Tuesday, October 20, 2015

Experiments in Collaborative Pedagogy: Paper Proposals

Two weeks ago, the students in my Orpheus seminar introduced their preliminary paper proposals to the class. Last year, I had many of the same students in Writing About Music, the first year graduate course where we walk them through a paper proposal, outline, first draft, and final draft.  What a difference a year makes!

These proposals are understandably more fully developed than those I receive in Writing About Music. They include proposals to examine Rameau's cantata Orphée in relation to his Traité de l'harmonie, to connect Orphic works by the relationship between the first and second deaths of Eurydice, and to analyze the music in Moulin Rouge and Bono's "The Ground Beneath Her Feet."

As mentioned in this previous post, I am writing along with my seminar, as part of an experiment in what I might call collaborative pedagogy. I was not exempt from sharing my proposal with the class, and I was the last person to present. I am fortunate that my class is full of spirited and intelligent people who readily received my own proposal and gave me honest feedback.

I won't share the entirety of my proposal here, but I'm looking to connect Joseph Campbell's "total science of mythology" to more holistic musicological study of Orphic operas. My general premise is that rather than viewing these operas as "settings" of mythical narratives, we should see them as extensions of mythical experience, and no less culturally relevant than Ovid's or Virgil's narratives. If anything, I am advocating for a more ethnomusicological study of Orphic operas, and I'm hoping that the approaches used by mythologists will prove useful for musicologists.

I read my proposal to the class, and in that context, I was painfully aware of my reliance upon jargon. I wrote my proposal in academese, using phrases like "epistemological quandaries."  One of my students remarked that he understood roughly 75% of it, but wanted me to paraphrase it with more clarity. What a gift to be confronted with a group of very intelligent and invested people who have no ulterior motives except to understand!  I realized that I have freedom here--I'm not submitting this proposal for acceptance at a conference. I'm merely communicating with a group of like-minded individuals about something that piqued my curiosity!

There is a false dichotomy between research and teaching. The blame for this lies on both sides of the equation, but I posit (to speak in academese) that we need not choose. My seminar has become a forum for constructive feedback--not quite peer review, but it has its own merits. I challenge them to critique their teacher’s work, and through this they practice confidence in their own ideas. I may not get feedback from “experts,” but there are plenty of avenues for that within my field.  The integrity of my project rests on nothing more than what it contributes to the group of people who are likewise trying to amplify what they've learned in order to reach beyond it.

Let's stop for a second. I'm going to repeat that last bit:

"The integrity of my project rests on nothing more than what it contributes to the group of people who are likewise trying to amplify what they've learned in order to reach beyond it."

I think we have largely lost this sense of wonder as part of what shapes "academic conversations." We are too busy publishing (or perishing) to remember that at the heart of academic inquiry there is a core belief in the value of knowledge. "Sapere aude, " if you feel more comfortable with that.  But we shouldn't need to validate this quest with Kant and Foucault in order to understand how important it is. We all have the power to be both the guardians and harbingers of thoughts.

I'm grateful to be on this journey with my seminar. I've already reshaped my proposal, narrowing it to a more digestible scope, whittling away at the academic pretense so that my students will benefit from whatever the finished product happens to be. I have not started writing it yet, but I already have the first footnote:

1. I dedicate this paper to students in my Fall 2015 Orpheus in Music seminar, who keep me grounded in the ongoing battle between my role as an academic and the reasons I chose this field in the first place.

Friday, September 18, 2015

Medieval, Not Med-Evil

On many occasions, I've had to defend medieval music as a topic on which time is well spent in music history curricula. Even beloved colleagues in performance have questioned the necessity of learning ‘dead’ repertoire that most of their students will never perform or interact with in a meaningful way. This is especially true of chant, that dustiest of dusty repertoires, inhabitant of music history's grungiest dustbins. 

These are legitimate questions, but they ignore the value of muddling about in the monophonic, and more importantly, in a tradition that is primarily oral—a far cry from the land of "deified composers" and "fetishized scores" that James Parakilas so aptly identifies in his essay, "Texts, Contexts, and Non-Texts in Music History Pedagogy." The question of what you can say or write about a single line of music is not inconsequential. It is hard, as my students quickly discover. Stripping away several centuries of musical knowledge is no easy task and requires a type of historical imagination with which they seldom engage. It is easy enough to picture Schubert at the piano during one of his famous soirées, making music with his friends, embodying the spirit of Romantic community, blissfully unaware that his music will be deployed on the battleground of style periods a century later. Somewhat less inspiring to the typical undergraduate is the anonymous-faced monk, cloistered away in the scriptorium, copying tunes that are but one version of a song born long before that moment.

