world music ensembles r us

Ted Solis’ (ed.) wonderful work Performing Ethnomusicology is well-known among ethnomusicology students. If you haven’t read it, go read it right now! We won’t tell any of your profs. The work addresses numerous issues involved with teaching world music ensembles at academic institutions. While the main focus was on teaching–and therefore, from the teachers’ perspectives–a few authors included the voices of their students. Playing the music that we study has become a given in our field, but rarely do we talk about what this music means to us, how we benefit from the experience, particularly in the academic setting. The expectation is that we will play and sing and dance while in the field and that this experience will make our ethnographies that much richer. But it is also interesting to consider what happens before we leave for the field, while we play in the ensembles often taught by the very teachers who contributed to Performing Ethnomusicology.

“I never realized how bad my memory was until I played in a Balinese gamelan. Particularly in the first few weeks, I was spending so much time trying to play correctly, I hardly had any brain cells left to remember what we had done the week before and embed what we had done this week. After a while, though, I found my little brain growing stronger, and I learned that I was memorizing more than just the notes to hit and when, but also how my teacher was phrasing passages, and how the whole group was interacting with one another. It became an empowering musical experience, the repercussions of which changed many aspects of how I played music on other instruments and how I thought about music, and how people come to be acquainted with particular songs, tunes, or pieces, and also how musicians interact when playing with one another, both musically and personally. I don’t think this experience can be replaced, particularly with more traditional ensembles: there’s something specific that comes from learning something new that can really change how you view what’s familiar” –Alice Rogers, NCC committee chair

“For me, it was not long hours in the library, but an intensive playing experience that solidified my passion for Arabic music. In 2012, I attended Simon Shaheen’s Arabic Music Retreat. There, I found a vibrant, welcoming Community of Arabic musicians, and the incredible tarab they bring to Hadley, Massachusetts every August. Before this summer, I was an oboist with little playing experience beyond the Western classical. Shaheen’s retreat gave me the incredible opportunity to let go of nearly everything musical I know and embrace another captivating music tradition. Now, along with the oboe case, I have an ‘ud and a nay, and an unwavering desire to delve further into the world of quarter tones and taqsim” –Liza Munk, ethnomusicology student at Franklin and Marshall College

If I may add my own thoughts as well, playing in Javanese and Balinese gamelan ensembles as well as other world music ensembles over the *mumble, cough* years I’ve been in school has provided a musical family that’s very precious to me. The professors who lead the ensembles have proven so dedicated and thoughtful; they provide another way of understanding not only the music and the cultures but also what it means to be an ethnomusicologist. My fellow students in the ensembles, many of whom are not musicians themselves nevertheless show such enthusiasm, dedication, and love for the ensembles and for what they are learning and doing. These ensembles provide experiences for all the students at the university to create meaning, music, and connections that stay with them their whole lives.

Sorry to run, but I’m late for gamelan rehearsal 🙂 Have a wonderful week everyone!

Heather A. Strohschein


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