatic scale. We’re going to form a human piano!”

Laughter and relief swept through the room. The men gladly rose from their individual desks and gathered towards the back of the room where there was space to move. “Look! I’m next to you!” Gherald called to Christopher as he held up his own card, which had a big letter D written in marker.

Stuart, Claire, and I had been struggling to communicate basic concepts of music theory to these seventeen men with vastly different levels of education. Our only tools in the prison classroom were a rickety chalkboard on wheels that moved every time you wrote on it and a small electric keyboard which, while helpful, was difficult for the entire class to see at once. We hoped that the “human piano” would enable the students to better visualize major and minor scales, bringing the keyboard to life.
On one side of the lineup, near B-flat and A, the inmates were laughing while David held up his A-flat card as if he were posing for a mug shot. He turned left; then right, his face expressionless as the men around him roared with laughter. Claire and I had cards as well, and we took our places beside the men. I stood next to Shane and he inched cautiously away from me, avoiding eye contact.

I held up my E, realizing with a jolt that I was standing next to a man who had committed murder. It was shockingly easy to forget, in the midst of the classroom environment, that the majority of the students were serving life sentences for committing horrendous acts. I reminded myself that I was not there to treat or regard them as criminals. My goal was to share the joys and mysteries of music making, to try to understand their need for creative expression and, in turn, gain insight into my own personal and artistic motivations.

The energy in the room crackled and it was clear why. In music class, these men were able to temporarily change their identity from prisoner to student, from being numbered to being human. Music became a life force, providing vital human connection in an environment where social interaction is suppressed. The classroom provided a safe haven, enabling the inmates to engage with each other in a positive way, to explore and experiment with feelings of normalcy and inclusion, feelings that are alien to incarceration.

“Who belongs to a D major scale?” Stuart asked. Little by little, the men stepped forward, helping each other as they counted whole steps and half steps. F sharp and G flat debated who should be part of the line.

Stuart’s undoubtedly risky pedagogical experiment paid off. The students actively engaged in a constructive, educational game instead of passively accepting information recited from the front of a classroom. They took their learning experience into their own hands. More importantly, Stuart appropriated an aspect of prison culture and transformed it into a positive experience. Yet he was simultaneously challenging the prison environment by allowing the inmates to take charge and solve a collective problem. The exercise implicitly questioned the inmates’ sense of their own identity—as individuals and as a unified whole.
The “human piano” proved to our students that Stuart, Claire, and I accepted that we were not simply in a classroom but deep inside prison walls. It showed that we were willing to stand beside them, aware of their crimes, yet still believing that the human need for education and artistic expression extends to those living behind bars. The lineup was no longer a threatening assembly of criminals but a team of individuals with the potential for creativity and growth.

Though Stuart never explicitly communicated these intentions to his class, they understood. From that point on, there was a shift in the atmosphere. The tension broke. They began to trust and accept us, and we began to trust and accept them.
The inmates at Auburn sprang to life whenever we played music. The entire room pulsed with energy, excitement, and a thirst for culture and intellectual engagement. From the prison’s small boombox, we played Steve Reich’s It’s Gonna Rain, Benjamin Britten’s The Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra, Olivier Messiaen’s Quartet for the End of Time, along with songs by the Beatles, Scott Joplin, Howlin’ Wolf, and T.I., to name a few. Stuart compared rhythms in Rachmaninoff to those found in salsa music. Britten’s music introduced the orchestra, revealing how instruments trade musical ideas. We discussed color and orchestration, form and motivic development.

Stuart always found a way to relate the music to an aspect of culture familiar to the men in the prison. When we listened to Quartet for the End of Time, Stuart gave historical context, sharing that Messiaen composed the work in a German prisoner-of-war camp using the broken instruments available to him. The work premiered in 1941 for the inmates and guards outdoors in the rain. Our students were well aware that their situation was not analogous; they were in prison for crimes consciously committed. Yet, the story served its purpose. It allowed the inmates to imagine music flourishing in the stifling prison environment. It demonstrated that the creative spirit lives on in the face of dehumanization, incarceration, and fear. The story granted immediate access to the music.
A group of prisoners seated at long desks attentively listening to a seated instructor who is talking.
My students were completely immersed in the musical experience. Listening allowed them to relax and be moved by what they heard. They let down their guards and open up to each other. While listening to Rachmaninoff’s Prelude in C-sharp minor, the men closed their eyes and swayed from side to side. They tapped their feet to the beat or conducted in time with their own made up patterns. Gherald announced that he had named Rachmaninoff’s piece “Spider Legs.” Michael said that it reminded him of how an autistic person is shut off from the world, desperately trying to communicate. For him, the music captured the frustration of a person unable to reach or be understood by fellow human beings. In essence, it captured life in prison. My initial fear that classical music would somehow be alien to these men quickly evaporated. They felt it spoke to them directly and they quickly read themselves into the music.

Many of the students described what they heard in terms of an emotional narrative, inventing a story that corresponded to the music’s building of tension and release. Stuart would then translate their observations about dramatic development into musical terminology. My students began to recognize recurring motifs, struggling to understand how a musical line simultaneously sounded the same and different. This was fascinating to them, and I felt their excitement as they strived to articulate compositional techniques. Seeing Stuart play our little classroom keyboard proved thrilling to these men who were starved for culture. Their eyes would light up like they were seeing fireworks for the first time.

Steve Reich was very popular. Stuart linked Reich’s manipulation of magnetic tape to practices of sampling found in rap music. He explained the source material for Reich’s It’s Gonna Rain, a speech given by an African-American Pentecostal preacher, which led to a fascinating discussion about the musical and rhythmic elements of preaching. We also taught the inmates to perform Clapping Music. As they struggled to master the different parts, Stuart reminded the students that this was a professional piece of music and that even paid musicians had to practice. He said that we had complete faith that they could perform the piece by the end of the semester. I remember that day; Stuart, Claire, and I left the classroom feeling hopeful. As we waited in the hallway for a guard to lead us back to the prison entrance, we heard our students inside practicing Clapping Music. They wanted to rehearse in the few minutes they had together before the guards would return to lead them back to their cells.

Being in the room with these men as they listened to the music I love transformed my understanding of art. I witnessed how music sparks communication and openness among men who have lived in a world of violence. Love, warmth, and life filled a small room set inside a vast, cold, dehumanizing prison environment. Emotions ran so high with the exposure to music that they were tangible. Connection to art and to each other generated such a life force that it was physically apparent. Each day after teaching, I would return home exhausted, feeling that I had just experienced seventeen different therapy sessions, one for each of my students. Listening to music and sharing their beliefs proved so cathartic to these men to such an intense degree that it was infectious.

