Tag: pedagogy

What 4’33” Teaches Us

I would like to begin anecdotally. My primary activity in music, aside from performing, is educating. I teach ferociously, intrepidly, and passionately. I teach 12-month olds, 24-month olds, 3-year olds, 4-year olds, pre-teens, teens, 20-somethings, 30-somethings, 40-somethings, retirees. I teach the mentally challenged, the exceptionally gifted, undergraduate music majors, undergraduates with a hobby in music, pre-collegiate young artists, and all ages under 18 as a glorified babysitter. I teach in classrooms, in lecture halls, in concert halls, in orchestra, choir, and band rooms, in my home, in students’ homes, in public libraries, on the street, in shopping malls, and remotely via Skype or email. I teach in English, in French, in Spanish, and sometimes in two at the same time. I teach piano, guitar, dramatic theater, voice, contemporary music, ear training, sightsinging, theory, harmony and counterpoint; I teach pop music, hip hop, jazz, classical, rock, R&B, boogie woogie, or a bizarre combination of all of the above at the student’s request; I teach friends, friends of friends, colleagues, fellow students, neighbors, lovers, family, strangers; I give career advice, school advice, work advice, relationship advice, marriage advice, family advice, tentative advice, adamant advice, and refuse to give advice at all;  I teach as early as 4 a.m, and as late as 1 a.m.; I teach 12 hours straight, I travel over an hour each way to teach for 30 minutes; I teach by course syllabus, by textbook, by photocopied handouts, by total free improvisation; I teach the hearing impaired solely by visual cues, linguistically impaired solely by ear… These are all the ways I’ve taught and continue to teach—this is a window into the lifestyle and profession of education. It is a living, breathing, shifting shape that transfers thought from one body to another, in real time and in real space. The act of teaching, that is, the dynamic means of transferring knowledge, mimics the shape—a shape that is perhaps unknowable, ungraspable, and unconquerable—of knowledge itself.

This introduction was meant to astound; I begin my discussion in this way because education truly is astounding. Astounded, I will position myself behind the work of Paulo Freire, whose book Pedagogy of the Oppressed I find relevant, profound, and articulate in expressing the need for education in the ongoing struggle for liberation of the unprivileged and oppressed peoples of the world.[1] This form of education takes shape beyond the restrictive nature of a classroom; pedagogy is indeed omnipresent, and potentially omnipotent. Pedagogy as a performative gesture can ignite political action, or embody a campaign for social justice in the good, raw form of the transmission and acquisition of knowledge, if we simply make the effort of acknowledging, receiving, and reinvigorating pedagogy’s potential role.

all performative acts are pedagogical in nature, and all art says something, even when that something happens to be nothing.

I will treat John Cage and, in particular, his momentous work 4’33”, which engages the performer(s) of the score to refrain from playing their instrument(s) for the entirety of four minutes and thirty-three seconds, as a pedagogical act. Willful silence, in all its performative manifestations, will be treated as pedagogical as well.

In order to understand the premise of this essay, the reader is required to welcome the assertion that all performative acts are pedagogical in nature, and that all art says something, even when that something happens to be nothing.

All performative acts are pedagogical in nature. Paulo Freire transgresses beyond the boundaries of the classroom in his discussion of pedagogy when he begins a chapter with the sentence: “A careful analysis of the teacher-student relationship at any level, inside or outside the school, [emphasis mine] reveals its fundamentally narrative character.” “At any level, inside or outside the school” is an attempt to transgress the classroom—that is, to move against and beyond the boundaries of what we properly view as education.[2]

Art is something even when it is nothing; silence is something. Cage did say, “I have nothing to say and I am saying it,” but he also said that art is a form of complaint.[3] A complaint is external negativity—an un-externalized complaint is not a complaint at all. The uttering of words or production of bodily sound is what launches a critical thought or gesture into the externalized world, thus giving birth to a complaint. As we will explore deeper through examples, silence can be employed when sound is expected, as well as subverted when one expects silence. Later in the essay, this will be referred to as subverting silence / silently subverting.[4]

4’33” is an externalization, and powerfully so, of a deliberately shared thing, even if that thing happens to be silence, even if that thing happens to be no-thing. The thing, in this context, is a classical music composition, and the willful absence of that thing—the nothing—is 4’33”. Silence in a performance of 4’33” is knowledge willfully shared, willfully externalized; in short, a complaint. Silence, too, is a form of complaint, when conventions expect sound.

