Music Education: Dancing In The Seats - Rolling Stone
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Music Education: Dancing In The Seats

Roll over Beethoven. The professors of pop have arrived

Music Education: Dancing In The Seats

Music students dancing.

Lisa Pines/Getty

Clap, clap, clap. Blah, blah, blah. Tune into a typical music-appreciation class on any campus and these are likely to be the sounds you’ll hear — over a chorus of snoring students. At the head of the class sits a professor who could have grown up with Mozart, babbling incoherently about the same sonata he’s been spinning since September. In the back row, a handful of students who have managed to remain conscious turn up the volume on their Walkmans. Sound familiar? Then maybe it’s time you took a music class with one of the instructors we know — hip, bright, innovative teachers who realize that rock & roll is music just as worthy of “appreciation” as classical. The group we’ve assembled here comes highly recommended from academic organizations, professional music associations and even a few slackers who learned the hard way that these are not the teachers to request if you’re looking for easy listening and easy A’s. Wake up and take off your headphones. The 20th century is calling.

Neely Bruce, professor of music and American studies, Wesleyan University, Middletown, Connecticut

There’s something vaguely sinister about Neely Bruce’s perpetually arched eyebrow. It’s an expression that suggests a man with mischief on his mind.

“I see my role as an educator as somewhat subversive,” admits Bruce, 48. “But don’t blow my cover.”

After 18 years of injecting a healthy dose of rock & roll into his symphony and opera classes, however, the cat is already out of the bag. Bruce, whose latest work as a composer is a rock opera about the bubonic plague, believes that all forms of music are interconnected and should be taught as such. In his basic theory class, he plays the Police’s “Don’t Stand So Close to Me” to illustrate traditional Mixolydian melodies from the Renaissance. In his Baroque and Classical Music course, he samples a country & western version of Handel’s Messiah to underscore baroque’s fundamental spontaneity.

“I want students listening to all music on a technical level,” Bruce says. “The most effective way to do that is to start with the contemporary rock they already know.” Bruce is best known on campus for his course Rock Music and Rock Film, which broke enrollment records when he introduced it in 1987. “Of course, 100 students dropped out as soon as I told them there was a weekly quiz,” he recalls with a laugh. In class, students screen such disparate movies as Jailhouse Rock, Yellow Submarine and Krush Groove. “The study of music is too often divorced from other cultural disciplines such as film,” says Bruce, who has been listening to a lot of Public Enemy. “The film course is my way of merging two disciplines for a more complete look at our culture.”

Though he’s certainly in his element at superprogressive Wesleyan, Bruce fantasizes about shaking things up on a more traditional campus. “Wouldn’t it be great to be doing this stuff at a school like Harvard?” he says slyly. “Someplace where they barely know the outside world exists?”

William Duckworth, professor and chair of music department, Bucknell University, Lewisburg, Pennsylvania

Bill Duckworth sits silently at the piano as 80 students await his first performance of the day. Then he takes a bow. He does this several times. His students look confused.

“I love to surprise when I teach,” says Duckworth of the silent John Cage piece, “4′ 33″,” he has just performed for the class. “Cage said, ‘Music takes place all around us if only we had ears to hear it.’ I train students to listen.”

John Cage is one of the experimental musicians — and personal friends — Duckworth focuses on in his Jazz, Rock and the Avant-Garde class. Open to non-music majors only (“We don’t want to scare everyone else off,” he quips), the course showcases musical forms that “stretch the boundaries.” Whether it’s the computer-driven trombone of Nicolas Collins, the keyboards of Blue Gene Tyranny or the performance art of Laurie Anderson, many of the CDs and videos he plays in class aren’t likely to be found at the mall or on MTV. “I ask students to forget their preconceived notions of music,” says Duckworth, an accomplished composer whom the Village Voice once called the 20th-century Schumann. “This music opens up worlds they’d never know existed if they had to depend on mass media.”

Named by the College Music Society as one of six Master Teachers in America, Duckworth provides students with an understanding of musical concepts, not a laundry list of dates and definitions. Cramming is out of the question — his finals entail identifying musical styles of pieces students have never heard. Duckworth likes to think of his class as proof positive that all the great composers are not dead. “We should be teaching the new as well as the old,” he insists. “Let’s face it, the music of Beethoven can’t speak about the 20th century the way the music of John Cage or Brian Eno can.”

Portia K. Maultsby, professor of music and Afro-American studies, Indiana University, Bloomington

“When I play the Supremes’ ‘Where Did Our Love Go,'” says Portia Maultsby, who teaches Popular Music of Black America, “many black students talk about the tambourine, the funky beat, the chorus vocals, because that’s their frame of reference. The white students pick up on the strings, because that’s theirs. But each group tends to impose its interpretation upon the other.”