Ultimately, I was encouraged and inspired. Teaching music in prison affirmed my belief that art is accessible to anyone if placed in a fitting context. All a listener needs is a way in, whether it is through the real-life events behind a composition, an imaginary narrative, seeing how instruments communicate, following how a motif transforms overtime, or understanding the composers’ aesthetic intentions. The experience of art needs to be personal. Music becomes accessible when we can project an aspect of ourselves into the work of art, whether we are conscious of it or not. Even if it is not an emotional engagement, but an intellectual or philosophical one, the music must resonate in some capacity with our thought process. Even if music pushes us, challenges us, or defies our very definition of art, it does so by speaking to us personally, by taking something we know and altering it dramatically. The inaccessibility of classical art is not an issue of intelligence but an issue of identity and means of exposure. Once we can identify, we can listen. Once we can listen, we can identify.

Incarceration and Musical Inspiration Part One: Meeting the Men at Auburn’s Maximum Security Prison

seven of the students from the prison seated at a long desk, one of them is raising his hand

All images courtesy of the Cornell Prison Education Program

Shane, an Auburn Correctional Facility inmate with bright orange hair that clashed against his green uniform sweatpants and pullover, told the class that he wanted to study music theory in order to “express himself musically. I want to transfer onto the page what I hear in my head.” It was our first day teaching music theory and appreciation at one of New York State’s largest all-male maximum security prisons. I was a senior in college, accompanied by my fellow T.A. Claire Schmidt and a doctoral student Stuart Paul Duncan, who served as the course’s instructor.

We pretended to not be surprised that a man serving a life sentence for second-degree murder wanted to compose and was already hearing melodies, struggling to bring his internal world to musical life. Shane was not the only one. A quiet, middle-aged man seated beside him expressed that he wanted to put music to his poems. Gherald, a tall, broad-shouldered man with long dreadlocks, said that he composed raps and wanted to learn how to notate rhythms. He also sang with the prison’s church choir on Sundays and hoped to improve his voice. Christopher, incarcerated since the age of 17, said he wanted to know “why music sounds good, why it works the way it does.” Michael, a Hispanic man seated alone at the end of the table, informed us that he used to teach a class on music theory.

Within these few short minutes of introduction, millions of questions raced through my mind. Who are these men? Am I scared? Why am I here? Do I know why music sounds good and can I communicate an answer in a way that will be meaningful? Each of the seventeen men seated around the room looked at us with calm curiosity and a sincere respect. Their eyes were wide like a child’s discovering the world, yet their capacity for intellectual and philosophical exchange transcended that of the average student. They were a striking mix of total inexperience and naïvety, having spent the majority of their lives within the narrow confines of prison, and a source of devastating experiences, having lived in dangerous communities, witnessing horrors, and committing the terrible acts that led to incarceration. One man, presumably involved in gang violence, told me that prison had saved him. He believes that if he had not been arrested and removed from his situation, he would be dead by now.
The Music Theory and Appreciation course was implemented through the Cornell Prison Education Program, allowing incarcerated men to attain an associate’s degree through Cayuga Community College. Classes offered throughout the program’s 15 years of operation include genetics, constitutional law, medical anthropology, Asian meditation, writing, theater, and economics, to name a few. Philanthropist Doris Buffet provides the crux of financial support through her Sunshine Lady Foundation. The program aims to increase an incarcerated man’s chances of reintegrating into society upon release and lessens recidivism. It enables some men to even come to terms with their own imprisonment as well as their circumstances and choices that led to their sentence.

The Auburn penitentiary of the 1820s imposed constant silence during the day and solitary confinement at night. It was also the site of the first execution by electric chair in 1890. While the “Auburn System” has since been abandoned, the incarcerated men still live in a state of dehumanization. They are the first to acknowledge that they brought this life upon themselves, committing some of the most atrocious acts imaginable. My students had murdered their lovers, even their children. They had raped women and led violent gangs. The least offensive of their crimes was armed robbery. I knew this because all of their records were accessible online. At Cornell’s training session, program leaders told us over and over again “Do NOT Google your students! You will not like what you see.” I did it anyway. I needed to know.

At home, reading of their crimes, I would feel sickened. Walking through the prison to my class, I felt scared, even though a guard escorted me through the halls and showed me which handle to pull in case of emergency. Yet the moment I arrived in the classroom, these men transformed into my students. Despite their crimes, I grew to care for them as fellow human beings whom I hoped would grow and change. They were no longer nameless men in green with an identifying number but real, emotional, articulate individuals who taught me as much about music as I taught them. I sat next to them, separated only by a desk, while they told me about the music they loved and revealed their artistic aspirations. When Claire and I moved about the room, the men would make way and always ensure we had enough space. They did everything they possibly could to make us feel at ease. They understood how they were viewed in the eyes of society and cherished the feeling of normalcy and respect created within the classroom.
Close up of one of the students listening and taking notes
I soon became accustomed to the hour of security checks that preceded each visit and the routine of waiting for the guards to lock one door before crossing the room to open another. As the semester unfolded, I was strangely no longer afraid, not even when walking through the prison yard as the men huddled in groups and stared at me. I was baffled and intrigued. Their whole world was gray concrete: not even a stray weed could grow through the cement. Just this small glimpse of prison life stood in stark contrast to the vibrant atmosphere engendered within the classroom. Instead of feeling fear, I felt inspired by the resilience and determination of my students to be the best that they could possibly be. I anticipated that the severe circumstances of prison would color all aspects of the classroom experience, but to my surprise, the room felt like a safe haven, a comfortable space where ideas could flow freely. It was the purest form of education I have ever experienced. Imagine a class where every student feels it is a privilege to learn, yearns to participate and be heard, and absorbs all of the material with passionate curiosity. Imagine a music class where every piece is fresh to the ear and observations are not bound to a preconceived notion of what makes classical art. Within the nightmare of incarceration flourished the dream of education, an unabashed, provocative insight into musical meaning and expression.

My favorite student was Shane, who did ultimately learn how to write down his own compositions. The students regarded Shane as a leader in the classroom, a role that Shane never experienced in the prison as an openly gay man struggling to survive. Shane’s partner, also an inmate, was attacked by fellow prisoners and transferred to Sing Sing for his safety. Shane’s 1996 trial was well publicized: his was the first death penalty case brought by a New York City prosecutor following the reinstatement of capital punishment in 1995. Controversy surrounded the possibility of a death sentence in the trial of a gay man when the murder was not pre-meditated. After years of appeals, Shane received a natural life sentence.

Just like Shane, most of these men only experienced life outside of prison walls until their early twenties. I was twenty-one, but they thought I knew everything. They were visibly disappointed when I could not answer a question, questions such as: “Why does music have meaning?” “Why do different people like different kinds of music?” “How does music communicate?” They knew that these were difficult questions, but they genuinely believed that an answer could be reached. With each insistence that I try to explain, my students challenged me to examine my artistic identity, what was behind my drive and desire to become a composer. I would stare at their eyes as they implored me to demystify an art form that people spend their lives trying to understand. Every lesson, I would have to confront myself again and again, admitting that I do not have an answer. In response, their insights would guide me in ways I could have never expected.