Empty frame on the wall

In classical music, silence is a loud complaint against the expectation of sound. Equally so, in a climate that values and expects explication from the artist, to say nothing is a loud, theoretical critique of the desire/need for critical theory that legitimizes one’s own artwork.

In pedagogy, silence can be understood as a fundamental explicative absence. In The Ignorant Schoolmaster, Jacques Rancière acknowledges the role of teacher in conventional classroom education:

In short, the essential act of the master was to explicate: to disengage the simple elements of learning, and to reconcile their simplicity in principle with the factual simplicity that characterizes young and ignorant minds. To teach was to transmit learning and form minds simultaneously, by leading those minds, according to an ordered progression, from the most simple to the most complex.[5]

What happens when Rancière’s “essential act of the master” disappears? What happens when teachers—that is any individual or group of individuals who transmit knowledge (knowingly or not)—no longer explicate? Can the power of silence debunk the expectation for the (school)master’s explication? If silence and absence are powerful educational tools, what purpose will explication serve? What power structure does the need for explication promote and non-explication silently subvert? As Rancière asks, “Were the schoolmaster’s explications therefore superfluous? Or, if they weren’t, to whom and for what were they useful?”[6]

I will briefly read scripts of silence that have little to say and plenty to teach. The heroes and heroines of these performative lessons include: 1) House democrats in a moment of silence for the victims of the Orlando shooting, 2) Black Lives Matter activists at a Bernie Sanders rally, 3) Muhammad Ali’s famous protest of the Vietnam War, and 4) my personal experience as a middle school music teacher. The tenor of these tales is the notion of subverting silence / silently subverting—that is, the subversion of silence when externally imposed, and the use of silence in order to subvert the expectation of sound. These stories breathe new life into the memory of John Cage’s 4’33”, while suggesting relevant pedagogical acts we can learn from today, and use tomorrow.

Democrats (not) in the House

In this particular iteration of silence, the House conducts a moment of silence for the Orlando shooting victims. What is not fascinating is that there was indeed a moment of silence given to the Orlando shooting victims, nor was it fascinating that the House erupted in protest immediately following that silence; what is notable is what Rep. Jim Himes (D-Conn.) and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) did and said about the event, and why they were not there for it.

Announcing his boycott of the moment of silence the day before, Jim Himes contemned “silence. That is how the leadership of the most powerful country in the world will respond to this week’s massacre of its citizens […] Silence. Not me. Not anymore. I will no longer stand here absorbing the faux concern, contrived gravity, and tepid smugness of a House complicit in the weekly bloodshed.” Nancy Pelosi offered her view, “The fact is that a moment of silence is an act of respect, and we supported that. But it is not a license to do nothing.” By refusing to be silent, Himes and Pelosi create a vocal opposition; by creating absence where presence is expected, Himes and Pelosi become more performatively present than anyone else in the House.

“[A moment of silence] is not a license to do nothing” is an intriguing statement that illuminates the complexity of silence, subversion, and their dynamic pedagogical possibilities.

Moment of “Silence”

A common Black Lives Matter protest is 4.5 minutes of silence, to represent the 4.5 hours that Michael Brown’s body lay in the street following his murder. The moment of silence is not what is fascinating here—these moments of silence for Michael Brown were held throughout the country. What is fascinating is how Marissa Janae Johnson, co-founder of Black Lives Matter Seattle, and her fellow BLM activists use vocal dissent to coerce their way onto the stage and onto the microphone, only to again subvert expectation with silence. When obedience to the scheduled speaker (Bernie Sanders) was expected of them, they were most vocal. Once in control of the microphone and expected to speak, they employed silence. These events express their progression from subverting silence to silently subverting, using both presence and absence through their presence, and playing the role of non-explicative schoolmasters.

