Faculty scholarship

04/29/2016

Professor develops gender and culturally neutral music text

As the father of two daughters and the son of a woman who was “not quite a feminist but who was insistent on things changing,” Dr. Peter Terry, music department chair and associate professor of music and information technology, is changing the way music has been traditionally taught.

Frustrated by the classical approach to teaching music theory— one filled with Bach and other white, European composers— Terry began developing a new music theory text for Bluffton University. He is now designing the text for first-year students to be gender and culturally neutral. That means Terry is intentionally including non-classical pieces, world music and the works of female composers.

“We need to diversify the academy. There’s a lot of talk about developing the curriculum of the 21st Century. But we’re still using the same resources we always have,” said Terry. “How do you get students to care about things like music composition, if they cannot see themselves in it?”

Terry was able to fund some of the text development through a Bluffton University Research Center (BURC) grant which was awarded in the summer of 2015. The text is still a work in progress, but he is already incorporating the gender and culturally inclusive ideas into his teaching. For example, Terry routinely gives listening tests where students must identify the title and composer of ten songs. The students must then choose one of the composers or performers from the list to research.

“What I noticed was, when I put women on the lists, the female students gravitated towards the women and wanted to analyze their music and learn more about them,” said Terry. “Now, the women in the class are more vocal, more excited about doing these listening tests.”

Terry has incorporated the works of Clara Schumann and Fanny Mendelssohn-Hensel, both 19th Century German musicians and composers, into his lessons. Mendelssohn-Hensel is the older sister of Felix Mendelssohn, and many of her compositions were originally published under Felix’s name because of gender bias.

“Finding women composers is much more difficult. It is much easier in pop than in classical music, but as I go, I’m starting to think more creatively,” said Terry

Listening tests range the gamut of musical styles from classical to heavy metal to jazz. One test featured female guitarists including Joan Jett and Orianthi.

Terry will use many of the same ideas when he teaches electronic music composition this summer at the Interlochen Center for the Arts in Traverse City, Mich. He teaches both intermediate (grades 6-9) and high school (grades 9-12) students and notices a major shift between the two age brackets.

“Within the students in grades six through nine, there is parity between boys and girls, but in high school, all of the girls disappear,” said Terry. “This just shows we need role models for the girls. They need mentors.”

And while much of his work is currently focused on gender, Terry is also working on being culturally inclusive by exposing students to new sounds. For example, he will play two versions of “Shake, Rattle and Roll” to students. The original is by Big Joe Turner and his band of black, R&B musicians, while Bill Haley and the Comets, a white band from the 1950s, popularized the song. Another example is Judy Garland’s well-known version of “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” and comparing it to Hawaiian musician Israel Kamakawiwo’ole version featuring a ukulele.

The ideas seem simple, but it is an immense undertaking considering the pushback from purists of classical music and the slowness of real change In fact, the premier orchestra in the world, the Vienna Philharmonic, didn’t accept women to permanent membership until 1997 and resisted the membership of non-Europeans even later. But for Terry, “it just seems time.”

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Dr. Peter Terry
There’s a lot of talk about developing the curriculum of the 21st Century. But we’re still using the same resources we always have. How do you get students to care about things like music composition, if they cannot see themselves in it?”
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