Reading and Panicking

The time of year has come for comprehensive exams and thesis/dissertation defenses. It’s also that time of year when time itself seems to be leaking away for papers to be researched and performances to be rehearsed. Many of my friends are in this process, as I will be shortly, and so I find myself turning to things that ethnomusicologists have written about themselves and their experiences. As I mentioned in a previous post, it is heartening to know that even established scholars aren’t necessarily the untouchable pillars they can appear to be. It is comforting to know that they, too, went through processes like this and that they came out the other side, changed, different, but whole.

Since most scholars generally don’t write about their experiences taking comprehensive exams or the finer details of the actual construction of their dissertation proposals, I’ve been turning more and more to what ethnomusicologists have said about their fieldwork experiences. Liza Munk, in last week’s post, tempted us with a brief glimpse of her own fieldwork, inviting us to focus on the moments of music captured in photos. This week, I’d like to go back a few decades to something John Miller Chernoff wrote in African Rhythm and African Sensibility (1979). He was writing about his musical and life experiences in Ghana and said:

“In its own way, the approach that I took developed from a fortunate coincidence of temperament and circumstances. Probably because I enjoyed music more than scholarship, I was interested in finding a place for myself within a musical context rather than finding a place for my involvement with music within a scholarly context. Just a few weeks after I had arrived in Ghana, I was dimly aware that in the cult I was accepting other standards of judgement, that African values would define the meaning of my actions. I was deferential and self-conscious because I assumed that I did not know what to do in most situations. I accepted what people told me about myself and what I should be doing, perhaps because I felt that I could trust them, or perhaps because it seemed that I had no other choice. I was patient with the limitations I imposed on myself, and while I waited to see what people would make of me, I tried to be friendly and I did not mind if they found me amusing. They taught me, I believe, because they knew that I was trying to be receptive and responsible. By staying cool I learned the meaning of character. I learned that a person is what others see him to be and that he finds himself insofar as he is accessible to their influence. I thus learned to participate in African social life before I tried seriously to make music, yet all the time I was having fun with people, I was learning about music. As Ibrahim [Chernoff’s drumming teacher] said, the heart sees before the eyes…When Ibrahim called my name as we played Kondalia, he was calling me to show what I could do, that I might know that the time had come when I could assert my presence and not fall down” (170-71).

Chernoff’s words remind me that, regardless of the norms of scholarship, trying new things, new approaches, and new ideas has ever been part of the field of ethnomusicology and the attitudes of ethnomusicologists. It’s ok to like music more than scholarship. And that being called to assert one’s presence is, while terrifying, a part of music, scholarship, and life.

Good luck to everyone as the semester comes to an end. Assert your presence and don’t fall down!


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