A meaningful use of breaking silence is shown in the privileged protest of anonymous hecklers. This is an iteration of 4’33” that perhaps Cage could have conceived of in his lifetime. Cage’s 4’33” originally subverted the establishment (at the time, Eurocentric, academic, classical music composition), while here at a 2015 rally, BLM Seattle’s 4 minutes and 30 seconds of silence was a subversive act against the will of the audience. It was met by hecklers that represent establishment’s response to being subverted upon, a complaint upon a complaint, art upon art. Would Cage welcome this? Here, he claims that he would simply listen to some rude bodily noise, so perhaps the answer is yes. A year ago on my blog, I was moved to transcribe the unintentional participatory performance from this particular camera perspective, in honor of John Cage and in solidarity with BLM.

The Silver Tongued Poet Exercises His Right To Remain Silent

With the recent passing of Muhammad Ali, it is more than appropriate to look back upon his legacy as a teacher through the willful silencing of his Black voice, specifically his trip to Houston, Texas, on April 28, 1967 (14 years after the premiere of 4’33”). Ali did not have to take this trip. After receiving a letter from the U.S. Army, Ali could have simply filed as a conscientious objector like many others silently did, but instead, he used his celebrity to stage an important and unforgettable lesson. Ali flew from Chicago to Houston, took all physical and mental examinations, was tormented by doctors and army personnel, only to remain silent and motionless when his name was called. His name was called many times as “Cassius Clay,” and once, finally, in desperation, as “Muhammad Ali.” Each time, Ali did not respond. Ali, a man with the most agile of bodies, remained motionless. Ali, a man with the quickest, sharpest, and most eloquent of tongues, remained silent. In that moment, his pedagogical practice transgressed words and movement, and the oppressors’ expectations of them.[7]

Me in Middle School

Now, in 2016, I taught a general music class to middle school kids at a private school in Chicago. In one class, I thought it important that they watch a performance of 4’33”. It failed miserably—the kids laughed at the performer and found nothing of value in the work. I explained to them that they were criticizing the piece before truly hearing it, so I offered them the challenge of performing 4’33” together as a group before they offer any critical feedback, and they unanimously agreed to the challenge. So, I told them we would officially begin the performance of 4’33” when I give them the cue. I set the timer for 33 seconds (the duration of the first movement), started the timer, and gave the cue to begin. Several of the students laughed and made silly noises within the first ten of those seconds, but I let the movement go on without reprimand. I then went on to the second movement, 2’40” in length, during which the students began to hit the desk loudly, throwing pencils and other small objects at one another. They were having a great time. Still, I said and did nothing to sway their sounds and actions. I then gave the last movement of 1’20”, during which the bravest of students stood up and began roaming around the classroom, sometimes running, sometimes crawling underneath the desks. One student narrated their actions to the rest of the class in a voice somewhat akin to the late Steve Irwin. At this point, six of the 15 kids left their seats, at least 10 of the 15 were audibly laughing and/or talking, and not a single one of them was looking or listening to me. This is how this performance of 4’33” came to an end.

education, elementary school, learning and people

I’ve thought a lot about that day. I thought about the willful silence on my part as the (school)master as my authority was subverted on a more and more profound level with each passing movement. I thought about the willful subversion of silence on the part of the classroom, despite their unanimous desire to take the challenge of remaining silent. And finally, I thought about $35,100—the cost of yearly tuition at that school. I thought about what these kids must have thought and felt when they laughed, talked, and threw objects across the room, during a moment we collectively agreed upon as “silence.” I wonder if some day, perhaps much much later from now, they and I will find clarity in this silent lesson. Or perhaps not. Perhaps we, as a classroom, already do understand the lesson as best we can. When the lesson willfully explicates nothing, is there anything up for regurgitation—the classical evidence of having learned? Like any performance of 4’33”, perhaps it is only the feeling and the experience itself that we can walk away with. Perhaps there is nothing to say, and I am saying it, as an educator, as a thinker, as an artist.

This sentence was written as I prepare in Chicago for the longest day of the year, and I can’t help but notice how much darkness looms around me: personally, two friends’ parents have suddenly died; citywide, a scandal erupts in the theater community by the way of misogyny and abuse; statewide, a debilitating standoff is occurring on the state budget level; and nationally, an armed civilian killed 49 people at a gay nightclub in Orlando. And another more banal, neutral—yet essential—piece of news: another school year has come to a close. This is all floating in the air as these words fall upon the page.

