What Does It Mean to be a Musician?

At DePauw, we are deep into the process of redesigning a curriculum for 21st-century musicians. The unique opportunity is that we are small enough and have the right mix of faculty and administrative leadership and support to actually recreate a curriculum. In many larger institutions, the faculty/student population is so large, the systems are so set, the traditions are so engrained, the egos are so big, the individual focuses so narrow, that it just can’t be done. Or if it can be done, the process is going to take an immensely long time.

In my own little corner of the DePauw universe, I have the opportunity to coach improvisation ensembles (in which the students are focused on expressing themselves and connecting with others through sound) and a cello ensemble in which we use focused improvisations as warmup games to develop listening and awareness chamber-music skills in addition to learning composed music. This creates a laboratory to work on how to integrate improvisation into how classically-trained musicians learn, rehearse, and perform.

Is this exciting for me as a teacher you ask? Absolutely!

Another course I teach is currently called “Understanding Music.” It’s a class for first-year undergraduate music majors; it’s evolved over the years, but has always been intended support students as they make the transition into college life. Team taught, the course has three units, all three experiential, each giving the students an opportunity to experience making, learning, and learning about music in a way they (most likely) have not previous encountered.

Nicole Brockmann takes them through four weeks of Dalcroze Eurythmics; Randy Salman gets them doing some beginning jazz improvisation, and I teach them how to lead community drum circles and do “free” improvisation with instruments and voices.  For years I called my unit “Understanding Music Through the Creative Process.” This year as I finished the syllabus I found myself typing “Understanding Music: What Does It Mean to Be a Musicians?”

We are discussing all the activities we do in the context of this open, no right-or-wrong-answer question. As the students come up with partial answers to the question, we find ourselves focusing on the different roles musicians can play in the context of society in general and local communities in particular.

When I first asked the students to tell me what it means to be a musician, everyone gave be a variation of what is to the most obvious answer to classically-trained music students: to perform music. And by “music,” virtually all of them meant compositions that someone else had written and and yet another person had taught them.

Yet here we had just experienced playing together in a drum circle in which everyone was instructed to “make up your own” rhythm and had taken turns dancing as a group and individually to the music of the circle. That doesn’t fit the musician-as-performer-of-composition-by-someone-else model.

Over six sessions, we’ve had a variety of experiences and read quite a bit.  We’ve discussed the musician as member of an intentional learning/musicking community; musician as leader; musicians as supporters of each other; musicians as dancers; musicians as healers; and musicians as people who make a difference in their communities.

On that last point, the students have told me they take so many music classes all in one building that they feel isolated from the liberal arts students. “We need to find ways to bring the School of Music and the College of Liberal Arts together,” they told me. So I led them in brainstorming a bit and when many of great ideas they came up with didn’t seem practical within the time limits of this unit, I suggested what was (to me) the obvious:

You’ve spent a number of class sessions working on how to lead a community drum circle. The purpose of a community drum circle is to bring people together to experience being part of a community. Why not organize and host a community drum circle with the express intention of bringing liberal arts and music students together in a shared activity?

They loved it (thank God, or my work might have been for naught).

And so we have found yet another model: musicians as people who present participatory music events.

What does it mean to be a musician? The possibilities really are infinite. And for me, it is a joy to have my younger musician friends join with me in the process of articulating those possibilities.

 

 

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2 Comments

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2 responses to “What Does It Mean to be a Musician?

  1. Cathi White

    This essay and the idea of reworking a curriculum (in any size music school) make me wish at least fleetingly that I’d pushed through a doctorate in interdisciplinary arts when I was offered admission to one of the few programs in the field. So much isn’t being done in music programs — and in arts programs in general. Among other things, there is too much specialization and not enough cross-disciplinary study. Admittedly, the two needs are at cross purposes, and balancing them isn’t simple. But it’s crucial to developing fully capable artists in any specialty.

    I’d be delighted to engage in more of a discussion. I’d be particularly interested in sharing with you some of the questions that the president of Manhattan School of Music shot at me during an interview for an assistant dean position in the late 80s. His questions might be useful to keep in mind as DePauw’s music school formulates new directions. But for now, it’s late here and this is your blog, not mine. 🙂 I’m glad to see that at least one music school is putting some thought into reworking the status quo.

  2. Amazonia Saif

    I think to be a musician means to be able to create music, to share with people and the community so that the feelings in the musician are shared and people how listen to it can understand the feelings behind it and so in the end we are connected to each other because we feel that either because the music is so moving and/or because we experienced something similar. To listen to such music allows us to connect.

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