Symbiosis in Music

Doctoral seminar in musicology fosters community engagement projects for music students.

The doctoral seminar, conducted at Central United Methodist Church in downtown Lansing, included participants from the congregation.

While research papers have their place, Marcie Ray is always looking for new methods to put musicology into context. She found one through community engagement.

During Fall Semester 2016, the assistant professor of musicology in the MSU College of Music challenged students in her doctoral seminar to apply what they learned in a setting outside the classroom. Her suggestion? A community engagement project in which students enlisted the help and resources of local businesses or organizations. The result? A range of innovative projects, including one that questioned the essence of what it means to be musical by taking an inclusive approach and examining the point-of-view of non-musicians in the community.

“One particular group invited others outside of campus to answer the question ‘what is a musical person?’” Ray explains. “They posed the idea that if we, as people, question musicality, then we can come to understand that we are all innately musical and empowered to be part of the musical experience.”

Eight doctoral students from a diverse range of musical disciplines collaborated on the project that examined how non-musicians perceive the idea of musicality, and how those perceptions might change when exposed to different activities. About 20 participants age 15 to 85 were asked to take part in a short session that included a pre-survey to assess their backgrounds; interactive exercises that involved listening to, improvising and creating music; and a post survey to measure changes in perceptions.

“Several participants initially said, ‘well, I listen to music and I used to have some musical experience, but I wouldn’t consider myself a musician or very musical at all,’” says William Sutton, a doctoral student in music performance who was part of the group. “But after the session, their perceptions changed. We found they took more ownership of the musical process and felt more a part of the musical experience.”

Alyssa Cossey, a DMA student in choral conducting and group member, arranged with the Central United Methodist Church in downtown Lansing to use their meeting space, as well as to recruit participants from their congregation. The group of students also recruited participants through targeted social media posts.

“One of the most surprising things was that people sometimes saw themselves as musical but not a musician,” says Cossey. “Our goal was to help dispel the notion that only highly trained people can make music, feel music, or be a musical person.”

Both Sutton and Cossey agreed that the community engagement project was interesting both for the perceptions they uncovered as well as for the insights they and group members gleaned on teaching and interacting with audiences. The project, they said, got them thinking more about how to engage audiences and how to build confidence and a sense of inclusion in the non-musically trained.

“For me, the biggest takeaway is realizing the community service aspect of what we do,” says Cossey. “It’s not our job to simply take our art form and give it to people through performance. It’s also to share in music making and to learn as much from our audience as they do from us. Music is really much more symbiotic than we think.”

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