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From Bluegrass to Beyonce, American Music Concentration Aims for a Wide Audience

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For those with an interest in music and the communities and society that give it context, there is a new interdisciplinary concentration available this year in American Music. The concentration draws from a diverse set of classes and faculty in, among others, Music, English, History, Sociology and Anthropology, American Studies and Women’s and Gender Studies departments.

Andy Flory, Assistant Professor of Music and a specialist in American music, said about the concentration, “it [wasn’t] a real stretch. In the music department, we offer a lot of courses on American music. We have for a long time. It’s a historical strength of the department.”

American music classes have not only been a strength, but remain consistently popular among students with and without backgrounds in music theory or practice. Flory and Melinda Russell, the Chair of Music and Director of the concentration, respectively, noticed that many students were “repeat customers” to their classes.

Even while majoring or double majoring in departments that often weren’t music, these students were committed to the study of music history—they just didn’t have a recognized way to show it.

“There was a vitality to those students that we felt we wanted to seize upon…and galvanize,” Flory said. Flory and Russell discussed the topic for some time, and eventually realized that a specialized concentration would be a perfect fit.

Concentrations, loosely like minors at other colleges, are meant to focus specifically on issues that cross the boundaries of academic disciplines. With the addition of American Music, there are now 16 interdisciplinary concentrations, including such fields as Archaeology, Neuroscience, and South Asian Studies.

The professors had to work hard to make the con- centration official, and the formal process took about a year from start to finish.

They worked with the Education and Curriculum Committee, made up of both faculty and students, which forced them to think critically about the concentration and refine its structure.

This was purportedly the most difficult part of the process, but also one of the most rewarding.

Despite the difficulties, Flory never lost hope in the concentration or the process, because it wasn’t he and Russell “trying to serve our own needs. It really was us trying to galvanize the student interest that was potential and already there for further involvement.”

In final presentations to the full faculty, several students spoke on why they were passionate and interested. These students were deliberately of different majors and interests in order to represent those expected to concentrate.

Although only one new class—the gateway course titled America’s Music—was created specifically for the concentration, the defined existence of the program is important for students.

Abby Easton ’16, an American Studies major, plans to declare the concentration “so I can take the classes I love, and it can count for something. More than that, it’s a process that I can go through. There is a cohesive story of taking these classes.”

This important framework was discussed by Flory as well, and will give students more guidance and support in their interest in American Music.

Students may declare American Music as a concentration this spring, and the Class of 2016 will be the first graduating class of concentrators. The required courses include the gateway course, as well as five courses distributed among the following subgroups: “Developing Critical Perspectives,” “The Soundtracks of America” and “Sights of the American Soundtrack.” The first and third subgroups take students beyond explicit music study and into the contexts of music creation.

The final requirement, a rotating capstone seminar, brings together all of the concentrating students into one class. Both Eaton and Flory cite this as one of the aspects of the concentration about which they are most excited, because they believe it will join together a diverse community of students with an interest in American Music and demonstrate the power of their community.

“There are a lot of people who have taken these music history classes for fun because they’re interesting, but don’t necessarily have a background in music composition or theory,” Easton said.

Easton has explored many options relating to music and music history, but ultimately does not know what she’ll do with her concentration—and she is okay with that. The classes offered to help her to identify a “lens through which we can interpret broader societal movements or ways of thought,” which she finds fascinating.

Ultimately, though, she said, “I like being around music. It just makes me happy,” and she hopes students like her can find concentration and participate in the events that can now occur more often because of it.

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