Since I began teaching at Penn State Altoona in 2015, I have taught MUS 5: Intro to Western Music. The course description is focused on classical music. Though I've always had a good mind for classical music history, MUS 5 isn't the course I expected to teach. But this course has become popular, well-loved, and an important way I impact the lives of undergraduate students. Classical music has proved to be an unexpected blessing for me.
In an International Journal of Music Education article, "Decolonizing Music Education," Juliet Hess warns of the colonialist function of classical music in schools. "Western classical music is constructed as 'natural,' and the curriculum tokenizes alternative practices by making them tangential to the main curriculum. In many respects, Western music in music education acts as a colonizer." This seems true in my experience. But where do we go from there? Hess's insights build on much scholarship, including that of Randall Everett Allsup and Christopher Small, which points out the many problems of classical music being central to music teaching and learning. And so, when I read Hess's insights, I did not in the least see them as out-of-line with what is becoming common knowledge for music education scholars; even though the schools still focus on classical music. Hess provides a logical conclusion to that previous scholarship. I began teaching classical music because it is the job that was available--not because of any desire to do so. It has been my only route into university faculty. MUS 5 is a course that Penn State offers to its undergrad non-music majors, to fulfill their arts requirements. I have taught two sections of it since 2015 (along with other courses).
Hess recommends that curriculum-building become a "ground up" process. Rather than beginning with a course such as "Intro to Western Music," we would begin with our students' experience. Then we'd construct an education experience around that. She uses a rhizome (roots, such as in cattails) metaphor. "As we reconceptualize school music rhizomatically, we must also strive for a deep recognition of student identities and the experiences they bring to class, as well as the musics they consider their own." My students, upon entering Intro to Western Music, by-and-large do not consider classical music their own. The structure of their experience prior to MUS 5 doesn't often include classical music. The structure of the university and the students' structure of experience seem at odds. At least on the surface.
And Yet ...
My Intro to Western Music class has become important for my students; popular among Penn State Altoona's undergrads. When I came to Altoona I reconstructed the syllabus extensively. I guide students as they work in groups, co-presenting presentations that make up a major part of their grade. Students often comment on these in course evaluations. E.g., "I really enjoyed the class wide group projects, they were enlightening and interesting." And I re-constructed the syllabus around critical social issues (classic, gender, race, place). "The topics in class (ex. gender in music) engaged me in a different form of thinking than I expected for a music class." The campus's missions statement includes four goals, the fourth of which reads, "Integrate sustainability and environmental stewardship into teaching, research, and outreach." Though I doubt many courses or administrators take this mission statement seriously (truly adopting its rhetoric), I have aimed to redesign my Intro to Western Music to be not just about classical music (the course description), but also about integrating sustainability and environmental stewardship. It has become what I am calling an ecological introduction to classical music.
I began reconstructing the syllabus by asking myself: does the classical music tradition provide insight into ecological issues (issues of sustainability of stewardship)? Do these ideas have connections to other critical social issues students should discuss during undergraduate coursework? Can classical music be a force for good, even with its colonialist roots? Early in this process, my mind was drawn to Hildegard of Bingen; she was an easy add. We analyze O Frondens Virga, which according to the Hildegard Society: "recalls the elemental association of the divine feminine with earthly fertility. Mary is addressed as 'O blooming branch,' and she is described as standing in her nobility." I then connect Hildegard's piece to a living composer, Libby Larsen, and her 2003 composition, "Womanly Song of God." Drawing these two songs together, separated by nearly a millennium, we consider Vandana Shiva's ecofeminism to analyze and critique the connections between women, nature, and musics. Though both O Frondens Virga and Womanly Song of God are classical music, colonizing music, they are also in some ways not. A complex picture arises, where women, often those damaged most by colonization ideologies, use the tools (classical music) of the colonizer to reclaim power, spiritual insight, sustainability, and stewardship.
Hildegard and Larsen provide only two examples of composers who can expand what is accomplished in MUS 5. Students have already been music educated to expect something specific in a classical music course. When asked early in the semester, they choose to listen to Bach, Mozart, or Beethoven. Though I don't give students the opportunity to choose the music we listen to early in the semester (this changes during group presentations), I choose musics with an opportunity to open space for critical conversations. Musics by composers they might not have listened to during high school appreciation courses. And then I step back to let students speak to their being, to their experience as people, through these musics. Though neither I nor the students choose the genre being studied, we do have some choices, and can make them well. A type of recycling can occur. We reclaim a bit of our humanity from colonizing powers in an anarchistic way, even while giving lip-service to the powers that be.
Who else might expand our introductions to classical music courses? Some underrepresented composers that pop to mind, whose musics include ecological themes (and the pieces I have included in MUS 5), include: Sofia Gubaidulina (Sonnengesang), Jenny McLeod (Earth and Sky), Emily Doolittle (Falling Still), Toru Takemitsu (Rain Spell), and Louis Ballard (Four American Indiana Piano Preludes). Problematic though it may be, classical music can be used to open space for conversations that matter. Perhaps this is because it is problematic. We begin by recognizing structures of power that negatively impact people. We awaken. We become conscious of these structures. And we recycle.