An Interview with Juliet Hess

from MasonARC’s Interview Blog Series: The Impact of Covid-19 on Arts Programing, Practice, and Research


Tevis Tucker: Tell me a little bit about your background with music education and music research.

Juliet Hess (Associate Professor of Music Education, Michigan State University): I grew up in a musical family that had a White middle-class background, which made music a very reasonable path for me growing up. I went to school for music education and fell in love with most of my education courses. Taking the course “African Drumming and Dancing” was a very formative experience for me and my relationship with music education. The course really just focused on the Ewe music of Ghana but the name made it seem like it would be representative of the entire continent of Africa, which is symptomatic of the way non-Western musics are treated in music institutions. Experiences like these really became the catalyst for the next 15-20 years of my work in a lot of ways.

I started to think critically about the ethics of world-music study, how we can do this in a way that is not appropriative, and how we can do this in a way that is reciprocal. I spent a lot of time in my own classroom thinking about how to make the music we played feel connected to its original epistemological context, and debunking any stereotypes that were held about those contexts. I soon realized, though, that I had no idea if I was accomplishing any of those things, leading me into my master’s work where I got to interview the kids and find out what they were actually getting out of these experiences with drumming. This was a cool project that became my introduction to research. My doctoral work built off this by looking at the role anti-racist and social justice work could play in music pedagogy—specifically looking at how teachers that are already doing this work approached this within their own classrooms.

Currently, largely because of the converging crises we are confronting during this moment, I am wrestling with ways I can step into more of a supporting role within critical race work at this time. I think that there are plenty of people who are far more equipped to lead this work, and I am not convinced that my voice should be the loudest by any stretch of the imagination. I think the Covid-19 pandemic has exacerbated so many of the racial injustices we have seen by tenfold. In terms of who is dying, who is getting sick, and who is vaccine hesitant with good reason—there are so many things that have happened during this pandemic to worsen everything that was already wrong. Even though I am trying to step back into more of a supporting role, I am finding this so difficult to do when so much is not right in the world.

Tevis: Yes—one thing I would like you to speak more on is the various identities within the larger arts ecosystem that you bring into your work. You are a music educator/practitioner, researcher, and activist. What do you see as your main role and, as you mentioned, how have you seen your roles shift during the Covid-19 pandemic?

Juliet: I am predominantly a teacher. My history with teaching is long, and this identity is definitely strongest and really at the center of everything I do. All my other identities fit within my identity as a teacher. When I perform or do performance-related things, I feel like that might create a brief moment for the people in the room, but it does not have the long-term impact that I feel teaching does.

For my researcher identity, I feel that it is also strong, but I struggle with it in a lot of ways. Given that my doctoral work was actually in sociology and equity studies, there is a lot I want to write about that has nothing to do with music, and this tension is at the heart of my activist identity. When I am working within music, I am always trying to make connections and figure out how these processes are all operating with one another, which is cool but challenging. So, my researcher identity is strong, but it is not nearly as strong as my teaching identity.

Tevis: With teaching being this powerful, impactful aspect of music education, what has that looked like with a year plus online due to Covid-19? I am interested in your personal experiences with the move to virtual teaching, and any challenges or successes you may have encountered with it along the way.

Juliet: So, at 11 a.m. on March 11th, 2020, we got an email saying that everything would be going online at 12 p.m. Everything happened so quickly. Fortunately, though, I do not usually teach performance-based music classes. At the time things went online, I was teaching a sophomore principles class in music education, which is mostly discussion-based. I was also teaching a sociology class at the graduate level, which was mostly seminar-style. So having them on Zoom was not ideal, but it was definitely doable. I read the course evaluations that semester very carefully, even though they were mostly positive, because I wanted to know how that experience was for the students. You are never really sure how a shift in medium like that will work out.

And then for Fall 2020, we were supposed to be in-person up until a couple of days before the semester, but then they had to move everything online. That semester, I taught secondary methods for general music, which involves drumming and ukulele as well as interdisciplinary work with teaching segments for the class. So, instead of doing peer teaching that we would typically do, I had them do flipped classroom videos as if they were going to also be teaching online—which they very well may have to do for their future student teaching. This seemed to work well, and we also were able to share a lot of technology tricks with one another throughout the process.

One of the big projects I usually like doing for this class is a “classroom instruments” cover version of big hit songs, like what Jimmy Fallon and The Roots like to do on The Tonight Show. For this semester, I tried to have them use the Acapella app so that they could still have that experience, but all the technological complications really took away from the point of the exercise. For Fall 2021, I will definitely revise and rethink how I approach that project if we are online again.

For Spring 2021, I co-taught an interdisciplinary songwriting course, which was really interesting to have online. We created interesting music throughout, but Zoom fatigue, students getting Covid, and the inability to have our traditional “open mic nights” really got in the way of a lot of the typical experiences. I feel like it must be so tough being an undergraduate right now.

Tevis: I am also interested in your opinion on the current state of music education post-Covid more broadly, beyond your personal transition to online. In a year without as much collective in-person “musicking,” both inside and outside of schools, what do you think the long-term implications of this are? What does this mean for the students?

Juliet: I mean, I am really hopeful in a lot of ways, actually. This year we lost the “ensemble paradigm” in a lot of ways. To me, one of the biggest things holding back creativity within music education is the ensemble paradigm. Just because we have a model does not mean we have to be restricted by it. This year, there were so many teachers in impossible circumstances who did so many beautiful and creative things this year in terms of songwriting, improvisation, etc. Covid really made us have to imagine our way outside of that box, and it will be interesting to see what happens now that teachers and students have had those experiences. I hope that we will be able to keep some of what we have learned as we move into a post-Covid world.