A pedagogical approach that aims to change society will be unsettling for all. Just as teaching is a challenge, learning is an equally great challenge.

Reflecting on pedagogy, as well as current events, it is perhaps now more than ever that we need a pedagogy that is simple, direct, and a fundamentally positive influence upon society. We need a pedagogy that uproots cowardice, questions authority, and subverts the angry, oppressive, harmful acts of the privileged classes in the oligarchical role they/we currently enjoy.[8] We need a new pedagogy that responds alongside the boundless dynamism of political struggles in wealth, race, gender, and sexuality, yet endeavors to liberate the circumscribed dynamism of power, currently—and wrongfully—defined by haves and have-nots.[9] Just as 4’33” incited negative reactions from its first audiences, truly liberatory education incites resentment and anger from many of those who already enjoy full liberty. A pedagogical approach that aims to change society will be unsettling for all. Just as teaching is a challenge, learning is an equally great challenge.

I believe this pedagogy can often manifest in silence, whether it is the silent subverting of the expectation of sound, or the subverting of silence itself by creating sound when it is not desired by an oppressor/oppressive force. Learning from 4’33” as a musician, performing silence can liberate or oppress, assuage or provoke, subvert or comply—education can do all of these things too. 4’33” mimics the unknowable, ungraspable, unconquerable shifting shape of knowledge itself. Whether Cage originally meant it in this way or not, 4’33” is an open invitation to critically engage with silence as a renewable pedagogical act.

Andy Costello

Andy Costello

Dedicated to the music of living composers, Andy Costello’s solo repertoire champions works by living composers all over the world. He is currently on the piano faculty of New Music School in Chicago, and he previously served as a visiting artist for the composition department at The Boston Conservatory and as a guest artist at Time Forms / Formes Temporelles, Columbia College Chicago, Laboratoire de Musique Contemporaine de Montréal, and Scotia Chamber Music Festival.

In Spring 2014, Andy founded the Morton Feldman Chamber Players (MFCP), a non-profit organization devoted to programming the solo and chamber works of Morton Feldman in the United States and Canada. Based in Chicago, MFCP has been partnered with the Experimental Sound Studio and Iarca Gallery since the Fall of 2014.

1. The related authors and books of the type of pedagogical theory I’m particularly interested in, arguing for the liberation for the oppressed, include Pedagogy of the Oppressed by Paulo Freire, bell hooks’s Teaching to Transgress: Education as the Practice of Freedom, and Jacques Rancière’s The Ignorant Schoolmaster.

2. I am particularly drawn to bell hooks’s definition of transgression in her work Teaching to Trangress: Education as the Practice of Freedom: “With these essays, I add my voice to the collective call for renewal and rejuvenation in our teaching practices. Urging all of us to open our minds and hearts so that we can know beyond the boundaries of what is acceptable, so that we can think and rethink, so that we can create new visions, I celebrate teaching that enables transgressions—a movement against and beyond boundaries. It is that movement which makes education the practice of freedom.”

3. The statement “I have nothing to say and I am saying it” is from page 109 of Silence: Lectures and Writings by John Cage. The notion of art as complaint comes to Cage, as far as I can tell, from Jasper Johns, whom Cage quotes as saying, “all art is either a complaint or an appeasement.” Subsequently, Cage writes a mesostic on the subject, “art is either a complaint or do something else.”

4. The baggage behind the word subversion is deep and complicated. Ali mentions on page 177 of his autobiography The Greatest: My Own Story that he was on a list of “undesirable subversives” by the House Un-American Activities Committee. The context, however, was amidst an experience with a college student, where the college student, in a particularly touching experience, encouraged Ali warmly: “See, you’re number one on the list.” (Though the list was simply in alphabetical order, as Ali noticed.) In Pedagogy of the Oppressed, Freire argues that to the oppressor, “the pursuit of full humanity” is identified as subversion, and labeling someone a subversive is a denial of the basic need of the oppressed to achieve full human potential: “Humanity is a ‘thing,’ and they possess it as an exclusive right, as inherited property. To the oppressor consciousness, the humanization of the ‘others,’ of the people, appears not as the pur­suit of full humanity, but as subversion.”

