Inviting Possibilities for New Music and Music Education

How We Learn Now: Education Week

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

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

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

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

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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.

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