But those monks are not so far removed from the beatified Mahler symphony as one might think. The copying down of those neumes led to various notational systems, including that of Guido d’Arezzo, who is responsible--at least in part--for “one of the simplest but most radical breakthroughs in the history of writing music,” as Tom Kelly reminds us. At this juncture, notation became not just a simple mnemonic device, but “made it possible to sing a song you have never heard before” (Kelly, 62). That distinction is a game-changer, and hardly something to be glossed over. Moreover, as David Hiley muses in his primer on Gregorian chant, pitch-accurate notation likely reflects the surge in new music in the eleventh century, when “many new melodies of non-traditional melodic character were composed” (Hiley, 200).  The real take-away here is that history repeats itself and what is distant and dusty is also a mirror for our own times. Without early notation might we imagine a Chopin-less world, a Beethoven-less world…the entirety of the Western canon at whose altar we worship having never been? Would music have ceased to exist? No, of course not--and that is exactly the point. The graphic notation of Morton Feldman, Earle Brown, and others, is the progeny of that new music of the eleventh century. (For a convincing argument for the direct influence of neumatic notation on Earle Brown’s work, see Alden, below). I don’t make claims of evolutionary progress here, but to deny the significance of early music and notation is akin to denying a relationship between primates and homo sapiens.  Chant is usually the first repertoire to be sent to the firing squad of curricular decision-making, ironically defended by shaky Darwineqsque arguments of natural selection and survival of the fittest. Shall we also remove “H. erectus” from our study of human development? After all, anatomy and science focus on Homo sapiens. (For that matter, does that make the recent discovery of the species Homo naledi irrelevant?)

But perhaps the historical argument is shouting into an abyss—if one is not convinced of history’s import in the first place, a distinction between notated v. orally transmitted music is probably not crucial. But what should be crucial to performers--and here is where the argument might be more relevant even to those who eschew history--is that much of the essence of chant as a practice is the basis for the music of modern times. There seems to be an increasing acceptance of "improvisation" as a valued contribution from the jazz world (Yale notwithstanding, as Alex Ross reports), yet chant, which one could argue constitutes improvisation before improvising was cool, is rarely mentioned in the same context. Improvisation isn’t a new idea—it was there first before the systems and the rules. How much less daunting might it be to understand that fact before dropping students into Lydian chromatic theory, chord structures, or a Schenkerian Ursatz? If we subscribe to a chronological approach to teaching music history (as most departments still do), why not get students saturated in the ability to understand that modern performance—a composite of artistic expression, deportment, and polish—grew out of an innate expression of human culture? In this way, chant is of cosmogonic importance in understanding music that was not conceived or learned originally by score.  Why not steep ourselves in repertoire that was improvised, not “performed,” and that was “composed,” but not fixed?

In my medieval music course (and I am fortunate to teach at a place with a five-semester undergraduate music history sequence), I ask my students to listen to a monophonic Alleluia, and then ask the intentionally vague question, "what can you tell me about this?" The initial response is "not much," but when pressed, out come timid comments about contour, key v. mode, speech-rhythms, melismas, text, and plentiful other observations and contextual hypotheses that seem to rise out of the anxiety of having nowhere to run. When faced with the absence of dense polyphony, augmented chords to identify, and instrumentation to critique, there is an invitation to investigate context, to understand that chant is part of a family of musical traditions--most of them popular--where authorship is ambiguous at best, and there are blurred lines between intertextuality, plagiarism, and musical borrowing. As Parakilas observes, one need look no further than a radio station to see this legacy play out in our urban soundscapes.

I’d like to return briefly to my embedded quip above about recent events at Yale and decisions about jazz in the curriculum. While I don’t wish to focus upon the place of jazz in music curricula, conductor Michael Lewanski’s thoughts on the matter are relevant to this discussion. He offered the following in a profoundly good essay:

The notion of “training people in the Western canon and in new music” is flawed, first of all, because it assumes that the Western canon is a fixed, reified thing that doesn’t change, and, secondly, that new music is separate from it (whatever “it” is).”

Like jazz, medieval music is also increasingly getting short shrift despite its inarguable connection to the so-called “canon.” In fact, Lewanski’s entire article about jazz and new music parallels the argument that I am making. He continues:

“To pretend that these [canonical] pieces are deserving of being played because there is something inherently, unquestionably cool about them is the problem.  The reason they are important is the opposite: it is because they have a reception history, a tradition of people thinking about, feeling, playing, interrogating, fighting, reacting against them; and we are among those people.”