5. Quote found on page 3 in The Ignorant Schoolmaster.

6. Quote found on page 4 of The Ignorant Schoolmaster.

7. A chapter in Embodying Black Experience: Stillness, Critical Memory, and the Black Body by Harvey Young deals brilliantly with the stillness and silence of Muhammad Ali in this particular event in Houston.

8. I say “they/we” to described the privileged class because I feel that I belong to this class at times, and at other times, I do not.

9. In Pedagogy of the Oppressed, Freire acknowledges oppressors for their “strictly materialistic concept of existence. For the oppressors, what is worthwhile is to have more—always more—even at the cost of the oppressed having less or having nothing. For them, to be is to have and to be the class of the ‘haves.’” On use of the word “power,” I do believe power has potential to be a liberatory word, but when defined in terms of to be is to have, it is a destructive notion for society.

Decisions Made

“Before you take your horn out, there’s something we have to deal with.” This was my hello when Rob Blakeslee opened the door for our first lesson. I had just started college and was navigating a world in which Don Cherry, Dave Douglas, and Wynton Marsalis were given equal status as models for my trumpet playing. Rob was Portland’s legend of the underground, a totally unique free jazz trumpeter who had toiled in relative obscurity outside of a few brilliant records on Vinny Golia’s Nine Winds label in the 1990s.

He led me to his dining room table where we leafed through a huge art history book. He stopped first at an early, almost photo-real painting by Renoir. After pointing out how natural and clean the presentation was, Rob flipped forward a few hundred pages to a later work in which a similar figure—a young girl outside in springtime—was represented in a softer, more dream-like fashion. There was no question what Renoir was trying to do pictorially in each, but the way in which he conveyed the idea had changed considerably from the earlier painting to the latter.

tomato soup, abstracted

“That’s your decision to make,” he said. “You can make something that is clean and accurate or you can find ways to say the same thing by softening the edges, changing the colors, making it less obvious. Either way is fine, but you should be clear with yourself about how you are thinking.” It was a cut and dry statement: A or B. And, with that, we headed down to his studio to begin the lesson.

Sadly, I have lost touch with Rob, but the memory of that short demonstration lingers on. The simplicity of his demand has deconstructed into something else, but I recognize that he provided the germ. His point was that there are different ways to think of the same model: in this case, two paintings of similar scenes. And that I should be clear and honest with myself about which viewpoint I am operating under. While this lesson has served me well, the important offshoot of our trip through the art book was that one person was capable of such different interpretations in their lifetime—and that aesthetic decisions change.

As an 18-year old who had learned everything he knew from jazz records—moments frozen in time made specifically for commercial consumption—I had very little concept of the importance of growth. If anything, I had come up around older musicians who treated change as a disease: “Miles was cool in the 1940s and ’50s, then he changed,” etc. My learning involved periods of a musician’s output with no appreciation of the trajectory of how they thought.

But now, understanding the trajectory has become a major component of my judgment of quality. For better or worse, I have become more interested in the ways in which people think and grow than I am in their ability to reproduce subtle variations on a limited personal language, regardless of how successful that language may be. To that end, my heroes have become makers and thinkers that give weight to research and experimentation over recognizability.

In practice, I’ve made it a priority to follow every musical idea through to its logical end. That may be an hour of thought ending in the realization that the idea is just not feasible (or interesting). Or, it may mean years of performing works based on the fruits of research. To the latter, projects of mine such as Seven Storey Mountain or Syllables, which explore religious ecstatic music and the mechanics of linguistics respectively, resulted in multiple products from single simple ideas—not a reproducible master language.

And that’s the decision I ultimately have made. Not to find a specific “sound” that can be recognized, codified, and repeated, but to have my work be described (and ultimately judged) as a stream of thought and a lifelong picture of research—a snapshot of who I am and what I have accomplished in the little room of my mind before passing on. I’m happy with the decision I’ve made. I think Rob would be proud of it as well.

