Ethnomusicology class provides unique perspective

April 26, 2012
Contact: Chloe Kennedy, News and New Media Writer
865.981.8209; chloe.kennedy@maryvillecollege.edu

Sometimes to really understand musicians in their cultural context, you have to go out into the field.

That’s exactly what Dr. Sheri Matascik asked her students to do last semester, during her Music 315: Introduction to Ethnomusicology class.

Ethnomusicology is the study of music in its cultural setting, according to Matascik, associate professor of music at Maryville College. She admits that it’s difficult to define, since many ethnomusicologists disagree on the definition.

“It’s the study of music and culture as a symbiotic experience – you can’t have one without the other,” she said. “You understand the music through the culture from which it originates.”

Matascik’s course offers “a study of non-art musics to the world from an ethnomusicological perspective” and introduces students to “basic ethnomusicological concepts and methods, including fieldwork, transcription and analysis,” according to the course description.

The course is a fairly new one at Maryville College. A similar course, Music 311, was previously offered and taught by Professor of Music Dr. Robert Bonham, but it focused more on non-West music, she said. When Bonham retired in 2006, discussions were held about continuing the course, and Matascik, who minored in ethnomusicology and conducted fieldwork while pursuing her Ph.D. in music theory and composition, was the obvious choice for teaching it.

“I am very interested in how music works in its cultural context, and that’s what ethnomusicology is all about – it’s a look at music that’s totally different than the way we look at music in all of our other courses,” Matascik explained. “In ethnomusicology, it’s about ‘What does this music do, how does it function in the culture, or how does this music create culture among this group of people?’ It’s a lot closer to anthropology study than it is to the other music history courses, which are all about the Western classical canon in music – and this one’s not.”

The class, which is one of the four required courses in the area of music history, fulfills the College’s National Association of Schools in Music accreditation requirement in that it “teaches students about cultures different from their own in music terms and offers an experience in music that is not their home music,” Matascik said. The class is also open to non-music majors, she said, noting that it is a great choice for students who are interested in subjects such as anthropology or any kind of cultural study.

For music majors, Matascik said the class is important because it offers perspective.

“I think we spend a lot of time on the classical canon, which is what a music education is about – the world of classical music,” she said. “We also study jazz music and perform jazz music here, as well as popular genres at times. The perspective that’s key to ethnomusicology study is the idea that every culture in the world creates something like music. Some cultures don’t have a word for it that’s like music, and this course exposes the ethno classes to that fact – and gets them thinking about music as a worldwide phenomenon – as something that is a major portion of life on earth. It’s everywhere. It’s not an extra.”

Matascik said the course is unlike any other music course at the College. Her class of 17 students spent the beginning of the semester reading scholarly articles about ethnomusicology, which covered the definition of ethnomusicology, how it works intellectually and how to prepare for fieldwork in ethnomusicology.

She then assigned three “mini fieldwork” experiences. Two of the experiences required students to go to a music venue, as well as a non-music venue where they thought they would hear music, and observe. The third one required students to work on their interviewing skills by interviewing each other. During those interviews, students discovered similar interests and formed fieldwork teams. After they submitted preliminary proposals, Matascik sent them out into the field for five weeks.

Matascik met with each team four times during the fieldwork period, gave individualized instruction based on the topic the group was investigating and made herself available to help students if needed.

“They felt a sense of independence, which I wanted them to have, but I also wanted them to feel like they could come to me,” she said.

During the last two weeks of the semester, the class reconvened, each team gave a project presentation, and the class voted on the top three projects. Projects, most of which were presented in video format, tackled the following subjects: how musicians learn music by ear; how bluegrass musicians learn and how they form groups; the marching band experience; church music and whether the type of music that is played is determined by the sect of the church; a look at local band Pistol Creek Catch of the Day; drag culture; jazz music; and a look at communication between band members.

“It was a really good selection of projects,” Matascik said. “It’s neat for me, because I learn a lot every semester. The kinds of lessons that I learn at this point mostly have to do with teaching. How could I say that better? How could I do that so the student feels in charge? How do I step back from a situation better?”

“Jazz Matters”

One of the top three projects was “Jazz Matters” with the Knoxville Jazz Orchestra. The project was completed by Kevin Krapf, a senior who is pursuing a bachelor of arts degree in music, and Tori Watkins, a junior who is majoring in music education with teacher licensure.

Their video project “explores and exposes” three members of the Knoxville Jazz Orchestra – bassist Rusty Holloway, trumpet player and band director Vance Thompson and pianist Bill Swann.

“We explore some topics about how jazz relates to society today and ask the players how people can become more receptive to jazz or at least appreciate it for what it really is," Krapf said. “The main recurring sentiment between all of the interviewees is you have to see it live and professionally played– that seemed to be a big part of understanding and enjoying jazz.”

