Friday, February 08, 2008

Day 22 "In the trenches" (viral-video edition)

Friday--meetings, guest lecture, a bunch of administrativa. Dharmonia still out of town, but there's a pub session tonight, which I look forward to: it's a risk ever seeking to predict when a session will be good or not, as it's unpredictable and misleading, but some nights you know that you're looking forward to seeing your friends and having some tunes.

Next weekend is the huge gathering-of-the-tribes for Texas music educators in San Antonio--simultaneous with the conference in Albuquerque where I usually chair panels but have this year deputized a couple of trusted grad students. Need to make sure both my ABQ and SA panels are workable, in place, and have what they need.

But also, because I'll be out of town next weekend, this weekend has to be at least a jump-start on some of our new marketing initiatives for the Research Center. Our Uni has an iTunes University portal (spot on iTunes where universities participating can upload free content, whether pedagogical, informational, or promotional, or a combination of all three) and is launching a YouTube site. Likewise, there are a million different ways that similar content (audio and video podcasts, slideshows, etc) can be hosted and employed for purposes of student recruitment. Such recruitment is always a high priority for any Music program, and any new (and cheap) marketing modes we can discover are valuable and welcomed. As is often the case, the Marketing and Technology folks on this campus are very positive about the initiative, and have put all the necessary mechanisms in place--but they can't produce the content, that's not their role.

On the other, we over in Music (and Theater, and Dance, and Art) produce content all day long: every performance, every rehearsal, to say nothing of the master-classes, lectures, and private lessons. So the bottleneck is to find some way of turning that raw content (played or presented live, for live audiences, and then disappearing into the ether) into a material object, or at least bits and bytes, that can be reproduced, shared, uploaded, posted, streamed, archived, and generally "viral'd" out there into the Web. We're working on a pilot production right now, "Voices of the Research Center," aimed at matriculating high-school juniors and seniors who are looking for college programs.

So we go out to the students who are currently members of our various programs (Bachelor of Arts with Traditional Music concentration), the Master's Ethno and Musicology candidates, the Ph.D. Fine Arts (Musicology) candidates, and we put them in front of the camera. Prospective candidates don't need to see me pontificate--maybe a voice-over, or a friendly "there's a place here for you, too!" message--but rather, they need to see young people about whom the candidate could say "hey, they're like me! I could do that!" Young people shopping for a college situation don't want to be told "Hey, kid, here's what you should do with your life"; rather, they want to be shown "Hey, there's somebody doing something with her life that I could imagine doing with mine."

So we got three of our MUBA students (Irish fiddle, Irish fiddle/medieval music, hand-drumming) into my office, and turned on the cameras, and said "tell us what brought you here and what keeps you here." And responses were, for me, tremendously moving:

Because I remember eight years ago, right around this time, completing the application materials for this gig, one of which was the (commonly-requested) Statement of Purpose. But in this particular version, it asked me to address, in addition to more immediate teaching and research goals, a five- or ten-year plan for research. As I wasn't convinced I wanted the gig at all (or rather, I wanted the gig, but in a way more salubrious place), I figured I might as well shoot-the-moon and actually tell them what I wanted. So, as part of that five- (or eight-, or ten-, or whatever the hell it was) year plan, I said that I wanted to be the director of a research institute dedicated to study, teaching, and advocacy on behalf of the world's vernacular musics.

I figured "what the hell?" I didn't think it would actually happen, or that the idea would resonate with the powers-that-be, but--just as I wore the earrings and the long hair to the interview, and talked about vernacular music, and improvisation, and wanting to continue to be a player and recording artist even after I took an academic gig--I couldn't see the point of trying to blow smoke.

The end result was that I was shocked, during my meeting with the search committee, and again with the School's Director, when both parties asked me "so what about this Vernacular Music Center? It sounds like a really interesting idea--tell us more." So I pretty much pulled a description out of my ass: talked about advocacy, and the high art and practical social value of learning about other cultures' musics, and my conviction that studying, playing, and teaching these musics could all exist under one roof. And in both situations, the people on the other side of the desk said "that sounds like a great idea; how can we help you go forward with that?"

And then when they hired me, they said "start putting 'Vernacular Music Center' on every project or initiative you undertake that you think can qualify. Build a paper trail." So each year, whatever the event (big or little, complex or off-the-cuff), I'd either say or print "A production of the Vernacular Music Center."

And at the third-year review, they said "how can we help you do more with the VMC? There's almost no money, but you managed to make this Celtic Christmas work. Can you add a concert series?" And in the fourth year they said "We have this Bachelor of Arts degree that kind of falls between two stools--do you want to be the adviser?"

And I started talking with undergraduate students who wanted to be double-majors, or wanted to start studying as music history majors at the undergraduate level, or who wanted to study a music that didn't fall under the rubric of the typical conservatory's classical/jazz dichotomy. And I went to the then-undergraduate director, and said, "Is there any reason that we can't use the flexibility of this degree to let somebody study a vernacular music tradition?" And she, bless her heart and brains (doctorate in percussion and a steel-pan specialist), said "nope, there's no reason we can't do that."

Four years later we've got a whole class of undergrad MUBA's specializing in world traditions, and the first one, Taiyo, who blazed the trail for all of them, is graduating and heading off to a Master's program in medieval studies.

It's remarkable, and I can't really recall just how it happened (and I damned sure didn't envision this as a cogent plan--more just some long-term goals and some general cross-country orienteering toward those goals), but eight years after those initial pull-'em-out-of-my-ass brainstorms, we're graduating 4-year undergrad BA's who specialize in Irish fiddle.

I was proud of, and touched by, the eloquence with which those young women spoke about the meaning to them of what we do here.

Below the jump: His Highness stalking--and then streaking--toward the back door.

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