I hope to share through my remaining posts what I learned about myself as a composer and musician during my three short months as one of Auburn Correctional Facility’s music teachers. I arrived wondering why a group of prisoners would voluntarily take a class on music theory when my freshmen class hated the topic. I feared that they would feel disconnected from classical music, particularly contemporary music, and wondered if we would find common ground. Over time, they shared with me their thoughts on Steve Reich, on Purcell and Rachmaninoff, on Benjamin Britten and Messiaen, and during the last class, they told me their thoughts on my own compositions. I will never know if I changed their lives, but I do know that they changed mine. Inspiration comes from unexpected sources. I learned that if you want to be an artist, it is imperative to reach beyond your comfort zone, to explore your wildest dreams and engage your deepest fears. Push yourself as a writer, a creator, and as a person to connect with the world outside of yourself. Dig through uncomfortable material and unknown territories until you see the stalk of green striving through the crack in the cement.


Photo of Julia Adolphe

Julia Adolphe

Julia Adolphe is a composer, writer and producer based in Los Angeles. Her music has received performances across the U.S. and abroad by the New York Philharmonic, Inscape Chamber Orchestra, the USC Thornton Symphony, JACK Quartet violinist Christopher Otto and cellist Kevin McFarland, guitarist Mak Grgic, the What’s Next? Ensemble, Nouveau Classical Project, the Cornell University Chorus, the Fiato Quartet, and the Great Noise Ensemble, among others. Recent highlights include the New York Philharmonic’s premiere of Adolphe’s orchestral work Dark Sand, Sifting Light conducted by Alan Gilbert at the inaugural 2014 Ny Phil Biennial, a recording on Inscape Chamber Orchestra’s album American Aggregate to be released by Sono Luminus in August 2014, and the concert premiere of Adolphe’s chamber opera Sylvia at NYC’s Bargemusic in 2013.

Get ‘Em While They’re Young: New Music as a Gateway to Classical Music



Over the past several months I have found myself in a rather strange position. Although my own personal background covers little on the topic of elementary or secondary music education, I have been discussing how composition can play a more active role in our K-12 education system. These informal—and, on one occasion, formal—discussions have led me to being selected as the California Music Educators Association (CMEA) Central Division “Higher Education Representative.” It’s a role which I am happy to fill, even though I feel slightly like an imposter. Still, there are reasons why I have found myself more involved in the “mus-ed biz” as of late. One large reason is due to the fact that where I work, Fresno State, is historically a teacher’s college. The overwhelming majority of students in my program are studying music education. So, even though my own education is from a more conservatory-style background, my almost ten years of experience teaching at Fresno State has provided me with some experience in understanding the state of music education within California. Not a whole lot, mind you, but enough to get by.

As for the nature of these aforementioned conversations, they typically revolve around how (or, more precisely, if) composition is being incorporated into the K-12 system. In order to be better prepared for discussing this with my fellow educators, I took it upon myself to research what kinds of materials currently exist for teaching music composition to secondary and elementary music students. It did not take me long to realize that there is an enormous amount of material available, and that any teacher interested in implementing music composition at the K-12 level needs to only do a little bit of surface research to discover the monumental mass of material out there!

One thing did strike me as a bit odd, though. I noticed when looking through this material that many of the methods designed to teach music composition focus primarily on technique, and infrequently mention the music from which those techniques are derived. Please note: this is not meant to be a statement of criticism. Any article, lesson, or discussion that is meant to inspire young students to write music—any music—should be encouraged! However, it is worth pointing out that much of this instruction seems to be designed through the careful avoidance of new music, focusing instead on either teaching no style, or instead on the styles of music with which K-12 students are presumably more familiar. This unfortunately may be teaching music students that there is no classical music being composed today, and that a modern composer only writes popular music, songs, or film scores.
One challenge to overcome is that for many young students there is an ingrained belief that classical music is not a part of mainstream culture. It isn’t “hip” or “new.” It is not the music they are interested in, and certainly not the music that they actively hear on the radio, on television, or on the internet. As a result, many young students simply “zone out” when presented with classical music.

They find it boring.

This often leads music educators to turn to other music as a way to engage their students. They use anything other than classical music as a way to get their students interested in learning about the subject. Again, there is nothing inherently wrong with teaching non-classical music in the classroom. However, the exclusion of classical music is likely having a detrimental effect, essentially reinforcing the perception that classical music is old and irrelevant.

But do you know what isn’t “old and irrelevant”? New music—by definition, no less! Whereas traditional classical music is considered to be old, new music is—well—new. If traditional music is perceived to be “irrelevant,” new music is quite the opposite, often directly reflecting current trends in our society. If students are unable to relate to Bach, Mozart, and Tchaikovsky, maybe they can relate to Missy Mazzoli, Steve Reich, and Osvaldo Golijov.

Frankly, we underestimate students when we assume they will not be interested in new music.

I will admit that this is a very bold statement to make. However, I have anecdotal evidence to support this. My wife is an elementary music teacher in Fresno Unified, where she teaches music at four different school sites, all of which serve primarily low-income students. Part of her pedagogical approach includes beginning each class with an example of music. Sometimes she plays something classical and other times something from popular music, but it is always something that she believes is capable of engaging her students. Not that it always does. Many times in the past, when she would play examples of traditional classical music such as Mozart or Tchaikovsky, her students would be bored out of their minds. The old perception seemed to be reinforcing itself: classical music is a style of music her students wouldn’t relate to, as it was not a part of their upbringing or culture.

Then she played Steve Reich for them.

The response was, in a word, astonishing. The students began tapping along and became actively engaged in their listening. They asked questions—questions!—about the music (which, in of itself is a pretty remarkable feat). Whereas Mozart was boring, Reich was exciting! It was new—something they did not expect, especially in the context of “classical music.” They wanted to hear more! Several times after my wife played them Electric Counterpoint, they asked for it again, even over popular music examples that she had played.

While Steve Reich might be a composer that we would expect younger students to engage with, what was more surprising was the response she received when she played them Pierre Boulez. Admittedly, the students reacted with confusion at first. However, as the music played they wanted to hear more. They wanted to know where this “crazy noise” was going. Once again, the music engaged her students on a level that neither Mozart nor Tchaikovsky ever did. They became active listeners. The music was unique and didn’t sound like “stereotypical classical music.” Like Reich, her students asked to hear “that weird Boulez music” again—many times over, in fact.

My wife’s experiences introducing new music to her students reminded me of another story that I had heard several years ago, when I was still a student at Indiana University. My composition teacher at the time, Claude Baker, once told me of his own experience when teaching music appreciation during his graduate days. In a recent conversation with Dr. Baker, he recalled the story for me:

When I was still a graduate student at Eastman, I taught low brass, theory, and music appreciation at a settlement school in a predominantly African-American community.  In the music appreciation class, I tried to take a traditional chronological approach to teaching the history of music. . .and it was an unmitigated disaster.  The students (mostly high schoolers) were either apathetic or downright hostile.  After a few weeks, I decided to try a “reverse chronological” path, starting with the concert and symphonic music of the time (“the time” being the early 1970s) and working backwards…and the change in attitude was dramatic.  The students immediately became more engaged, more enthusiastic, and more curious.  Attendance and class participation improved, particularly when I drew parallels between current art music and the popular music to which many of the students were listening.

