On December 5th 2019, Berklee staged its annual Singers’ Showcase, and the theme this year was A Night at the Opera—The Music of Queen. As a lifelong fan, I was honored to be asked to write the program notes for the evening’s performance.
Each song entry features a reference to the original Queen recording, and the official video embedded, plus a description of the approach the students took for the Berklee version. Selected excerpts from the show itself will appear online sometime in the future, but for now you can get a great behind-the-scenes flavour of the quality of the performance by watching Marshall Lilly’s terrific drumcam footage.
Popular Music Education. These three words, even though they have been at the center of my professional life for more than 25 years, continue to challenge and intrigue me because each one generates questions. What do we mean by ‘Popular’? Popular with whom, and for how long? Popular in the sense of widely distributed, or in the sense of culturally influential? When we say ‘Music’, which music… and whose music? The consensus reached long ago in conservatoires about the centrality of the European ‘common practice period’ has no easy parallel in PME, and popular music has evolved into so many forms and sub-genres that it is arguably impossible for any teacher or student to have knowledge of it all. And when we talk about ‘Education’, what, exactly, are we teaching? PME in high schools and in higher education deals variously with listening, performing existing music, creating original music, music technology, the commercial music industry, and (often controversially) the history of various canons, styles and traditions. Which of these should we choose to teach? Each answer to these questions breeds further questions. If we decide that our curriculum supports creativity, then our students will probably need to be songwriters, the song being the dominant creative product in most popular music. But how does one build a suitable grading framework for songwriting, when songs represent personal expression? What if the teacher’s definition of a good song is different from the student’s?
Davey will be discussing songwriter identity in the context of optimal distinctiveness theory, and uses this to frame some popular music within the known teen phenomenon of ‘I loved [that band] before they were famous’. He uses the famous example of iMacs that looked like furniture – the novel and the familiar are balanced to create consumer need.
Popular music is perceived to come out of ‘scenes’ – genres, fashions and subcultures – and necessarily has different audiences, who in turn require identity, categorisation and distinctiveness (Zuckerman 2014).
In Davey’s auto-ethnographical research, he has created 4 albums over 8 years; 2 of these gained traction; 2 faded away. He analyses each project according to its distinctiveness, genre, novelty, conformity etc (via the above ODT framework).
We now hear ‘Memory is a Weapon’ (CousteauX, 2017), from Davey’s reboot of his turn-of-the-century band Cousteau. The journalistic feedback and reviews triangulate the product’s perceived distinctiveness. Assimilation (conformity to expectation) is contrasted with Differentiation (challenge to expectation) – for example, the torch singer persona of Cousteau’s work becoming the rogue-ish character of the CousteuX reboot. This is in the lyric mode of address (first person, reflective, confessional). Most of the rest of the album is in the dramatic mode of address (quasi-second person – addressing the audience as if they were present or speaking to somebody else positioning the audience as witness).
The journalistic responses agreed with the intent, reliably highlighting words such as ‘dark’ and ‘brooding’ etc.
Collective Creativity: A ‘Service’ Model of Contemporary Commercial Pop Music
Paul Thompson, Leeds Beckett University, UK
Phil Harding, Leeds Beckett University, UK
Keywords: Creativity, Pop Production, Songwriting
ABSTRACT: A commercial pop music production is rarely the result of a single individual and pop music producers and songwriters are often part of a larger creative collective (Hennion, 1990) in creating a musical product. A team leader typically manages this group activity. That team leader requires an appropriate level of cultural, symbolic and economic capital (Bourdieu, 1984) so they can effectively evaluate the contributions of the rest of the team and guide the project towards commercial success (Thompson & Harding, 2017). This study explores the role of the team leader within the creative production workflow of pop songwriting and production since the 1990s and investigates the ways in which pop songwriting and production teams work within a creative system of pop-music making. Building upon previous studies in this area (Harding and Thompson 2017) the ‘Service Model’ flow system is illustrated with distinct linear stages that include the processes of pop songwriting, pop vocal recording, post vocal production and then mixing. However, within each of these production stages the ‘highly nonlinear dynamics’ (Capra and Luisi, 2014) of the creative system (Csikszentmihalyi; 1988, 1999) can be viewed in action as the team work together to make the pop record. Drawing upon a series of interviews and data gathered during a Practice Based Enquiry (PBE) conducted at Westerdals University in Oslo, this paper presents the pop music ‘Service Model’. Importantly, the model underlines the value of the collective (rather than individual) in the commercial pop songwriting and production process.
