As a student at East Tennessee State University, I am very aware of the soundscape that surrounds my place in the Bluegrass, Old Time, and Country Music Studies program. There is a great deal of music going on at any given time within the small focus of Sam Wilson Hall and Brooks Memorial Gym, and the numerous students within this department frequently are found learning through performing for crowds, jamming with peers, and practicing alone. From an ethnomusicologist’s standpoint, I feel that there are several fascinating case studies waiting to be explored within this microcosm of the university, and I came across one that had a great deal of importance to me and my own playing, as well as many others.
When I had been in this program for about a year, I was approached to see if I was interested in playing in a Celtic band. This was somewhat unusual at the time, since I was attending the university for the purposes of studying bluegrass music, and most bluegrass musicians did not cross into this other genre. I accepted the offer, and in order to become more adept at this style which I was so keen to study, I took a semester’s worth of lessons with Jane MacMorran. In one of these particular lessons down in the individual instruction suite in Sam Wilson, I realized that I was sounding too much like a bluegrass fiddler, and asked my teacher to help me with this conundrum. As Jane patiently showed me how the bowing and ornamentation differed from the styles that I was used to playing, I hit upon the realization that I had a great deal to learn not only to develop my skills as a bluegrass fiddler, but also as a Celtic musician. I tried unsuccessfully several times to correctly copy the snippet of the tune that she was showing me, and finally, after thinking more critically about my technique, I was able to execute it to both of our satisfaction. After the lesson was over, I went to take another class, but I wasn’t satisfied. I decided to make sure that I truly had a good grasp on this technique, and I went back yet again to the individual instruction suites to practice it. I performed it over and over again until I was able to get through the part without making a mistake or lapsing into my old cross-genre habits, and as I did so, I was aware that I was being watched. Although I didn’t realize it at the time, I found out later that Will and Jane MacMorran were listening to my practicing, and determined to place me in the Celtic Pride Band. Despite the fact that others then took this simple act of musical exploration and discouraged me strongly from entering into this field of bimusicality, stating that it would not help my career at all, I felt that it was a valuable and worthwhile pursuit to enable me to better understand other musical styles and musicians.
This self-awareness of my own grappling with cross-genre explorations has spawned some reflections on the struggles with bimusicality that ETSU students face. Interestingly, I have observed three particular observations on this matter. Firstly, many of the students that study bimusicality do so within a small area of Sam Wilson Hall. Secondly, they usually practice within these rooms in the suites by themselves, rather than engaging in jamming in the lounge with their peers to learn their craft more fully. Thirdly, these two facts are interestingly tied into ethnographic research that has been conducted on the use of musical practice rooms and the concept of solo practice in a way that constructs a separate social identity…the “social” norm for these students to learn is to take information from their teachers, and then “asocially” perfect it by themselves.
I look to further examine this interesting facet of social and musical construct in my final project, which will examine the soundscapes of the Sam Wilson individual instruction suites and the situation of bimusicality within them.