[Incidentally,  Lewanski’s postscript addressing canons and performing musicians is also a worthwhile read. ]

Curricular priorities are based on a lot of assumptions, some of which are so deeply embedded in institutional tradition that all the backhoes of practical evidence to the contrary can’t dislodge them. That said, it is time for a different discussion about “relevance” when it comes to history. And here I deliberately leave off “music” because this is ultimately not a discussion about chant and its importance. Instead, it is a plea for understanding and internalizing a truth that “old” and “new” are no longer terms to mark relative moments in time, but instead qualitative and often dismissive words that do art a terrible injustice. If we can recapture the newness of what is “old,” and the timelessness of what is “new,” I think that makes us better students, better educators, and dare I say it—better homo sapiens.


Alden, Jane. “From Neume to Folio: Medieval Influences on Earle Brown’s Graphic Notation.” Contemporary Music Review 26:3 (2007): 315-332.

Hiley, David. Gregorian Chant. Cambridge Introductions to Music. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2009.

Kelly, Thomas Forrest. Capturing Music: The Story of Notation.  New York: W.W. Norton,  2015.

Lewanski, Michael. “Education, Jazz, Canons.” August 30, 2015.

Lewanski, Michael. “Education, Jazz, Canons: A Theoretical and Practical Postscript.” September 7, 2015.

Parakilas, James.  “Texts, Contexts, and Non-Texts in Music History Pedagogy.” In Vitalizing Music History Teaching, 45-58. Edited by James R. Briscoe.  Monographs and Bibliographies in American Music, No. 20. New York: Pendragon Press, 2010.

Ross, Alex. “God and Jazz at Yale.”  August 29, 2015. http://www.therestisnoise.com/2015/08/god-and-jazz-at-yale.html (Accessed August 31, 2015)

"Statue of Guido of Arezzo". Licensed under Public Domain via Commons - https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Statue_of_Guido_of_Arezzo.jpg#/media/File:Statue_of_Guido_of_Arezzo.jpg 

Yong, Ed. “6 Tiny Cavers, 15 Odd Skeletons, and 1 Amazing New Species of Ancient Human” The Atlantic. Sept 10, 2015. http://www.theatlantic.com/health/archive/2015/09/homo-naledi-rising-star-cave-hominin/404362/
 (Accessed Sept 13, 2015)

With many thanks to those who read this post in draft form!

Saturday, September 05, 2015

Experiments: Writing to Teach

The title of this post tips its hat to the late William Zinsser's influential book, Writing to Learn, a tome that helped instill of a love of writing and learning in me at an impressionable age. Along with the work of Peter Elbow and the wonderful experiences I had at the Bard Institute of Writing and Thinking in 2012, Zinsser's ideas have changed the way I approach my writing--or, to be more honest--try to approach. Freewriting, too, has become central to most of my teaching, and I hope to recharge this blog with posts about writing in the music history classroom, among other topics.

As anyone who works with freewriting knows, one of the core dictums is that the professor should always write with the class. I admit that I sometimes forget to do this, my mind otherwise preoccupied with the best way to manage the ensuing discussion. I always feel guilty when I forget to write with my students because then it feels like I've assigned a chore, rather than an activity. That's not to say I have to participate in every in-class activity, but I think cooperative engagement is generally the best pedagogical model for my classes.

I've re-conceptualized my seminars over the years, and I'm particularly excited about my upcoming Orpheus and Music seminar this term. It is an expansion of a seven-week course that I have taught both at the conservatory and as a community programs course.  While having fourteen weeks does allow us the chance to cover more repertoire, I've decided to keep the core repertoire from the shorter version of the course and to spend the extra time creating a hybrid teacherless writing class instead.

Peter Elbow's Writing without Teachers presents a model that, in its purest form, is not logistically possible within the confines of most curricula—an ideal teacherless writing group of eight people requires 2 to 2 ½ hours per week (Elbow, 84). Short class periods and departmental expectations hamper the instructor’s ability to devote hours to peer responding, particularly when integrated into a subject matter that is not strictly Composition/Rhetoric.  That said, it does provide a worthwhile philosophical approach that can easily be applied to courses in a variety of ways.  I've decided to integrate more peer-responding—as opposed to "peer-editing”--into my graduate seminars. Students will have several opportunities to freewrite and discuss in-class the different stages of their term papers. I've found, as I'm sure many professors do, that "choosing the topic" can be the most laborious aspect of a term paper. I do not give exacting prompts for graduate seminars because I want them to be intellectually curious enough to pick a topic that actually interests them. For many students, however, being confronted with an übertopic like "Orpheus and Music" and then being asked to come up with a research proposal in a few weeks time is a daunting task. This is absolutely understandable. So I've decided to bring in "teacherless" peer writing groups from the initial stages of the project--starting with determining a topic all the way through to the final draft stages.