This is Phil and Paul’s third presentation about this project (related to Phil’s PhD) – and represents bringing the research up to date by talking about contemporary pop production. For background, you can read about last year’s paper and/or pick up Phil’s book PWL from the Factory Floor.
Franco Fabbri, University of Milan and Conservatorio ‘A.Boito’, Parma
Our opening keynote for the conference is the much-loved Franco Fabbri, a much-celebrated musician, educator and musicologist. I was particularly interested to hear this one, because Franco is talking about Forensic Musicology, and with a particular focus on Italian case law.
Here’s my live-blog of his hour-long talk, with YouTube examples where I could find them:
Drug Story Theater: Where the Treatment of One Becomes the Prevention of Many
Dr Shrand’s opening is about the definition of stigma – he shows us the Gary Larson Tuba player gag to illustrate!
His work in Drug Story Theater involves young people participating in theater, treating teenagers in the early stages of addiction recovery, and he describes how the first scene of one of their recent shows talks about dopamine, and its connection to addiction.
Dr Brandoff opens with two vignettes; one where he describes a time of personal social frustration where he wanted to punch a wall (but played some classical piano instead – he demos it live!). His second example is a patient case (see slide).
As a palliative care expert and pain specialist, he gives us an overview of patient needs, in the context of his profession, and in the context of US healthcare. He considers opioids an important part of pain treatment, but acknowledges the rampant public health opioid crisis. We look at some disturbing stats of overdose deaths involving opioids in the US, correlated with heroin and fentanyl takeup, and a more local analysis of the picture here in Massachusetts.
Dr Heiderscheit begins with an historical overview, which is fascinating – see photo. She presents this slide with minimal comment due to pressure of time.
We see some quantitative (and remarkable) stats relating to public health issues – economic costs of addiction, trauma and pain – but Dr Heiderscheit suggests that the human cost of these issues is literally unquantifiable. They affect our health, relationships, wellbeing, security, purpose, community and environment. “We can work to slap band-aids on gaping wounds, but if we don’t address these areas we are not achieving [societal] well-being”.
Our first speaker, Dr David Silverstein, leads us through a fascinating overview of ‘music and the brain’, and he begins with a quotation from Hippocrates:
And men ought to know that from nothing else but thence [from the brain] come joys, delights, laughter and sports, and sorrows, griefs, despondency, and lamentations. And by this, in an especial manner, we acquire wisdom and knowledge, and see and hear, and know what are foul and hat are fair, what are bad and what are good, what are sweet, and what unsavory… And by the same organ we become mad and delirious, and fears and terrors assail us…
We see evolutionary comparisons of the prefrontal cortex of various mammals, from rats to humans. As Dr Silverstein puts it “[our brains] hitch a ride on blood oxygenation”. Neurology and psychology are the fields by which we learn about our subjective brain experiences.
Popular Music Education as an antidote to McDonaldization
John Kratus, Professor Emeritus of Music Education, Michigan State University.
John begins with an overview of the concept of McDonaldization (Ritter 1993) – defined as a rational process combining efficiency, calculability, predictability and control, starting with McDonalds itself, and then extending the metaphor towards the ‘template’ that he suggests represents typical K-12 music curricula in the USA.
He cites Ritter “people are the greatest threat to predictability” and suggests that McDonaldized curricula need to suppress students’ agency.
Advocating for Popular Music Education – where do we go from here?
Steve Holley, Music educator
Steve begins with an overview of US music education generally, including high schools and universities, asking ‘why adapt now?’ and describing a necessary journey toward curricular adaptation. He takes us back to the mid-20thC innovators (USC, Miami, Berklee) who ‘took a chance on jazz’, and observes that the music education community thought they were crazy. Within 50 years of those early adopters, jazz in music schools had become mainstream. Steve believes that popular music education today is where jazz music education was in the 1950s, and predicts a similar trickle-down effect in future years, giving examples of schools where this is already starting to happen.