The parallels between my wife’s experience and Dr. Baker’s are remarkable. Both indicate that we are possibly missing out on large opportunities to engage music students with new music, and thus classical music on the whole. This seems especially relevant for disadvantaged communities, where classical music is often viewed as foreign.

So, if new music has the potential to be a way to better engage K-12 students, why aren’t we seeing more of it in the classroom? Well, the obvious answer is that few music teachers know enough new music themselves to bring it into the class (or worse, have their own biases against new music). However, we cannot expect the music education community to change in this regard without composers such as myself becoming more involved with the K-12 system.

We composers need to be advocates for new music in the classroom, presenting music educators with a wide range of new music literature. We need to bring minimalism, indie-classical, spectralism, and the current avant-garde to K-12 students. Granted, they may not like all the music, but it will certainly get them thinking about it. If we are to keep classical music relevant in our schools, it needs to be placed into a modern context. Music education needs to embrace both composition and new music.

Challenging Tradition: Why Classical Musicians Should Learn Folk Music

About a year ago I stepped into a new world of music and it changed my life. Every Sunday night the Quays Pub, a small Irish bar in Queens, plays host to a group of some of the friendliest musicians I have ever met. They are there to play bluegrass and they are there to drink Jameson. It’s a lot of fun, but it’s also serious music. It was a totally new world for me.
Though a classically trained violinist, I had begun playing folk music in college and continued collaborating with folk musicians after moving to New York City. It was always a lot of fun, but I never really knew what I was doing. My initial contact with folk music had come primarily from the notated tradition: the music of Dvorák, Mahler, and Bartók for example.
So when I stepped up to take my first solo at the Quays Jam, I was as nervous as I have ever been before a performance. I still have absolutely no memory of those first few months of breaks. I would go to play and 20 seconds later I would regain consciousness, not knowing what had happened. I was following my ear and attempting to improvise, but I was only just beginning to understand the musical traditions behind fiddle playing and folk music making in general.

The Idiot Brigade

Ethan (center) with The Idiot Brigade. Photo by Michael Weinstein.

Now, after a year’s worth of discovering this music, many late-night jam sessions, and countless gigs (I did learn how to fake it quickly enough), one thought comes to mind upon reflection. Though I play an instrument with an enormous American tradition, it was not until I arrived at my first bluegrass jam that I actually began to investigate that style. Why is it that children learning to play the violin in America don’t learn about the rich traditions of American fiddle music?

From the perspective of technique, I suppose I can answer my own question. Playing old-time, Texas-style, Cajun, or bluegrass fiddle requires a slightly different approach to technique, particularly bow technique, from the Western classical tradition. But on a purely musical level, there is so much to be gained from exposure to the sounds of fiddle music, particularly in the realms of harmony and improvisation.

I honestly don’t think this would be that difficult. Even teachers who know very little about traditional music could assign interesting fiddle tunes to their students as a break between scales and etudes. It would be a moment in the middle of a practice session to reflect on just how much musical tradition exists in America. It would be a moment to recognize that most, if not all music comes, in some way, from folk traditions. It would be a way to connect the study of music to a greater understanding of the time, place, and manner in which it is created.
Bluegrass music changed my life by forcing me to challenge my concept of the folk. Rather than understanding it solely as musical material, I now understand it as living and breathing tradition. Incorporating folk music into the process of teaching notated music could breed a better understanding of other musical traditions as well as an openness to improvisation and composition. It could further the understanding of a musician not as a technician but as a creator, and of concerts not as galleries but as singular musical events.

How do you teach creativity in the process of teaching music?


Ethan Joseph is a musician and arts administrator. He serves as New Music USA’s Manager of Individual Giving where he focusses on building individual support for the organization at both the grassroots and major gifts levels. A classically trained violinist, Ethan currently performs with the experimental pop group Noise & Rhythm as well as the bluegrass band The Idiot Brigade.

Reflections on Liberal Arts and Late Bloomers

Vassar College library

The Vassar College library, by Matt DeTurk on Flickr

Last week I had the opportunity to visit my old stomping grounds at Vassar College. I was there to sit on a panel of alumni discussing careers in the arts with students and parents. It’s not an easy thing to talk about—arts-driven “careers”—and the panel, comprised of two visual artists, a novelist, and myself, did not shy away from talking about the instability and general uncertainty of working in a creative field. We all presented different approaches to building a life in the arts, and I think the conversations left students with the accurate impression that there is no one right way to be an artist.

Wandering around campus (and noting how comforting it is that the inside of the buildings still smell the same) I felt immensely grateful for the education I received there. I am quite certain that had things unfolded differently, I would not be a composer today, and I think there are plenty of young people out there now who, like my younger self, need something a bit different than the laser-focused, technical musical education one might receive at a conservatory or through some other types of programs.
The argument that a liberal arts education has no workplace value holds no water for those who actually hold liberal arts degrees and also have perfectly good jobs. Aside from the basic essentials that a liberal arts education provides—you know, the capacity to think critically, communicate clearly, and solve complex problems, not to mention assorted other “soft skills”—there is the simple fact that a teenager entering college often has no clue what s/he would like to pursue as a career. Some don’t figure it out until after college (the acclaimed novelist on the panel was a psychology major, and never took a single English class in college!), and others don’t figure it out ever. (This is by no means a terrible thing—these people are often fantastically interesting and smart about a myriad of subjects.)

I entered college fully intending to pursue the visual arts (way to pick the lucrative fields, right?) and in fact debated between attending an art school or a liberal arts college. In the end, I decided it would probably be smart to learn some other stuff in addition to art, just in case. It turned out to be a wise move, because I quickly changed my mind about a studio art major after enrolling in an electronic music class. The lure of being able to make my own sounds was too enticing, and I couldn’t get enough of it.

Although I grew up studying piano and singing in the school chorus, I did not start noodling on an instrument at age three or composing symphonies at age seven, and I never did counterpoint exercises at the breakfast table. Rather, I was at times a super pain in the butt for my very patient piano teacher, and I had barely touched the tip of the music theory iceberg by the time I arrived at college. That’s a late start, but at the time I had no idea whatsoever that I was running behind. And happily, no one ever mentioned it.

