An ethno looks West

Today’s topic is inspired by something my friend and fellow SU blogger, Liza, mentioned in response to my Wagnerian revelations last week. Liza emailed me to say, “I haven’t even started grad school, and people already assume that I’m this world music aficionado…false. It’s a great point to bring up, that we’re still surrounded by Western music if we’re studying ethno in this country.”

This is a great point and kind of touches on various smaller, and possibly personal, issues that ethno students face. High school students entering university music programs typically aren’t exposed to the music of other cultures (this is somewhat debatable, given the state of popular world music and music accessibility via the internet as well as changing grade school music curricula, but that is a topic for a later blog). Even undergrads who are lucky enough to get BAs in world music or ethnomusicology are generally still required to take Western music theory and history classes and generally still participate in bands, orchestras, and choirs in addition to whatever world music ensembles are offered. Later on, in the fabulous teaching careers we all achieve, it’s usually the ethnomusicologists who are hired to teach music appreciation as well as classes specifically relating to ethno and world music.

Some colleagues and professors have expressed frustration with undergraduate music majors who seem completely entrenched in Western music and unable to appreciate the differences of other types of music. Whenever I find myself getting irritated with my students, I go back to my first experiences of music. From age 12 to 22, I sang in choirs at school and church. These were prime formative years, when I formed some of the best, closest, most powerful relationships (to date), both with people and with music itself. We all agree that music has the power to affect people; that very idea has become clichéd in ethnomusicology. I think sometimes what we forget is that for many ethno students from the U.S., the music that first moved us was Western. This is not always the case! But it might have been your band or choir director, a theory professor, a music history teacher who inspired us to pursue music in a way that led us to sounds, ideas, people, and places that we never imagined. So when I get frustrated at undergrad music majors who won’t stop talking about Schubert’s string quartet but can’t seem to be bothered with the subtle nuances of Javanese gong strokes, I have to remind myself how wonderful it is that they, as teenagers, are this passionate about music in the first place. And how it’s my job, like those professors and teachers who inspired me, to say, “If you like Schubert, wait till you hear this!”

– Heather

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