This is all an extension of peer-review/peer-responding activities I have integrated into my courses throughout my teaching career. But this year brings a new twist: I'm going to write a seminar paper with my students. Essentially, I'm going to join their "teacherless" writing groups. I have a head start on my proposal, but I'll present it to them for their feedback, bring in my drafts, etc. The obvious advantage of this is that I will get some writing done. I hadn't planned on doing any professional work with "Orpheus and music," but if I'm going to spend hours upon hours prepping the material for the seminar, why not turn it into a paper? I realize this is not a revolutionary idea, but it is certainly the first time I've decided to work with my seminar in this way. My hope is that it will reinforce writing and research as process—a means, not just an end. The students will receive a grade for the proposal, annotated bibliography, and the final paper, but are also responsible for two separate "draft sessions" wherein they bring in a two-page portion (first session) and then a five-page portion (second session) to share in their peer-responding groups. I will be there too, sitting anxiously among them--sharing, reading, writing, learning, and teaching.

Stay tuned!


Elbow, Peter. Writing Without Teachers. Second edition. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998.
Zinsser, William. Writing to Learn. New York: Harper Perennial, 1993.

Tuesday, March 17, 2015

Indeterminacy in the Classroom

 As much as I might like to post about indeterminate processes in pedagogy, this piece is quite literally about John Cage's Indeterminacy in the classroom. I find that this is a wonderful opportunity to explore Cage's indeterminate methods in a very hands-on way. We took liberties, certainly, but liberties that align with Cage's own thinking (at least that is my hope).

For this year's Cage seminar, we used the Peters performance edition of the work, and selected the cards to be used by chance procedures (outlined below). We "rehearsed" once, and established a better flow the second time through. While some might argue that rehearsal nullifies the spontaneity of the piece via chance procedures, I would say that it honors the integrity of the work as a performance piece. Rather than compromise the work, using 12 people instead of one--all of whom are reading someone else's story--renders an "arrangement" of the piece that I think is most effective.

We chose 12 cards (from the "score")--partially due to time constraints--so that we could focus on the process rather than the content. The 90 score cards were kept in order per the instructions/suggestions of the score. The first student used score card #1, and then picked an additional card from a deck of cards. The number on the playing card determined how many score cards would be skipped in order to select one for the next student. That student then picked a playing card, and the process continued until we had 12 cards.

We opted for accompaniment in the form of two to three iPhones on shuffle. Each student had an iPhone or other smart phone with a stop watch function to monitor the time. Only one of the selected score cards was a so-called "attacca" card (meaning its story was a continuation from another card), so Carolyn chose to adjust her card's opening text for clarification by changing "we" to "David Tudor and I". Other performance aspects were followed as closely as possible, most notably trying to keep each card to a minute and to interpret brackets as ten seconds worth of text. Cage's own pronunciation keys proved useful (e.g. "Gnostic" with a hard g).

While we did videotape the realization, the audio by itself is much more effective. Many thanks go to my student Ryan Fossier for extracting the audio and putting it on Soundcloud. We were not able to provide amplification, but strove to "avoid audible strain." I've included the link below for your enjoyment.

MU 552: John Cage Seminar at The Boston Conservatory performs John Cage's Indeterminacy

Many thanks to the students of my Spring 2015 Cage seminar at The Boston Conservatory for their fine work on this project: Michael Bennett, Christina Cheon, Daniel DeSimone, Ryan Fossier, Eri Isomura, Carolyn McCrone, Aaron Newell, Lucian Nicolescu, David Vess, NianShee Yon, Lin Zhang, and Hanhan Zhu.

Saturday, March 07, 2015

Professional Musicians and Social Networking

Last week, my "Communicating About Music" class discussed the ways performers might use social media to promote themselves and build relationships. I surveyed both sections of the class and discovered a few trends in how these graduate students use and understand the major social networking platforms.

1. Dedicated professional Facebook pages are less popular among students this year than last year.
2. most of the students seemed unaware of how to use " targeted lists" on Facebook
3. Many of the students saw Twitter as irrelevant or redundant with Facebook, although felt that hashtags were better implemented on Twitter.
4. Instagram is useful for facets of performing that are better expressed visually.

Very few of them mentioned blogging, yet most of them included it as part of their social networking plan in their mock grant proposals two weeks ago. I will not address blogging in this particular post. We also discussed LinkedIn, and various crowdfunding sites, all of which I may address in a future post.