So much of my work centers songwriting. In my book (Music Education for Social Change: Constructing an Activist Music Education; Routledge, 2019), 18 of the 20 activist-musicians I interviewed voiced that they believe that songwriting should be a core part of any music education curriculum. I saw a lot of people trying out songwriting this year, and I am excited to see that. Songwriting in schools gives youth a platform to say what is on their mind and to challenge things that are going on around them.

In the current time period we are living in—with Covid, racism, police brutality, climate change, and the other converging crises we face—there is so much to talk about and none of it is simple. I feel that music provides a good way to work through these difficult conversations in ways that language alone cannot. I think everybody uses music to get through tough times, and we are currently going through an extremely tough time. I think this powerful aspect of music could also be a main part of music education.

Tevis: Agreed. This now starts to bring us into your research and into the realm of activist music education. Beyond the promising signs from songwriting, what else do you think is missing within music education? In what other ways is music education a potential vehicle forward for helping kids “imagine a different possible future,” as you have written about recently.

Juliet: I think music just does so much. Something, from Christopher Small, that I have been writing about for years is about how music is a human practice. But in music education, music is often divorced from its context and, for any variety of reasons, there is a lot of pressure on teachers to do a lot of performance-based things.

The contextualization is often seen as taking time away from performance, but we have broken that mold this year—all the sudden there is time to do these kinds of investigations with the students. I think if we take the time and really think about all the implications that revolve around the fact that music is a uniquely human activity, and understanding why that is, it will become clear that a change to music’s curriculum is clearly needed.

Music can help connect people who do not know each other, but yet will be able to show them their shared humanity. In addition, so much music has emerged from struggle and engaging with music that has emerged from struggle helps you recognize strengths and resilience that different groups have shown over the years.

We are living in a society that is incredibly polarized and that targets minoritized groups across all identity spectrums. But music can teach us about humanity—about one another. I want to be in a world where that is how we teach music education. I cannot think of a thing that is more important in U.S. society right now than recognizing the humanity of all people.

With the recent attacks on teaching critical race theory in schools, which most schools are not actually teaching, this heavily relates to what we can do in the music classroom. In my book, I talk about a “pedagogy of noticing,” which teaches students how to think critically about the world. Whether critical race theory is taught in schools or not, we need students who can think critically—to be able to challenge things that are put in front of them. I have worked with enough young people to know that fostering critical questioning is absolutely possible inside a music classroom. We need more of that in society, not less.

Tevis: Yeah—I could not agree more with everything you said. I wanted to circle back now to an earlier discussion we were having about the different identities you bring with you into music education. Given you inhabit roles as both an educator and a researcher, I think you have a unique opportunity to give your commentary on how this relationship functions now. What is the role of research to a music educator? What does this relationship currently look like? What should it look like?

Juliet: In a lot of ways, I think this relationship is broken. There is a major theory-to-practice gap. Academics ideally have the space and time to read, and that makes us responsible for sharing what we learn with others. It is up to academics to make our work more accessible. This is actually something that I am working on right now within my own work.

During my book project, one of the most common things I heard was that teachers need a curriculum addressing these issues that they can take into the classroom. I am trying to work on that right now, and I am almost finished writing it. There are three pedagogies in my book, the pedagogy of community, the pedagogy of expression, and the pedagogy of noticing—each of these deserve their own respective curriculums.

I do not want there to be a theory-to-practice gap, but there very much is one—but each individual researcher can do their part to help bridge that gap and translate the theory into a language that makes sense when used in practice.

Tevis: That is all great information. For my final question, I wanted to shift into discussing what was the catalyst that moved you to write your book—the murder of Michael Brown in 2014. With the re-emergence of calls for racial and social justice emerging last summer (2020) with the murder of George Floyd, all while coinciding with the Covid-19 pandemic, I was interested in your thoughts on what, if any, progress has been made within that time span. What have you seen that has changed for the better, where have we taken steps back, and how does music education fit within all of this?

Juliet: The impetus for my book was very much the murder of Michael Brown in August of 2014. I was sitting over in music education feeling helpless—like I needed to be doing something that was more direct. But I knew something could still be done within music education—that it might be possible to contribute to the changes we needed. This led me to decide to interview the activist-musicians for my book project. These were people who were both in music, and also connected to the very real issues going on outside of the music classroom.

During the interview process in that November, though, Tamir Rice was then killed. I cannot even describe how I felt—how much more poignant this made things feel. I could not imagine a 6th or 7th grader sitting in their classroom knowing that someone their age was just killed like that—it just seems so unfathomable to me. I wanted to find a way for music education to be able to teach towards justice and to not replicate the systems perpetuating white supremacy.

Since 2014, though, it really has seemed that things have mostly gotten worse. The election of Donald Trump, the uptick in hate crimes reported by the Southern Poverty Law Center, the anti-Asian hate spawning from Covid-19, and more all immediately come to mind. And amidst all of this, I think it is clear why it is so essential to teach children to think critically about the world in this moment. We need a generation that is ready to face what lies ahead.

Working with the next generation gives me hope—I am excited about what the youth bring to the table. I think all we can ask right now is for a youth that has the ability to think critically, and there is no reason music education cannot play a part in making sure that is the case.

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