on a Conference

Added on by Taylor Smith.

I was invited to speak at the Music Association of California Community Colleges (say that ten times fast) 2017 conference in November. This year’s conference is in San Francisco.

As a “musicologist”—that is what my college degrees say I am, at least—I am supposed to try to publish articles and make contributions to the field. People with PhDs are supposed to submit papers to journals and thereby bring their academic discipline a little closer to understanding the world. As I have mentioned before, I just don’t find most of that very interesting.

I do, however, enjoy speaking at conferences. In the realm of academic meaningfulness, speaking carries less weight than publishing. But, it’s better than nothing. I have spoken at at least one music-related conference every year over the past several; should I ever get an itch to move into “higher” academia (outside the community colleges), those talks will give me something to point to as evidence of my academic chops.

When the MACCC folks sent out their Call for Presentations, they specifically mentioned that they were interested in hearing about things relating to popular/contemporary music. They also said something like, “Tell us interesting and innovative things you are doing at your college!” Methought, “I am doing something innovative and interesting with popular music at my college!” (at least think I am).

For those unfamiliar: I direct a pop-music ensemble, called the Rock, Pop, and Soul Ensemble. We offer an AA/transfer program in Music Industry Studies. As this is a music degree, those in this program are required to perform just like any other music major. But, since this is a degree focused on the music industry (meaning it’s primarily about pop music), it seems necessary that the college have a pop-music ensemble. Hence the RPSE.

I took over directing the group in 2012. Before me, the group usually did concerts that were kind of like “greatest hits” shows revolving around a topic (e.g. pop vs. punk, or metal vs. Motown). I can see the value in this, but I wanted to take the group in a different direction.

Thinking about what to do with the group, I decided to treat the class a bit more like the way one might treat a symphony orchestra or choir: a performing group that focuses on the “great works” written for that ensemble. Orchestras play Mozart, Beethoven, and Brahms; choirs sing Palestrina, Bach, and Schubert; therefore, a pop-music ensemble would perform The Beatles, Pink Floyd, and Michael Jackson. And, since orchestras usually play entire symphonies (the “complete” work), pop-music ensembles should perform entire albums. Not just any albums, of course: only those generally considered the “great” ones.

Given the fact that I was knee deep in my dissertation when I took over, the first album we tried was The Beach Boys’/Brian Wilson’s SMiLE. In hindsight, that was a dumb idea; it was way too hard and I didn’t yet have the directing chops to help us figure it out. At the end of the semester, I had the students help me pick the next semester’s repertoire; we settled on Rubber Soul.

Rubber Soul, for a variety of reasons, was an easier project. After that, we did Rumours, and I added a few extra songs from the same year in order to get the students to see a little bit of the diversity in music at that time. Since that time, we have played Speaking in Tongues (Talking Heads), Odelay (Beck), A’ Go-Go (The Supremes), Dark Side of the Moon(Pink Floyd), Thriller (Michael Jackson), August and Everything After (Counting Crows), Abbey Road (The Beatles), Ziggy Stardust (David Bowie), Synchronicity (The Police), and (this semester) The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill (Lauryn Hill).

Though I may be out-of-the-know, I think this is an innovative—perhaps even unique—approach to the emerging field of college-level popular music ensembles.

If you happen to be in San Francisco on November 18, and listening to me rattle on about what we are up tochez Cuyamaca, I will hook you up with a front row seat. If coming to our concert is more your thing, come see us perform on November 27!