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The beautiful thing about the small music department at Vassar was that it didn’t really matter. As I dutifully plowed (and sometimes slogged) through the music major requirements (there were a lot—aside from pre-med, music had the largest required course load), I was receiving, in addition to that core knowledge, a fantastically eclectic musical education. There were two wonderful composition professors—Annea Lockwood and Richard Wilson—whose musical philosophies were worlds apart (and they got along—go figure!). I fell in love with the music of George Crumb, Steve Reich, Stravinsky, Bartók, and Messaien, while meeting in person Nicholas Collins, Charles Amirkhanian, Kyle Gann, and Conlon Nancarrow. I had a job working for composer Pauline Oliveros’s Deep Listening organization just up the road. As a percussion student, I played in the orchestra, performed Elliott Carter’s timpani etudes, and participated in the performance art works of other students. I never felt a sense of competition (in the negative sense) with my peers, nor was I particularly aware that composing competitions existed in the outside world. That was just fine; it wasn’t time for such things yet.
This is all well and good, but one could conceivably have those experiences at a forward-thinking music conservatory, right? Well, maybe so. But the other piece of the puzzle lies in the acquisition of knowledge outside of one’s focus. The study of topics such as astronomy, geology, biology, and Italian, just to name a few examples, open windows to the workings of the world, and as a result add richness and nuance to whatever one’s focus might be. I actually discovered the music of Benjamin Britten not through a music class, but rather via a Modern German Literature in Translation course, for which I wrote a paper about his opera Death in Venice. Through courses in religion (so many that I considered declaring it as a minor field of study), I became fascinated by the concept of ritual throughout world cultures, of storytelling, of the power of the human mind to conjure explanations for, and forge universal connections between, life events both significant and run-of-the-mill. By having the opportunity to dig deeply into a variety of topics that were interesting to me, I learned how to explore the nature of creativity in a meaningful way and discovered how to engage with ideas that would later serve as conceptual stepping-stones for the development of musical works. While possessing a deep and ever-growing understanding of one’s craft is obviously necessary, there are a lot of other things that can help pull a person to the composing desk (or the easel, or the potter’s wheel) each morning.

After college graduation, the road has continued to unfold in a similarly eclectic way, and I wouldn’t change a thing. It certainly isn’t an easy life, but then it’s not easy for anyone regardless of how focused their training may have been. Many of us have musical lineages that are more patchwork quilt than classic pinstripe, but the past and present of any artistic discipline are inextricably linked regardless of how the connections are formed or which version makes it to the history books. These interconnections are what make it is so exciting to be an artist in this day and age.

So the next time someone asks, “A music/philosophy/history/religion/you-name-it major? What on earth are you going to do with that?” A perfectly sensible response might be, “The sky’s the limit.”

Preparing for Takeoff

Boeing B-47B

Public domain, from commons.wikimedia.org

Since I’ve been writing for NewMusicBox, each year around the beginning of school I’ve tried to share some words of perspective with composers just beginning their college education, including one post suggesting reasons not to enroll in a composition degree program. But today I want to address my back-to-school post not to the dewy-eyed incoming fresh people, but to those students embarking on their final year(s) of academic study.

For many music students, there’s a sense of shock and, occasionally, panic at the thought of reaching the end of the road following years of musical study—a journey that likely began long before college, ending in a black hole of uncertainty as many musicians begin to confront the first years of their not being students that they can remember. This is one of the frequently disconcerting parts of careers in music, and making the successful transition from student to young professional can be the single most difficult period of any musician’s life.
While the road of student life does end, it’s only as a runway does: as a necessary path to greater things above and beyond. After spending a great deal of time talking over this particular issue with participants in this summer’s Fresh Inc Festival, I want to share some thoughts on the most important things to keep in mind while transitioning out of student life:

    • Presentation matters. It’s not an afterthought or some kind of fancy icing distinct from substance. Presentation is intimately connected to the way you and your music will be perceived and evaluated—from clean, well laid out parts that help you get the most out of rehearsals, to an articulate and human preconcert talk, to a website that’s clear and easy to navigate. Don’t fall into the trap of thinking that the substance of your work will carry itself, as it takes work to project that substance to others and help it come across.


    • Music is only one small part of the big picture. You’ll also need writing skills if you want to blog or express your vision to a grant panel; math and software skills if you want to run an ensemble’s finances; knowledge of electronic equipment for your shows; and development skills if you want to be able to raise money for your projects. Try reading through any staff directory for an orchestra or opera company, taking note of all the different roles and tasks to be accomplished. It’s not a bad template for planning out one’s own first projects. It’s also a reminder of how much takes place behind the scenes in order to bring music to new audiences. Develop a broad skillset, and you’ll always have plenty of options for achieving your goals, as well as making yourself useful to others.


    • Engagement is key. Whether it’s through posters at a local venue, posts on social media, or outreach activities at a local library, engaging your fans and potential audience members is a must. Finding (and better, creating) your own networks of followers and collaborators is crucial for long-term development and sustainability. Music is one of the most social professions, and you need to start engaging the larger musical community early and often if you want to have your finger on the pulse.


  • Cultivate a definition of success that is inclusive rather than exclusive. Everyone’s idea of success is obviously different, and it’s more likely than not that your own criteria for success will shift subtly or dramatically throughout a life in music. Be ready for and open to everything; things don’t usually happen the way we expect them to, and we make the most of opportunity when we throw out the script and open up to what’s going on around us. Most of all, avoid the types of success that come at the expense of others in favor of success that uplifts everyone it touches—the kind of success that comes from having given rather than having taken. When you are able to take pride in the achievements of others rather than treating all colleagues as competition, there’s a lot more to be gained and absolutely nothing to lose.


More Media Matters (Part 2)

Last week I suggested that an idealized “nine-to-five” lifestyle of an idealized “middle-class” American left an idealized “him” about one-third of “his” time to do anything other than work, commute to and from work, sleep, and eat. Actually “he” would have 1.5 more hours per week to dedicate to “leisure” time. But we all know that the state of the economy in the last 12 years has shrunk the “nine-to-five” demographic quite a bit. Some see this as a good thing as people diversify their talents and take up “freelance” vocations that allow them to “self-actualize” their lives through various creative outlets, like a hobby. In reality, these people are mostly using their creative talents to generate more income to make up for lost wages, more like a second job. Another argument against the idealized three-way “work-sleep-play” split is that seldom does work end when one leaves his or her idealized workplace. Often, time spent eating and time spent playing combine elements of work, thus becoming time spent working. (How many high-level business decisions are made at the golf course or at lunch?) So the idea that one has an equal chance to experience artistic expression from a “normal” work environment is a fallacy; one with a demonstrable downside.

Learning music has been shown to be important to the development of our minds and bodies. This is common enough knowledge that Barack Obama addressed it during his first presidential campaign. But to learn music one has to spend time—a lot of time—playing music. For instance: to play in my junior high school orchestra, one had to attend the 45-minute class five days per week, and one was expected to practice on weekends. Students who later became proficient usually played at least twice that much. Those of us who wanted to improvise to play jazz or rock had to learn it on our own and, thus, we had to practice even more. So, as I said last week, mastering jazz takes more time and effort than learning to play an instrument well enough to play classical repertoire, which in turn takes much more dedication and study than what is needed to play most pop music. (I’m not trying to say that there aren’t brilliant and dedicated pop musicians, but if one compares average representatives of these genres I’m sure that there would be no disagreement with the thesis.)

