I’m in the process of applying for a PhD in music education, and I have to come up with a statement of purpose. Here’s my most current draft.
I have been a practicing musician and music teacher for fifteen years. But my formal music education ended in middle school, and did not resume in earnest for over two decades. My story is a sadly common one. The vast majority of Americans who have access to formal musical study abandon it as soon as they are able. Yet most of us have an emotional relationship to music. I am unusual only insofar as I had the means and the tenacity to find my way back into musical practice on my own. I wish for a world in which music education produces broad-based communities of enthusiastic music makers, using a variety of styles at a variety of skill levels. My goal as a PhD candidate is to work toward making that wish a reality.
I intend to advance change via three parallel, mutually informative avenues: 1) the direct teaching of future music teachers; 2) scholarship and advocacy; and 3) the design of new technologies and user experiences. I want to help students use technology as a tool for liberating their expressive potential, to partake of the essential social vitamin that is active musical engagement. I further hope to devise and spread culturally authentic teaching practices that guide students toward the discovery of their own musical truths.
I have encountered a great many music teachers who would like to take a more creativity-centered, culturally relevant approach. However, most music teachers have no idea how popular music is being made. It is not a technical issue, but rather a musical one. Traditional music training does not map easily onto the rhythmically intricate, harmonically static loop structures of contemporary Afrocentric pop and dance music. Study of harmonic movement at the quarter note level is poor preparation for creative engagement with music that lacks harmony entirely. Classically trained musicians rarely learn how to write songs, use the studio as an instrument, improvise, rap, make beats, or identify the timbral qualities that make one synth sound work better than another. Music education has tended to treat composition, performing and audio engineering as separate disciplines, but in contemporary popular practice, the distinctions between the three are no longer meaningful. Having given myself a hard-won education in the digital studio, I am passionately committed to sharing my toolkit with other educators.
Access to the digital studio is invaluable for young music learners. It is a constructivist axiom that music students work best when they feel like they are making something of value. Digital audio editing makes it possible to apprach the artifacts of our culture as producers rather than consumers. Software enables complete beginners to engage with music at the intuitive morpheme level—riffs, phrases, chord cycles, beat patterns and samples. Approaching music this way does not just give entry into pop; I can attest that it also opens significant inroads into jazz and classical. My goal as a scholar is to extoll the musical values and possibilities of the digital studio to as wide a range of practitioners and policymakers as I can. As a prolific music blogger, I have been undertaking this project for some years already; my hope is that scholarly publication will greatly increase my reach and credibility.
In my own teaching practice, I strive to erase the distinction between “school music” and “real music.” I focus heavily on the production of original student work, and I require all of that work to be posted on the open internet. I am moving in the direction of having all student writing live on the web as well. I have seen how good a motivator the internet can be; rather than creating a folder of exercises that will be heard only by a few teachers and peers, students can build an online portfolio available to anyone in the world who cares to listen.
I also believe that dance music practice has a great deal to offer teachers of any kind of music. For example, there is no better form of compositional critique than the remix. Rather than evaluating student work according to some arbitrary rule set, a teacher can simply remix it, thus starting a conversation about alternative musical choices using the language of music itself. Teachers can carry out the remix/critique during class, so students can see the process, make suggestions, and ask questions.
For pop musicians, most education takes place outside of the classroom. Some of this education happens via peer-to-peer networks, YouTube videos and books, but a substantial percentage is through direct trial and error. The presets, default sounds and user interface affordances in music production software and hardware are de facto music teachers with enormous cultural reach and impact. As Adam Bell memorably put it, “purchasers of computers are purchasers of an education.” I would like to find ways to make that educational experience a better one.
For the past year, I have had the privilege of working with the NYU Steinhardt Music Experience Design Lab. Rather than taking a narrow view of interface design or curriculum development, the MusEDLab approaches the holistic experience of the music learner, considering both the design of new technologies and their underlying pedagogical values and assumptions. The Groove Pizza is an emblematic MusEDLab project: a circular drum machine that visualizes rhythm patterns in the arrangement of plastic mushrooms, sausages, pepperoni and sausages. Beyond the novelty of the form factor, we believe that there is deep value in circular rhythm visualization as an intuitive representation of the loops comprising all pop and dance music. In addition to music, radial rhythm visualizations can be used to teach mathematical subjects, including ratios and proportional relationships, angles, polar coordinates, rotational and reflectional symmetry, and modular arithmetic. I expect that my doctoral studies will dovetail neatly with the MusEDLab’s work, and that the two will mutually inform each other.