Hindustani Music: Recitals of Gratitude

Lakshmiji's students singing together

Lakshmiji’s students singing together
Photo by Reena Esmail

“You must come to Gurupoornima this year,” my teacher Lakshmi Shankar* said after our lesson one summer day in 2012. I had just come back to Los Angeles for the summer between the years of my doctoral coursework at the Yale School of Music, and I was studying Hindustani vocal performance with her intensively, attempting to make up months of lessons over a single summer.
“You will enjoy it—all the students perform. You really must come.” I nodded that I would be there, even though I had never heard the term before. As it turns out, Gurupoornima (goo-roo-POOR-nee-maa) is an Indian festival to pay homage to one’s teachers. The word guru, which literally translates to “the remover of darkness,” is the Sanskrit term for teacher. And the word poornima refers to a festival celebrated during the full moon, an auspicious occasion in many cultures. Gurupoornima is celebrated on the full moon in the month of Ashadh, which usually falls around June or July on the Gregorian calendar.
It immediately struck me that I could not recall ever celebrating a similar holiday in America. While America certainly has a designated Teacher’s Day, I never once remember celebrating it, or even knowing about it, either as a student or a teacher. In modern India, Gurupoornima is not the only holiday that venerates teachers: Teacher’s Day, which falls on September 5, is also widely celebrated throughout the country—often, older students will take over the classroom duties, allowing teachers to relax and enjoy the many festivities the students have planned in their honor.

In practice, the Gurupoornima celebration serves a similar place in Hindustani musical culture that a yearly studio recital does in the West. Students gather together for a long afternoon of performances, starting with short segments from the youngest beginners and ending with extensive programs by the most accomplished students. Gurupoornima creates a space for social and musical interaction between students, which helps to establish a community of students of varying levels of proficiency and to inspire students to continue progressing in their studies.

However, the central theme of gratitude makes Gurupoornima different from a studio recital in many ways.
At Gurupoornima, the teacher is the guest of honor. She will often be seated in a prominent location, both in view of the performers and the audience. Before performing, students will speak directly to the teacher, expressing gratitude for what they have learned and for her patience and dedication to their musical development. Often, students will even ask for forgiveness in advance for any mistakes made during the performance, not wanting any shortcoming in their performance to reflect poorly on the guru. (This last practice was shocking to me at first—it is common even for top-tier artists to make this advance plea for forgiveness to an audience. However, over the years, I have come to appreciate the humility and admission of vulnerability in such a gesture.)

The celebration of Gurupoornima is not limited to current students, as a studio recital would be. It is common for previous students to come back and perform for their teacher, sometimes traveling long distances to participate in the celebration. Often, students who have had more than one teacher will find a way to attend each Gurupoornima celebration—a feat that can often prove as difficult as spending Christmas with multiple sets of relatives. In recent years, I have seen that students who are too far away to attend the celebration in person will make a point of publicly acknowledging and thanking their teachers on social media—even the most famous performers do not let this day pass uncelebrated.

Esmail singing at Gurupoornima 2014

Esmail singing at Gurupoornima 2014, accompanied by Samar Das, tabla
Photo by Ashwin Rode

Students display their gratitude through their actions as well: the Gurupoornima event is often planned and executed completely by the students—from venue arrangements to audio equipment rental, from invitations to catering and paying for the full meal that customarily follows the performances, the students handle all the logistics.

As I listened closely to the performances at Gurupoornima that year, I felt that the focus on gratitude played a central role in the energy in the room and, consequently, in the rendering of the music itself. In my experience as a young student of Western music, studio recitals were always marked by a permeating uneasiness—perhaps a combination of each performer’s individual nervous energy and a general sense of competition between students. There would inevitably be displays of debilitating stage fright and long, tense silences during memory slips or derailed performances. Even the anticipation of these mishaps often made the less experienced performers rigid and inexpressive. In sharp contrast, the energy at Gurupoornima was lighthearted and relaxed. People moved in and out of the room easily—chatting, drinking tea, and enjoying the music together. Performances felt spontaneous and expressive, with even the youngest students smiling shyly into the audience as they sang.

Recent research substantiates the claim that it is impossible to feel both nervous and grateful at the same time—that the brain is incapable of processing both sentiments simultaneously. As each student thanked Lakshmiji** and aimed to honor her by performing well, the focus moved away from their desire to impress and dazzle, and shifted onto their effort to honor her. Even when mistakes were made, Lakshmiji warmly encouraged her students to continue, visibly proud of each one. Consequently, I found myself focusing not on the accuracy or vocal dexterity displayed in the performances, but on familiar turns of phrase that I began to recognize in many of the performances—I heard her characteristic vocal style emerging uniquely through each student. It was the best testament to her careful and thorough teaching.