On the other hand, pop musicians can make a lot more money than classical or jazz musicians. I have no doubt that part of the reason for this is that pop musicians travel a tighter orbit around the Great American Culture Machine (GACM). They often look at the business of music as integral a part of music making as the creative part, and even more important than mastery of a particular instrument. And the seven-, eight-, and even nine-figure salaries that are flaunted in tabloids, newspapers, and business journals must hold some degree of allure to one who is interested in pursuing music as a vocation. But, these are proverbial carrots-on-a-stick held out by the GACM to pull in anyone who believes themselves worthy of a place on stage or, as an interviewer I was talking with earlier this week put it by way of referencing the baseball movie Bull Durham, “the Show.”
One of the subtexts of Bull Durham (for those not familiar with the classic) is the control of the individual by the GACM at the expense of talent and expression. In the movie, an aging but viable catcher is downgraded to an obscure triple-A team to coach a young pitcher with star potential into a Major League commodity. Although the mechanics of baseball are much more organized and pervasive than those of the arts, there are aspects of the music industry that resemble the world of Bull Durham. Besides the obvious aspects of physicality in music and athletics (the phylum that baseball is a species of), with its regimen of training, specialized exercise, and repetitive motion injuries, the concept of loyalty towards one’s group bordering on fealty is common to both. I’m sure that readers who are, or have been, involved in music as professional performers can relate to the catcher’s disdain at his association with a substandard team, but still taking pride and finding joy from his own performance. (It’s like the principle flutist of a community concert band delivering perfect cadenzas in Scheherazade while every instrument section’s tutti sounds like a major-second cluster, or the once-famous jazz saxophonist who plays in the same group to “stay in shape.”) And I remember showing up to a rehearsal of my beloved Boys Club Jazz Band to find the director-conductor-composer-arranger-baritone saxophonist Don Ontiveros sitting at his desk with the same expression that the team manager in Bull Durham had on his face when passing the news to a player that the front office was firing him, only Don was reading a letter informing him that funding for the band had been pulled (right after we won our division at the Reno Jazz Festival’s jazz band competition).

That was the first time I experienced the utter sense of disbelief I would have felt when reading the New York Times article that appeared on its front page, had I not become acclimated to such things during my brilliant career. However, I was surprised to see this particular arm of the GACM champion the inequity of the artist-to-industry relationship so diligently. That is, until I saw the part about “certain types of music, like classical or jazz,” being condemned to poverty if streaming on the Internet is “the only way people consume music.” I had already been reading Frank J. Oteri’s reportage from the MIDEM convention in Cannes. In his third installment, “Ephemeral Playback,” Oteri outlines a discussion on “how to revitalize classical and jazz” in the digital era. It seems that the question posed at Cannes is undermined by the NYT’s piece. By insisting that classical and jazz are fodder for unscrupulous corporate exploitation, interest in pursuing them, either as vocation or avocation, is diminished. If one were prone to conspiracy theory, an indication of the GACM being engaged in the practice of contraindicating the highest standards of cultural performance to the culture being created to foster consumer-only tiers could be perceived.

A possible better way to address the issue under discussion at MIDEM might be to reintroduce classical and/or jazz music into the core curricula of public education on a par with other subjects, such as math or English. The aforementioned research shows this will boost a student’s ability to master those other subjects and perform in society when schooling is done as well. And the explanation can be coupled with recent press showing a growing dissatisfaction with the current approaches to core curricula. Granted, the single attempt by documentarian Ken Burns to broaden the reception of jazz by American television viewers was greeted by an avalanche of invective from the jazz community (who thought its scope to be too narrow) and the jazz academy (who saw flaws in its timeline); but this shouldn’t make jazz, or any form of music, anathema to the Great American Culture Machine. Indeed, Burns should be, and is, credited with taking on the challenge of educating the GACM consumer class. But trying to encapsulate a genre is often to declare it complete, finished, over…in a word, dead.

This is possibly the biggest problem one confronts when involved in the practice of creating new music, like an 800-pound gorilla in the room. But it is also one that can, and hopefully will, be effectively addressed as a media matter. The relationship between the media and the arts is reflexive. The most obvious facet of that reflexivity is reportage and prose (as well as poetry). Music is generally removed by genre and style, as well as by issue and time. Hip-hop primarily addresses issues of class-differentiation by skin color and poverty, which were previously addressed by folk music and post-modern jazz (but folk music still speaks to a plethora of class-differentiated issues); but what music is addressing issues of culture deprived curricula in education?
To be continued…

New Music for New Ears

Our bows hovered in stillness for as long as the ethereal, haunting feeling of Marcos Balter’s Vision Mantra lingered in the air.  Slowly lowering our arms, the audience began to applaud, and then—the moment of truth—we broke down that fourth wall that formalizes the relationship between listeners and performers and asked the audience what they heard in Balter’s piece.  At first, no one spoke.  My body tensed as I thought, Oh no, they didn’t get it.  And then, with a confident air of nonchalance, a three year old in the second row raised her hand.  “Bumblebees!” she announced.  “Yes!!” we agreed.  We had joked in rehearsal about how the piece, with its pianissimo tremolos, did indeed resemble some sort of insect mating call.  A few seconds later, a parent in the back tentatively spoke up.  “Yellowstone,”  she volunteered, explaining that her family had gone on vacation there a few years ago and the sounds in the piece reminded her of the beauty of the national park.  Now that the ice was broken, kids and parents alike became more and more eager to share what they heard.  “Wind chimes!” offered a nine year old.  All the adults in the room oohed and aahed in agreement.  After the concert, we asked several kids what their favorite piece was.  Out of Haydn, Borodin, and Balter, all chose Balter.  Note to self, we all thought, we should always program new music on kiddie concerts

A performance of Marcos Balter’s Vision Mantra

A performance of Marcos Balter’s Vision Mantra

I have often noticed that kids have a greater attention span and much more curiosity about classical music than adults give them credit for.  Performing this outreach concert at the Music Institute of Chicago not only confirmed my hunch, it also convinced me that children are incredibly open-minded and receptive to challenging music, not just the fluff on the “Mozart for Kids” CDs (What’s that?  It will raise my child’s IQ??  I must buy it!).  Furthermore, a child’s interest in a particular kind of music can influence their parents’ perspective.  If that three year old, sitting on her papa’s lap, hadn’t made it known that she knew exactly what kinds of sounds Marcos Balter had been envisioning in his piece, the other adults in the room may not have thought up their own imaginative responses.  In this case, the children inspired their parents to look at the concert experience in a more creative way, as opposed to the stiff and formal way adults have been programmed to think of classical concerts.