I'm not pointing at the social networking sky and predicting its fall based upon two classes, but I do wonder if we have hit a saturation point--at least as far as professional networking is concerned.  I'd like to take each of the observations above and muse upon them briefly.

1. Dedicated Professional Facebook pages

Most of the students seemed to feel that unless one is an established performer or ensemble, dedicated Facebook pages seemed overly pretentious. One drawback is that friends and family may feel obligated to "like" and "follow," so your number of "likes" isn't really an indication of your potential audience. The benefits of having a page are rather obvious, but the biggest deterrent seemed to be the "self-promotion" aspect.  That's rather interesting, but not uncommon among students--many of whom make their livings gigging and performing, but don't yet see themselves as career professionals. I expressed a preference for professional pages when it comes to ensembles as I do not like to receive "friend requests" from entities (as opposed to individuals). As an alternative, we discussed:

2. Facebook audience lists

Recognizing that one's Facebook audience is not monolithic and that everyone is there for different reasons, the use of targeted lists is (to my mind, at least), one of the best and most helpful features of Facebook. I have about 10-15 lists, 5 of which I use most often. It was surprising to me how few of them post updates to select audiences. One real benefit of using a targeted list for professional activities is that the responses/comments are likely to be more relevant. It narrows the network in beneficial ways. Likewise, it can simultaneously foster more intimacy with audiences and professional distance. Beth Kanter and Allison Fine cite fear of showing one's "human side" as a fear that stops non-profits from using social media. (1)  And I think that's the part that is scary--the "social" aspect. How do you create a relationship with unknowns (and not simply broadcast information)? This is a mode of communication that is distinctive to our Internet culture. Representing yourself online is not only a skill, it is a challenge. But it can (and should) force us to prioritize what is important in a piece of communication. There are two questions with every post:
 1) Have I effectively communicated information? 2) What does this post "say" about me and how does it contribute to the composite image of me formed by my audience?

3. Twitter vs. Facebook

Twitter's value does lie in its brevity. Many of my students felt that Twitter was an effective supplement to a social networking arsenal because it could be used for event reminders and other announcements that did not require a lot of information. For me, I find this is true. I follow 1,974 people--I'm much less likely to respond to clickbait from my Twitter feed than I am on Facebook. I see Twitter as a stream of tiny hooks, all targeted toward specific fish. The difference is that you have less an idea of what's available to catch than you do on Facebook. But as a early-career performer, effective use of Twitter requires reciprocity and consistency. If it is used just to post upcoming concerts and the like, the full value of the platform is not being realized. Hashtags can be an effective way to enlarge the conversation and to "meet" those who share your interests--this is why carefully chosen hashtags (and the promotion thereof) are important. Mentioning (@_____) can be gratuitous (as can hashtags), but it is an important way to form alliances and associations as well. Kanter and Fine stress authenticity as a key element in using social networks.

4. Instagram

I was surprised at how many of my students seem to use Instagram (not specifically for professional reasons, but in general). I don't use Instagram on a professional level (mostly pictures of my cat and my food preparations), but that's largely because my fascinating musicological discoveries tend not to be of great visual interest, even with the "Ludwig" filter. But Instagram is a great place to post rehearsal shots or "in-process" shots for those involved in music. Early music performers can use it as a platform to demystify the instruments they play and to give audiences a "closer look." This is possible on Facebook and Twitter, but Instagram is arguably a more effective platform as it speak almost exclusively in pictures.

So, in the end, I think that social networking has become so much a part of daily life for a great many of us, that we begin to take it for granted. Performers may choose not to use networking platforms, but if they do, it is important to cultivate ways to use them that are differentiated from how we use them for personal means. On Facebook, this means lists or a dedicated page. On Twitter, this means hashtags and mentions. But as with "real life" relationships, effective professional social networking takes time, skill, and perhaps most importantly, desire to engage with audiences in this way. I don't think having an obligatory Facebook page or Twitter account is a good idea if the means and desire to maintain the network are not there. In that way, I do believe we have hit the point of saturation as far as the "innovation" of social networking. That said, just as with public speaking and writing, there are nuances and skills that performers who wish to engage with these platforms would do well to cultivate.

I must thank and acknowledge  Ed Justen (@edjusten on Twitter) for inspiring me to write this post.

(1) Beth Kanter and Allison Fine, The Networked Nonprofit: Connecting with Social Media to Drive Change (San Francisco: Wiley, 2010).

**Opinions expressed on this blog are solely my own and do not represent The Boston Conservatory***


Mostly Musicology, Teaching, and a bit of Miscellanea