Krapf and Watkins made a good team for the project. Krapf, an aspiring drummer, already had some knowledge of jazz, so he was able to get to know some of Knoxville’s best jazz players and learn about their music, as well as their personal views.

"All three musicians had different preferences and philosophies about jazz music, but they all were united in their love for playing it," Krapf said. “It was a different way to integrate me into that community. And it was fun.”

Watkins, who was not as knowledgeable about the genre when they started the project, had the opportunity to “learn about jazz, period.”

“The first time I really listened to it was during the rehearsal that we recorded, and it was amazing,” Watkins said. “I came into it expecting to learn how jazz works, and I actually learned about people’s passion for jazz and how you can use it.”

Both team members said the project helped improve their interviewing skills, as well as their technical skills, and they enjoyed having the opportunity to apply what they learned.

“That’s the good part about this course that you don’t get with other courses – you have to go out and actually do the things you talk about,” Krapf said.

Another winning project was “Drag Culture: Music and How We Define Our Identity” by Ashley Abbott, a senior who is majoring in music education with teacher licensure, and Celeste De La Rosa, a junior who is pursuing a bachelor of arts degree in music.

For their video project, Abbott and De La Rosa looked at the local drag community and how music plays a role in drag culture. They selected the topic because they both had an interest in the LGBT community.

“It’s been very hard for members of that community, especially in drag culture, because they’re stereotyped a lot, and we wanted to bring the subject of the drag community to light,” De La Rosa said.

While conducting fieldwork, the team encountered challenges, including gaining trust and developing a rapport with interview subjects. De La Rosa said it was important to make sure interviewees were comfortable and aware of what they were doing – and that they knew they were not being exploited.

“It’s really hard if they don’t know you to feel like they can share personal stories,” Abbott said.

In their conclusions, Abbott and De La Rosa said they initially assumed that music was the key component of unification for drag culture.

“But as with any culture, it is really a compilation of many histories and experiences,” they wrote. “While music plays a role that is essential to drag as we experience it today, it has not always been that way. Today, music has become a tool and a part of the uniform for the characters projected by the performers. Ultimately, music helps to portray the ideals and goals of drag: entertainment, awareness and freedom of expression.”

Both team members agreed that the project has applications beyond the classroom.

“It really reinforced and solidified the idea of music as a universal language,” Abbott said.

De La Rosa described the project as “an incredible experience.”

“You can learn anything out of a book and have the knowledge, but having the experience is completely different – it makes you feel more involved in your own learning,” she said.

The final winning project was “Experimental Sound: A Look at Communication Between Band Members” by Colton McNabb, a junior who is pursuing a bachelor of arts degree in music, and Patrick Dalton, a senior who is pursuing a bachelor of arts degree in music.

For their video project, McNabb and Dalton focused on a local band to learn how band members communicate.

“We wanted to take a look at a band in its beginning stages,” McNabb said. “We wanted to take a look at the steps from the ground up and see what’s important to keep in mind when you’re forming a band and learn how band members operate together.”

The band featured in the project, which McNabb describes as having a “blues, rock, progressive, funk and avant-garde” style, was selected by the team because the band was relatively new.

“I wanted to find a new group that was going to come up with something different that people might not have ever heard of or something that people could really get a hold on, which is why I wanted to start with a newer band,” McNabb said.

While conducting their fieldwork, McNabb and Dalton learned not only the importance of selecting the right band members, but they learned that establishing a common ground between band members is crucial.

“It’s the foundation for coming up with music ideas and then communicating them,” the team wrote in the project conclusions.

McNabb and Dalton said they were pleased with how the project turned out, and they enjoyed the course’s unconventional approach.

“You have to make your own road map - you have an idea of where you want to go with the project and what you want it to look like, and you have to figure out how to make it work,” Dalton said. “I loved the process – I’ve never had a music class that has allowed me to be as artistic with a project as I have in this class.”

Dalton, who plays guitar, said the project has also helped him become a better musician.

“Over the course of the semester, I started to really believe that I can play with other musicians on the spot, knowing that I can collaborate with musicians using the things I’ve learned in this study to help me become a better musician,” he said.


Maryville College is ideally situated in Maryville, Tenn., between the Great Smoky Mountains National Park and Knoxville, the state's third largest city. Founded in 1819, it is the 12th oldest institution of higher learning in the South and maintains an affiliation with the Presbyterian Church (USA). Known for offering its students a rigorous and highly personal experience that includes an undergraduate research requirement, Maryville College is a nationally ranked institution of higher learning that successfully joins the liberal arts and professional preparation. Total enrollment for the fall 2013 semester is 1,168.