It’s exactly these thoughts that the City of Chicago’s recently appointed deputy commissioner for arts programming also seems to share.  Angel Ysaguirre, formerly the director of Boeing’s global community investing, joined the city’s Department of Cultural Affairs and Special Events just about a year ago, and is the driving force behind a new series at the Chicago Cultural Center.  The Cultural Center already presents a multitude of free concerts for the public several days a week.  Come February, they will begin offering a new series with a somewhat unprecedented concept.  Its target audience is—wait for it—toddlers.  And the gist of the so-called Juicebox series is to present high-quality avant-garde arts programming of all kinds—new music (both contemporary classical and jazz), theater and puppetry, and modern dance.  Starting February 1, and continuing every two weeks at 10 a.m. on Fridays, the performance space under the Cultural Center’s beautiful Tiffany Dome will be transformed into, well, something that probably will resemble a preschool classroom.  Kids will be invited to sit, lay on the floor, or, according to the folks from the Cultural Center, “roaming around the room is totally cool with us.”  With snacks and juiceboxes on hand, they will have the opportunity to experience an art form that most parents would never think to introduce their kids to because they assume it’s just too difficult to understand.  Parents and grandparents will be encouraged to bring their toddlers, and preschools will be invited to bring in entire classrooms.  Lucky for me, I’ll have the honor of observing the small listeners from a very special perspective when my quartet performs on the series next month.

The way Ysaguirre sees it, children don’t really develop their own preferences for art and music until after they turn 8 or 9, and at that point, their tastes are shaped by their surroundings and social environment.  For instance, if eight-year-old Mary’s older sister is always blasting the Jonas Brothers from her room and their parents think classical music is boring, Mary will probably develop a taste for pop music and have no interest in ever going to a symphony concert.  This concept is reflected in several research studies, all based on David Hargreaves’s “open-earedness” theory.  Hargreaves’s hypothesis—and the conclusions of most of these studies—states that the younger a child is, the more open-minded she is to unfamiliar music.  Furthermore, if children are not exposed to unfamiliar music early in life, they are significantly less likely to respond positively to it the older they become.  The age that their open-earedness disappears seems to be, at latest, nine years old.  Ysaguirre’s hope is that by offering the Juicebox concerts, he can help shape kids’ preferences and give them a taste for new music, a taste that they will not lose because they were exposed to it during a crucial time in their development.  Ysaguirre has witnessed for himself that, contrary to popular belief, kids actually enjoy listening to highly complex music just as much as simple music.  Besides, avant-garde music, theater, and dance are adventurous, just like kids are.  And unlike adults, kids are content to let the experience of a piece of music or dance wash over them, thinking about how it makes them feel, rather than searching for narrative or meaning within the work.

Miss “Bumblebees!” checks out the cello at an instrument petting zoo after the show.

Miss “Bumblebees!” checks out the cello at an instrument petting zoo after the show.

This idea that young children enjoy complex music is something I also heard from Germany-based clarinetist Sacha Rattle, who performed in an avant-garde production of Little Red Riding Hood set to music by Georges Aphergis through National Theater Mannheim’s Children’s Opera.  When four and five year olds were asked what they thought of the production, their reactions were overwhelmingly positive.  In fact, they didn’t even seem to notice the fact that the music was microtonal; they were mostly just psyched about how loud it was.  One child even likened the production to The Magic Flute, which he had seen the week before and had enjoyed just as much.  The difference in open-mindedness was huge, however, when older kids came to the theater.  The fifteen year olds, in particular, couldn’t stand the production.  According to Rattle, the story was too childish for them but the humor was too complex, and they despised Aphergis’s music.  One group even jeered that the musicians must not know how to play their instruments.  Rattle said that, more than anything, the whole experience taught him about people’s perception of new music, and more importantly, “how it should be, and could be perceived.”
As music and arts programs continually seem to be cut from school curriculums, it becomes ever more important to make sure that kids are exposed to the arts so that they remain as open-minded at fifteen as they were at five.  While the Tubby the Tuba CD is certainly one tool when it comes to teaching kids about classical music, could it be that we’re underestimating children?  When we assume they wouldn’t like or understand a challenging piece of music, we don’t even give them a chance.  As Angel Ysaguirre told me, investing in the contemporary version of an art form is what keeps the arts exciting and relevant.  Likewise, investing in new music is a way of perpetuating classical music in general.  This being the case, why on earth wouldn’t we want to expose kids to new, exciting, adventurous forms of art, while they’re just starting to develop their own tastes and perceptions?

When Ysaguirre shared with me a bit about his own introduction to classical music, I learned that it wasn’t Brahms or Beethoven that first drew his attention, it was a performance of Philip Glass’s Satyagraha.  He is well aware that for him, new music was an introduction to classical music as a whole, and it is this experience that he is hoping to invoke in the young children that attend a Juicebox performance.  One of his main priorities is to provide the highest quality programming by bringing in the best artists in Chicago.  The lineup this spring will include free performances by the Spektral Quartet, Chicago Q Ensemble, RE|Dance, Jim Gailloretto’s Jazz String Quintet, Jeff Parker, and Jason Adasiewicz with Frank Rosaly, among others.  And beginning in April, Juicebox will expand from the Cultural Center to partner with the Chicago Park District in providing additional avant-garde performances in unlikely locations around many Chicago neighborhoods.

Just as I was thrilled by the realization that the kids at my outreach concert had fallen for the sounds of Marcos Balter, I can hardly wait to see the reactions of the toddlers who come to the Juicebox Series at the Chicago Cultural Center.  At the very least, the series will expose children and their parents to some crazy and exciting performances in a uniquely kid-friendly setting.  At most, the Juicebox series has the potential to turn a few of today’s toddlers into tomorrow’s contemporary art patrons.  Who knows, this might just be the first step towards creating a generation of young people who recognize the importance of keeping the arts alive and relevant, and who will one day grow up to become the new music advocates of the future.


Sara Sitzer

Sara Sitzer
Photo by Julisa Fusté

Sara Sitzer is a freelance cellist in Chicago. A member of string quartet Chicago Q Ensemble and the Elgin Symphony, she also performs regularly with the Milwaukee Symphony and the Firebird Chamber Orchestra in Miami. Sitzer is founding artistic director of the Gesher Music Festival of Emerging Artists in St. Louis.
She holds performance degrees from the University of Wisconsin and Boston University, and completed a three-year fellowship with the New World Symphony under the direction of Michael Tilson Thomas.

More is More

There are many people out in the world who are smart. They are smart about how much they can take on professionally, artistically, and personally. They know how much food/music/art/life they should consume at any given time. They don’t over-extend themselves and they don’t overdo it (whatever “it” is). If they write music, they will do their utmost to push aside distractions and only take on a few projects a year. If they teach, they know how much they can or should expect from their students.

I am not that smart.

Brushing aside any comments that my friends and associates may be able to make about my eating habits, I admit that I am not one to do anything incrementally. Ever since I was very young I’ve tended to “jump into the deep end,” so to speak, in so many aspects of my life—even if I had never been taught to “swim.” This, of course, has not only been the cause of much consternation for my family over the years, but it has shaped the way I think about what I do as a teacher and advocate of new music.