In addition to being a pianist, composer and music consultant for such projects as PBS’s Eyes on the Prize II, Maultsby is an ethnomusicologist — one who studies music as a reflection of society. Her course covers everything from rural blues to rap, all from a historical and sociocultural perspective. Take her section on soul. She starts by cranking James Brown’s “Say It Loud, I’m Black and I’m Proud,” followed by Aretha Franklin’s “Respect.” Over the next few weeks, class members discuss the social and political issues of the black-power movement that gave rise to the music.

Gregory Goggans, an Afro-American-studies major, took Maultsby’s class in the spring of ’90. “She made me more aware of the richness and diversity of black culture,” he says. “We don’t usually get that information in the classroom.”

Since most of Maultsby’s students are white, teaching them to interpret music from an African American perspective isn’t always a breeze. “When I start playing rappers like N.W.A, watch out,” says the notoriously outspoken instructor. “The white kids really object to the violence and anger, but they’ve got to learn where it’s all coming from. Music doesn’t make conditions; it reflects them.”

Chris Waterman, associate professor and chair of ethnomusicology and African studies, University of Washington, Seattle

“People say music is a universal language. That’s complete bullshit.”

Welcome to the World According to Waterman, more commonly known as World Popular Music by UW students lucky enough to get in. The course samples musical styles ranging from Algerian rai to Eskimo country & western — “some of which sounds beautiful to people in other cultures but like a garbage can falling downstairs to us.”

Alternately referred to as wopop, ethno-pop, world beat and world pop, contemporary world music offers an opportunity to study global cultures, says Waterman, who prefers the simple label music to all of the above. A jazz bassist who spent two years in Nigeria studying the juju music popularized stateside by King Sunny Adé, he often starts classes by playing similarly recognizable artists: Ladysmith Black Mambazo of South Africa, Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan of Pakistan, even David Byrne’s and Mickey Hart’s world-inspired rhythms. From there, Waterman traces the music back to its roots. For a recent section on South African pop, for example, he contrasted Pete Seeger’s version of “Wimoweh” (“The Lion Sleeps Tonight”) with the original Solomon Linda song, “Mbube,” meaning “lion” in Zulu. He ended the lesson with a favorite question: “So, class, which performer do you think made the money off that one?”

Sarcasm aside, the 37-year-old Waterman is dead serious about his teaching goals. “Once you understand how music is modified by different cultures to make it relevant to their lives, world music becomes more than just some strange, exotic stuff that’s great to dance to at parties,” he says. Still, he admits, he does get a visceral thrill when he hears students blasting their homework from dorm-room speakers.

Janet Nepkie, associate professor of music, State University College of New York at Oneonta

In business, we’ve been told, it’s not what you know, it’s who you know. Janet Nepkie disagrees. “You damn well better know both,” says the no-nonsense founder of SUNY’s music-business program. “The recording industry is about information. Whoever gets it first gets the deal.”

Future rock promoters and managers in Nepkie’s classes Music in the Marketplace and Issues in Modern Music Industry are at no loss for information. With a serious manner that reflects a serious business — don’t dare show up late for a “meeting” (read: a class) — Nepkie covers everything from copyright law to merchandising to marketing, publicity and — “probably the most important thing I can teach” — business ethics. Required reading includes Billboard, Variety and Radio and Records.

“My students need to get the same information as the pros,” says Nepkie, a networking machine whose computerized Rolodex contains hundreds of contacts she’s developed as president of the Music and Entertainment Industry Educators Association. Thanks to her stature, Nepkie can bring the pros to her students. Recent guest lecturers include Walter O’Brien, whose Concrete Management represents such hot college-circuit acts as Pantera and White Zombie.

Nepkie began her career as a classical cellist and learned industry ins and outs the hard way. “The first time I ever thought about a residual was when I got one,” she says. Her music-business majors, all of whom are required to do internships in the music industry — some of which have been at New York City labels like Island and Mercury — are destined to be better prepared for the real world.

“She gives you a real insight, so you know what to expect before you ever get a job,” says senior Haley Lazarus, who plans on becoming an agent or concert promoter. “She’s very cool, and she doesn’t take a lot of crap, which is more than I can say for a lot of teachers.”

Bill Biersach, lecturer in the school of music, University of Southern California, Los Angeles

Bill Biersach isn’t your garden-variety professor. For one thing, he doesn’t have a title. For another, he doesn’t have the clothes. Tweedy jackets with elbow patches wouldn’t work with his waist-length hair; he’s more comfortable teaching in his tie-dyes. All this makes 39-year-old Biersach both an anomaly and a semi-cult figure at increasingly conservative USC, where he teaches Classic Rock: Popular Music of the Sixties and Seventies to students who often show up in suits.

“When I started here in ’75, most of the kids looked a lot like me,” Biersach recalls wistfully. “Now they’re mainly clean-cut Republicans raised on Just Say No.” That makes it especially interesting to lecture on the drug culture and political activism that spawned music from the Beatles to Led Zep. “They hear a lot of this music on classic-hit radio,” Biersach says, “but they have no understanding of its historical context.”

