The definition of music in academia is largely exclusive. “Popular” or “commercial” music is essentially ignored at the overwhelming majority of universities. If this kind of music is addressed at all, it is not done in a way that is proportional to the amount of focus afforded the other forms of music that make up the bulk of today’s university music curriculum.
There are exceptions to this, and it does seem that perhaps we are seeing the very beginning of a momentum shift in this regard. That said, talented and motivated musicians who are more interested in creating music of a “popular” idiom and who want to enjoy the benefits of pursuing this at the university level have extremely limited options about where to study, whom to study with and what to major in.
As a musician and an educator, I believe that this is a problem. It presents a lack of opportunity for these students to access the kind of well-rounded, multi-dimensional education that a university matriculation can offer. Further, it diminishes, unnecessarily, the value of “non-academic” “popular” music viewed through the lens of higher education. Why should an aspiring opera singer be denied access to the rigorous academic perspective of someone with an equal passion for hip-hop? Why vice versa?
These are problems not only of musical access, but cultural and socio-economic access as well. Fewer and fewer public schools are able to maintain appropriate funding for the traditional “COB” (choir, orchestra, band) approach to music education. Accordingly, students in lower socio-economic areas are systematically denied access to the kind of music education that is an unspoken necessity to gain the required skills for acceptance into a university music program.
Beyond the issues of access, it is presumptuous at best to expect that the musical interests of middle school and high school music students in America are best realized in the compositions of W. A. Mozart, Eric Whitacre or Frank Ticheli, as great as that music is and as popular as those pieces may be in the world of “COB.”
When Lady Gaga, Kendrick Lamar, John Prine, Childish Gambino, Carlos Santana or Radiohead releases a new album, the world says, “Here is some new music.” Meanwhile, academia—and only academia—says, “Here is some new commercial music.” As John Cage suggested, albeit for different reasons, why can’t we just call it all music and move on?
I teach at Chabot College, a two-year community college in Hayward, CA, about 15 miles south of Oakland. Chabot College is statistically the most diverse community college in all of California, which perhaps makes it the most diverse college in the world. The Chabot student body, ethnically speaking, is 25% Hispanic, 25% Asian/Filipino/Islander, 25% African American and 25% Caucasian. There are over 80 languages spoken among the 13,000 or so students at Chabot. It is not uncommon that I will walk into a classroom of 20-40 people on the first day of the semester and be the only white male in the room.
Working within such diversity every day has had a profound impact on me. It constantly reinforces the fact that everyone—students, faculty and staff—comes to school with a unique perspective informed by their own unique experiences. Almost always, these experiences are very different than my own. This is especially true in music; the majority of my students—my music technology students in particular, but even my music theory students as well—do not view music primarily through the lens of what academia considers a traditional “COB” background. The most important thing I have learned is that they are not wrong.
Schools of music need not discontinue what they are already doing. Opera, symphonies, jazz combos and gamelan orchestras can—and should—co-exist in higher education along-side of rock, hip-hop, synth pop and film music. As a matter of curricular precision, this will obviously require some trial and error. But this is critically important work that needs to be done and done well. Students who want to study music should be allowed and encouraged to do so, as long as they meet the appropriate standards set forth by the institution. What will “popular” music sound like in 30 years if even half of the people who write, record, produce and perform it have access to a university education that embraces all forms of music?
I am a musician of diverse interests and experiences. The deepest joy I find in my work comes from sharing what I have learned about making music with a wide variety of students through a broad palette of musical expression. My primary duty is to meet each student where they are and to help them realize their musical goals—whatever those goals may be—as honestly and as musically as possible. The process of doing so relies on effectively showing each student ways to improve the craft and clarity of their music, while at the same time encouraging them to grow and refine their own aesthetic compass.