As I listened to Lakshmiji’s students sing that afternoon, I began to wish that we also celebrated Gurupoornima in the West. I thought of some of my most trusted composition mentors, who have gone above and beyond for me—the teacher who made time to call me from a competition he was judging in Europe to offer support for the orchestra piece I was struggling to complete, who would always find time for me even in the busiest moments of his wildly successful career. There was also the teacher who accepted me into her studio when my confidence was shot and I was almost ready to quit composing, who would stay late in New York City to delve into my work (even though I wasn’t actually a student at the school where she taught) and who worked patiently and deliberately to rebuild my understanding of my own creative process. These teachers took the time to understand my ideas better than I understood them myself and helped me render them into music when I, at times profoundly, doubted my ability to do so. I truly wished there was a day on the calendar when my colleagues and I could organize performances to honor them, to celebrate the boundless energy they poured into each one of us.

Sadly, this year’s Gurupoornima was a more somber affair: Lakshmiji passed away in December of 2013, at the age of 87. As her students remembered her and thanked her, everyone in the audience choked back tears. I was especially heartbroken because I had so looked forward to studying with her full time—she passed away just months before I was able to move back to Los Angeles. But as I listened to her students perform, I heard those same characteristic strains of her voice coming through each of them. It was as if she was in the room, singing to us.

About halfway through the afternoon, one of her master students asked me if I was planning to sing something. Truth be told, I had barely practiced after her death. I just couldn’t bring myself to listen to the recordings of our lessons and hear her voice. But her other students encouraged me. “It’s about showing her your gratitude for her teaching. Sing a little bit, just to honor her.” For all the years I had spent immersed in practicing Hindustani vocal music, I had never sung a purely classical performance for an audience of peers. It was my first time. And it was magical. I felt my voice weave through the phrases, remembering them as she taught them to me, hearing them in her voice and executing them in mine. I missed her intensely, but even more than that, I was so profoundly grateful for every moment I had spent in her presence.


Readers, have you ever wished there was a practice from another musical culture that could be incorporated into Western musical culture? Have any of you regularly celebrated your teachers? What did you do? Please respond in the comments below!

* Lakshmi Shankar was one of the most prominent Hindustani singers of her generation. Recognized in the West as famed sitar player Ravi Shankar’s sister-in-law, she sang in the 1982 film Gandhi, and recorded 19 solo albums during her career.

** the suffix –ji is a marker of respect in Hindi


Reena Esmail

Indian-American composer Reena Esmail “creates richly melodic lines that imbue her music with the heights of lyricism, balanced by winning textural clarity.” (AAAL) A graduate of Juilliard and Yale School of Music, and a recent Fulbright grantee to India, Esmail’s work draws together elements from Western and Hindustani (North Indian) classical traditions. Esmail’s works have received honors from The American Academy of Arts and Letters and ASCAP, and have been performed throughout the United States, in India, and abroad.

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

Looking for more Education Week content? Go to the index.

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.

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.

How We Learn Now: Education Week

Looking for more Education Week content? Go to the index.

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.

Inviting Possibilities for New Music and Music Education

How We Learn Now: Education Week

Looking for more Education Week content? Go to the index.

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.

Critical Critiques

Normally when a potential student comes to visit campus to check out our program, they will usually just have their parents in tow. This last weekend, however, I met with a student who was not only accompanied by his parents but with his high school music teacher as well. At first I was leery about the potential for an awkward questioning session, but the teacher surprised me by not only being helpful in putting the student’s experiences in context, but seemed to be truly interested in how to help the student prepare for his upcoming composition audition in the spring. I have met many public school teachers in the past few years who want to help their students compose, but very few of them have any experience composing themselves. This was a prime example of that situation.

I made several suggestions of different types of composition assignments that the student could be given that could help him create works for his portfolio, and then–on a lark–I suggested that instead of the teacher simply creating and giving these assignments, he should take part in the process and compose his own work alongside the student. He and the student could then compare notes, so to speak, and critique each other’s works to find out what the other had done. Both will hopefully feel more comfortable composing in this situation and the trusting relationship between both will grow as the teacher allows the student to flex his own critical “muscles.”