Randy introduces himself and talks briefly about his work in music education, including his publications, talks, and his experience of listening to other songwriters’ work over many years. Today he’s sharing with us the structure of his 16-week songwriting course, and he begins with the philosophy of definition i.e. the question ‘what is a song?’. He suggests that most technical descriptions of a song fall short of the mark of describing its subjective effects on listeners, noting how difficult this intangible would be to achieve. He provides a traditional melody-lyric-harmony definition of a song (i.e. omitting the Sound Recording or arrangement), and then asks the potential student question “If [a song is too intangible to hold], then how can I learn about it?”.
To the great amusement of the audience, Randy now talks us (literally, talks us) through the whole of the lyric to James Brown’s ‘I Got You’, demonstrating that it’s clearly a love song. He now separates the [love] song from the arrangement, describing the horn lick and Brown’s vocal as ‘ear candy’, building on the core lyric’s emotional intent.
Evan begins by describing the program beginning with a ‘chicken and egg’ situation in his institution. A committee was formed to figure out how to launch a popular music degree – but no-one on the committee had a popular music background. The committee pushed ahead, based on the institutional promise from ASU that faculty would be hired when the decision had been made to launch.
Practical Production Analysis: Helping Students Produce Competitive Songs
Misty opens by describing her particular students as ‘in the box’ producers – that is to say, they create the entire sound recording in a Digital Audio Workstation. The problem she’s trying to solve is this: the students’ recordings are just not ready yet [for the commercial marketplace]. So today, she will be sharing her approach to helping students to make their song recordings competitive, in the genre they want to produce in.
The approach starts with the assumption that students ‘have their chops down’ – that is, they can write melodies & lyrics, understand harmony, and can program beats. With this out of the way, the students are asked to work on these four areas:
Matthew opens with a discussion of the role of curriculum in popular music education, noting that the skills musicians gain in Higher Ed are arguably much more important than the qualification. Like the industry, he says, we must be ruthless in prioritizing meaningful musical career skills, rather than focusing on those elements that are the easiest to teach, or have heavily established pedagogies.
I’m in Nashville, at the #apme conference, hosted by Middle Tennessee State University. Popular Music Education is still a relatively young field, at least in terms of having its own conference (launched ~10 years ago) and journal (launched last year). More about AMPE at popularmusiceducation.org. Conference schedule here.
Coming from Berklee, perhaps I’ve become too comfortable with the idea that everyone talks about popular music pedagogy all the time. A lot of colleagues here are from institutions that have a long history of classical music education, but have only recently launched popular music programs. They are often seen as mavericks in their schools, and are viewed with some suspicion by more traditional teachers and departments. So there’s a palpable sense of community here, and even during this first morning of day 1 I’ve frequently overheard the phrase: “I’ve finally found my people!”.
I’m in Seattle at the New Music Ecosystem conference, organised by the University of Washington Law School. It’s a gathering of music and law professionals, discussing the future of creators’ compensation, tech/music innovation, and copyright reform. [Grammar folks – I’ve now been in the USA for long enough, and had Oxford commas inserted into my copy so many times, that I have decided to give in and just use them from hereon].
ABSTRACT: Over the past several years, perhaps no single person has fostered collaborations with groups on the fringe of networking infrastructure than Dan Nichols of Northern Illinois University. In this session, Dan will explain how to reach partners with limited expertise and resources. Prominent software solutions like Artsmesh and Jam Kazaam will be explored.
Thus far, the conference has focused on high-bandwidth institutions with fast Internet2 connections. Dan’s presentation covers bringing networked collaboration to the masses, particularly those who do not have access to these network/hardware/institutional resources.
Dan begins with a description of Jamkazam, a free solution (that also offers a $299 hardware audio interface). After describing its features and virtues, he plays us a demo of multi-site bands jamming at SXSW 2014.
Project leads for LOLA, Ultragrid and CESNET’s 4K streaming appliance (MVTP) share recent developments for each platform. The presentation will include the recent release of LOLA v1.5.0, new features and a look to the future of LOLA v2.0 and multisite functionally. Milos Liska will lead a walkthrough of the new Ultragrid graphical user interface, which opens of the application to less experienced users. Sven Ubik will share the most recent work with the MVTP appliance with a live demonstration of the technology in action.
Claudio is one of the world leaders in this field, and one of the inventors/developers of LOLA (background presentation about LOLA). Today’s presentation is to update the community on the technological advances in the new version LOLA v1.5.0. [JB comment – the tech developments are remarkable, including fast JPEG compression and 120FPS video support – which I find astounding in an internet-based video service, let alone one where super low latencies are crucial].