Having lived through it as a musician himself (one of his first bands was the Great Apple River Down Stream Inner Tube Float), Biersach delivers his subject matter with a first-person spin. In a section on folk rock, he describes police brutality at a demonstration he attended in Hollywood to protest the closing of a legendary rock club called Pandora’s Box. Then he plays Buffalo Springfield’s “For What It’s Worth,” which is about the protest. “Students who thought that song was about a nice summer afternoon suddenly understood its historical relevance,” says Biersach. “They begin to tap into the era’s middle-finger-extended undertones.”

Biersach extends the same finger to the reactionary rules of higher education. His required texts (The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test and Frank Zappa’s autobiography, among others) provide firsthand accounts, not boring synopses. Lectures can be similarly unorthodox. Following a discussion on censorship and labeling, he jolts students from their note-taking robotics by darkening the room, lighting candles and playing backward versions of “Stairway to Heaven” and the theme from Mister Ed. “If either has satanic messages, it’s definitely ‘A Horse Is a Horse,'” he jokes.

As for campus conservatives who have him pegged as another nostalgic boomer longing for a love-in, Biersach snaps: “I’m the first to admit that Woodstock was just a pile of mud. I don’t idealize this music. I clarify it.”

Deena Weinstein, professor of sociology, DePaul University, Chicago

The soothing sounds of Slayer’s “Angel of Death” emanate from the office of Deena Weinstein, 49, who sits at her desk surrounded by posters of Anthrax and Black Sabbath. “It’s frustrating having to listen at such low volumes in here,” she says with a Brooklyn accent as abrasive as the background music. “I appreciate the aesthetic of loud.”

So why does Weinstein, author of the recently released Heavy Metal: A Cultural Sociology (Lexington Books), forbid music at any volume in her Sociology of Rock class? “This isn’t music appreciation,” she says, noting that her students are required to come to class with written outlines of complex sociological texts. “I’m not interested in eliciting an emotional response to rock. I want an objective response to its culture.”

The study of that culture provides as valuable an insight into social theory as any traditional sociology course, contends Weinstein, whose four-page list of published works includes “Sartre and the Humanist Tradition in Sociology” along with Serious Rock: The Artistic Vision of Modern Society in Pink Floyd, Rush and Bruce Springsteen. Metal, punk or rap, each genre has specific codes of behavior, styles of dress, gender roles and hierarchies. “The rock world is a microcosm of the real world,” Weinstein declares. “A student of sociology would be crazy not to study it.”

After 20 years at DePaul, Weinstein has established a reputation as a teacher not to toy with. According to junior Tony Tavano, who took the course last year, “A lot of people think she’s a tough bitch, but that’s just because they’re not used to being challenged.” Then again, it could just be that they’ve run into her at death-metal concerts, sporting her black motorcycle jacket and motor-head T-shirt.

Ken Pohlmann, professor and director of music engineering technology, University of Miami, Coral Gables, Florida

When Guy DeFazio graduated three years ago and applied for an engineering job at one of L.A.’s hottest recording studios, Lion Share, the first name he gave as a reference was Ken Pohlmann. He got the job.

“My interviewers said they hired me based on his recommendation and the experience I gained from his program,” says DeFazio, now a successful freelancer who engineered most of the platinum Simpsons Sing the Blues album.

Other students who’ve taken Pohlmann’s music recording and engineering classes have gone on to mix tracks for Prince, Madonna and Whitney Houston. What employer wouldn’t want a Pohlmann protégé? He’s a nationally recognized authority on audio technology with a regular column in Stereo Review, an audio consultant for top car manufacturers and the recipient of a fellowship award from the Audio Engineering Society. He’s also a damn good teacher.”I prefer the word mentor,” says DeFazio.

Judging by his dark “office” wedged under the staircase of a campus concert hall, the 39-year-old Pohlmann hasn’t let success go to his head. “I teach a lot of technoid stuff to gearheads like myself,” he says of his Digital Audio class, which focuses on the finer points of CD technology. “It’s just audio, not brain surgery.”

Being able to simplify nearly anything comes in handy when covering fun topics like “block floating-point digitization.” At every opportunity, he illustrates complicated scientific concepts with lively demonstrations, such as standing in front of the class and yanking a CD player apart bit by bit. “By class’s end, everyone understands why Billy Joel comes out of those speakers,” he says. “I could scribble mathematical equations on the blackboard from now until doomsday, but that doesn’t mean anybody would get it. Memorization is death.”

Pohlmann’s ultimate challenge is preparing students for a field in which technology becomes obsolete nearly as soon as it becomes available (bought any eight-tracks lately?). In addition to lecturing on cutting-edge advancements that will become relevant in five years, he leads hands-on sessions at the school’s multimillion-dollar recording studios. “I try to provide students with basic concepts they can apply to new situations,” Pohlmann says. “I teach them to learn how to learn.” 

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