This upending of the traditional teacher-student hierarchy had never occurred to me before in the context of high school students and teachers, but I have tried to emphasize the importance of students critiquing one another’s works in my Beginning Composition class for several years to great effect. Each Wednesday before a Friday reading session, the students in the class (primarily freshman composition majors along with non-composition majors of various ages) are asked to take part in “speed dating” sessions, whereby students pair up for 10-12 minutes and ask each other questions and offer comments about the other’s work. After the first “session” is done I’ll have them switch partners and usually we can get through 3-4 sessions in a class period.

speed dating

This accomplishes several valuable things at once–it allows me to look over their shoulders and give suggestions as needed, but more importantly it allows each student to not only have their work looked at and critiqued by several of their colleagues in a relaxed, non-confrontational manner, but also to gain experience analyzing and thinking critically about their friends’ works. Inevitably this becomes the favorite aspect of the course overall–they will always jump at the chance to have me stop “teaching” them and allow them to try their hand at helping each other–but they don’t realize that through this process they’re building the self-critiquing skills that are so important to a composer once they are out of an educational environment.

The concept of critiquing others works is commonplace in other disciplines, especially the visual arts, where the double-edged mechanism of giving and receiving constructive criticism hones students’ understanding of their own work as well as that of their classmates. It can easily be integrated into composition pedagogy as long as ground rules (respecting each other, openness to alternate or foreign ideas, etc.) are set down early and strongly enforced. As with the example of the student and teacher composing together and critiquing each other’s works, the process can not only give a composer confidence in their own ability but will many times suggest connections that result in epiphanies that would have never happened otherwise.

Teaching the Composers

In my previous column I presented a few suggestions as to how the role of a composer in higher education could be expanded by integrating composition into the music education curriculum. I should point out, however, that as important as introducing the basic concepts of composing and musical creativity to budding music educators is, the primary goal for a composition faculty should still be the instruction and guidance of student composers. For many students and teachers in composition education, this primary goal can seem at cross-purposes with itself. It is this natural internal conflict that makes the teaching of composition so challenging—and yet there is currently very little focus given to preparing potential composition educators for that challenge.

One of the toughest parts of teaching composition—indeed, teaching any artistic medium—is not only teaching the subject, but guiding the implementation and ultimately the transcendence of the subject material; in other words, not only teaching someone how to compose, but how to be a composer. There are many nuanced reasons for this, but much of it has to do with the indirect nature of how we learn, and subsequently how many educators teach, composition. Regardless of the various processes that are available to composers that allow for the creation of material, at some point each artist is forced to make their own decisions, take risks, and hope that it will work. It is that aspect of risk-taking—to allow oneself or one’s students to make mistakes—that can often hold back both students and educators from doing their best work.

Earlier this week, my new NMBx colleague Isaac Schankler illustrated the strong effect that mentor composers have on their students. His description of how well-meaning instructors inadvertently triggered feelings of self-doubt must sound familiar to many current and former students as well as educators. The same self-doubt can be found in many composition instructors when they first start teaching. Even though they may have just finished numerous years of graduate study, once they start teaching they realize that their coursework never prepared them for one-on-one instruction with student composers with varying degrees of experience.

It is this gap in composition education that can and should to be addressed. A few years ago I decided to begin a graduate course in the pedagogy of composition to compliment the music theory pedagogy course that graduate students were required to take. In my preparation, I was dismayed to find very little current research on the subject (with the exception of music education research on composition in general education) and only one existing course in the subject being taught at the college level. Led by Jim Mobberley at the University of Missouri-Kansas City Conservatory of Music, it is an extremely well structured course that includes hands-on experiences with teaching in both individual and classroom environments (graduates teaching undergrads, undergrads teaching pre-college students) as well as discussions on assessment, curriculum, and methodologies.

While it may all sound a bit…well, academic…this topic is very important to the future of new music because the large majority of creative artists who will be shaping music will at some point study composition at the collegiate level and, whether or not their work will exist because of or in reaction to their experiences in academia, we as a community need to be aware of the deficiencies that exist and strive to improve them—not only in composition pedagogy, as I’ve mentioned here, but also in educating composers in entrepreneurship, which I will cover in next week’s post.