When I interviewed for my current position at State University of New York at Fredonia five years ago, they asked me to give a talk about my philosophies of teaching composers. One of the sections of that talk (that I still adhere to) was the idea that “more is more.” I recalled a story I had once heard about a pottery teacher who had half his class spend the entire semester perfecting one single vase while the other half of the class was expected to finish 20 vases over the same time period. According to the story, while the first set of students were able to create a well-crafted vase, the second set not only improved at a faster rate, but had a firmer grasp of both their creative process and the skills that went along with it.

This idea both informs the way I work with students (regardless of age), my concepts about presenting concerts and inviting guest composers, and, to be honest, the way I tend to write my own music these days. It’s pretty common to find methods of composition instruction at the collegiate level in which beginning students spend a long time on one piece, focusing on each detail and parameter, until they have brought that piece to closure; the duration of the process is based less on the length of the piece itself but more on the amount of detail and attention given to each parameter of the composition.

Usually teaching concepts like this tends to gradually speed up the process as the student improves until they find their optimum work speed. In contrast, I prefer to have the students work on many short works at first, gradually shifting their focus as they progress; my beginning composition course this fall will have the students write seven works every two weeks concluding with a second reading of a work they’ve revised. I will then slow and extend their process as they improve until they find that sweet spot that feels comfortable to them. I’ve had quite a few comments from colleagues along the lines of, “Isn’t that overdoing it? How can they learn if they’re going so fast?” I might have thought the same thing years ago, but the concept actually comes from my own studies in film music at the University of Southern California back in the mid-’90s; I realized that by working on many shorter cues in the classes, as well as my own scoring projects with students throughout the one-year program, worked my compositional “muscles” in a way that extended focus on one piece would never allow.

As I mentioned, this concept can also be used when considering how many different composers a student is exposed to, both in private lessons and in lecture/workshop experiences. I used to have to teach almost all of my students throughout their entire four years, but now that we have a few experienced composers here teaching theory, I have the luxury of making sure they have at least two or three different teachers during their studies. Similarly, I’d rather bring in a large number of younger visiting composers whose styles and attitudes run the gamut rather than “shoot the whole wad” on one or two top-tier composers who are probably much older; I teach primarily undergraduate students and assume (rightly, I hope) that they will get a chance to meet the “big dogs” soon enough during their graduate studies.

Some may have noticed over the past year that I’m not adverse to bringing in a list or two to make a point. It always surprises me (I’m a slow learner) how often these lists engender vitriol, since I never think of them as rankings or focus on the composers that are left off. I’m realizing, however, that this may be because of my own mindset. I find myself looking for patterns and clues among a large sampling of composers rather than focusing like a laser-beam on one person. I don’t think I made that connection when I started my interview project and now that I’ve completed 50 of them (with about 10 more to go), it’s all beginning to make a little more sense to me.

What’s been your experience, either teaching or learning? Did you start slow and pick up steam or the opposite? Are you smarter than I am (chances are likely!)?

Granting Audiences, Pt. 2

One of the things about American music that I find fascinating is how effectively the American Culture Machine has eradicated the connection to human experience beyond the adolescent’s frustration with changing hormone levels. While not completely successful (as any of us who engage in a musical living know), the effort has managed to make musical morons out of the majority of Americans who listen to music. While this is no revelation to those involved in making music on a daily basis, the ramifications of this practice can be detrimental to the act of making music.

My post last week generated a comment that I feel the need to examine further because it goes to the idea of whether or not a work of art is temporally sustainable despite “shifts in ou[r] perception to existing artworks” that might render them irrelevant to a naturally evolving culture. The commenter’s argument rested on the predicate that art is “generative,” which is a pretty broad term that insinuates a degree of randomness regarding the creation (generative art) and perception (by different audiences and/or through the critical reception) of an artwork. I believe that the commenter was regarding the latter (perception) as key to a work’s relevance as acceptable art and agree wholeheartedly that an audience’s “experience of the art is to some degree a creation” of it. However, I don’t agree with the commenter’s suggestion that the bottom line is that “artwork,” or rather individual works of art, “cannot ‘survive’.”

The theme of building (or rebuilding) audiences for certain musical genres by their practitioners and aficionados is not, in my mind, one of trying to reverse a chemical process; just as art is not science (which is not politics or business). True, there are certain scientific methods, especially mathematical formulae, which can be used for the generation of art, and there are examples (most famously Albert Einstein) of scientists who play music to inspire analytical thinking, but this does not place physics and poetry in the same sphere. The arts and sciences can enhance one another, but cannot substitute for one another. There has been a pernicious fallacy that music sets up moods and can be used for the control of the masses, a tenet that equates the arts with government and/or religion. Again, the arts can enhance the methods used to shape the thinking and actions of groups of people, but cannot be equated as a method for doing so. Our binary of “major = happy” and “minor = sad” only works in a cultural context where the listener has been trained, as most Americans have been, since childhood. This is an aspect of American culture that remains in force (and enforced) and works that follow that dictum will survive as long as the paradigm does. It is a distinctly Eurocentric paradigm and is only a part of the overall American musical experience, but an important one to the American Cultural Machine, which is not an artistic, but rather a business institution. And art and business are not part of the same discipline.

The problem with American improvised music(s) is that they counter the Eurocentricity of the American Culture Machine. Even jazz and rock ‘n’ roll, genres that were identified and labeled by the music industry, are not examples of Eurocentric music or musicianship. What made jazz popular in Europe was the difference between its performance techniques, formal organizations, and sonic textures and those of European art music. In America, it was the dance steps that were associated with the non-Eurocentric cultures that produced the music. People didn’t Lindy or foxtrot to Sousa marches, but they did to James Reese Europe. This bespeaks a dissatisfaction with some of the Eurocentric aspects of the American Culture Machine (and the European Culture Machine as well). So-called “proper” Eurocentric American culture had (and still has) the need to disassociate itself from a highbrow bourgeoisie, which was well-educated in the arts. As the development of jazz (and later rock ‘n’ roll, funk, soul, etc.) offered musical experiences even more disconnected from the Eurocentric ones that represented the elite behind the American Cultural Machine, audiences flocked to these popular forms and their messages of discontent with bourgeois society. Jazz was closely associated with the Socialist Party up until WWII, when Glenn Miller made it the music of the American military, which marked the beginning of its decline as a popular music. It was in the 1970s, when rock, funk, soul, etc. were popular (and being countered by the cultural machine with disco) that music education in public schools began its descent into virtual non-existence. Now there are music programs in public schools, especially inner-city schools, that are little more than sing-alongs to popular tunes. The actual nuts-and-bolts of music making don’t enter the picture. It should be a point of shame that so many of America’s public schools don’t have musical instruments, since playing musical instruments helps students learn and function in the world.

With this in mind, the job of building an audience for a given music might become one of shaping the music into something more palatable to an audience that knows little of or about it, while educating that same audience to its distinct and vital elements; a kind of “watering down” of art in deference to America’s cultural machine. Another is to associate one’s music with forms and elements of non-Eurocentric musics, since American audiences prefer listening to them. I’d like to know of other ways that we think might foster better listening in America.