Teaching Music for the 21st Century

1988 was a pivotal year for me. It began with attending a multidisciplinary workshop in Miami (now known as YoungArts), moved through a summer studying at Tanglewood and ended with my first semester of college. Throughout the year, I received guidance from a cross-section of mentors, each of whom expanded my world view and stoked my curiosity to learn from as many musical and artistic opportunities as possible.

But I knew that the college I chose to attend would become the most pivotal aspect in my development. It would affect the rest of my life! I was fortunate to be torn between two wonderful options: The Juilliard School and University of Michigan. I was enticed by Juilliard, and I actually accepted their offer before changing my mind in favor of Michigan. The clincher? The man who would become my teacher, Michael Udow. 

I like to call myself a “multi-percussionist.” At the age of 18, I had already studied and performed in a wide array of musical situations, styles and idioms, and I wanted to continue doing so. And, as the 20th century moved along, percussionists were developing a new identity: that of the virtuoso, the chameleon, the global music collaborator, friend to composers and champion of new music. The percussion bullet train was in the station when I began studying in the 1970s, and I wanted to jump on. Udow, I thought, could help me do that.

…I had already begun to think of my musical life as a mosaic. It became apparent to me that one must have a multifaceted life in music and not one single job.

Over the next four years at Michigan, Udow served as my principal mentor. We honed in on my sound and who I was as a musician. We addressed the core foundations of my technique through a method of “cross-training,” which allowed for the transference of fundamental skills across a wide swath of percussion instruments and musical genres. Udow opened the floodgates of musical opportunity for me. Yes, I learned from other musicians, teachers and conductors during this time, but what I learned from Udow was my bedrock. As his mentee, I was wedded to this model of education.

I moved to New York City after graduation to enroll at Juilliard for my master’s degree. Here, too, the curriculum was built around study with a private teacher, now with Daniel Druckman and Gordon Gottlieb. Again, this model of education served me well, acting as a springboard into some of my first professional engagements on Broadway, with the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra, the Orchestra of St. Luke’s and the Ethos Percussion Group. 

By the time I graduated from Juilliard at the age of 25, I had already begun to think of my musical life as a mosaic. It became apparent to me that one must have a multifaceted life in music – what folks are now calling a portfolio career – and not one single job. 

My goals were constantly evolving – and rather than exclusively focusing on one of them, I built a career by pursuing all of them. I played in orchestras, pop bands and chamber ensembles. I began teaching at both college and high school levels. I partnered with dance and opera companies and served as an administrator for chamber groups and other institutions. 

The 21st-century arts economy continues to evolve, and mosaic careers are what will enable us to keep pace with it. These are careers made up of many different parts, in different sizes. Some pieces are brighter and shinier than others; some are bigger and some are smaller. It is the combination of these parts that is essential. 

Now, one of the parts of my mosaic has grown even larger. I have worked with students for over 25 years, but this fall I join the percussion faculty at Indiana University, and I’m starting to wonder about what kind of teacher I should be. The music conservatory style of education tends to have one guiding factor built into its curriculum: that of the private teacher. Mentors, we believe, are the key to unlocking the musicianship, technique, fluidity and worldviews that illuminate our paths to a career in music. 

But should the teaching models that I learned from be the same that I provide to my students? Or can we develop a better pedagogical model? For the emerging professional, how does one adapt their practice to include all of the practical and administrative elements that must run through it? As a professor, how do I teach this? How do I model it?

As a mentor, I must provide that strong studio foundation while encouraging my students to innovate on tradition and travel new paths.

I’ve kept musicianship itself paramount in my life. Especially in my early years, I kept going back to my formative studies with Michael Udow. But, throughout my studies under classical curriculums, I always knew I wanted more. Is there a way to feed this curiosity in our students earlier? 

To me, the answer is a resounding yes! And the good news is that it can start with mentors. Mine instilled in me both musical curiosity and a value for technical versatility, which came to a head in 2000 when I co-founded the Silkroad Ensemble with Yo-Yo Ma. 

Silkroad is founded on the ideal of embracing the so-called “other,” engaging in cross-cultural collaboration and commissioning new music. My work with Silkroad allowed me to transfer everything I’d learned as a musician – and, adding a wonderful synergy to my teaching goals, our work included a teaching artist approach to fuel passion-driven learning. 

As I work with the next generation, I believe that my duty is to model Silkroad through a pluralistic pedagogical approach. As a mentor, I must provide that strong studio foundation while encouraging my students to innovate on tradition and travel new paths. I need to instill flexibility, curiosity and versatility so that when a musical opportunity presents itself, my students can transform their approach to collaborate across culture, style, genre and idiom. This reflects the arts world we live in: multifaceted, multigenerational and transnational. 

I may not be able to teach them everything they’ll use in their own careers – and I don’t expect to. What I can do is lead by example. Today’s emerging artists should seek out these kinds of mentors and engage with them in a way that allows for as many new experiences as possible. When you can identify mentors, teachers and collaborators that align with your goals, worldview and skillsets, the paths will appear right in front of you: open and ringing true. 

Joseph Gramley

GRAMMY award-winning multi-percussionist Joseph Gramley performs internationally as a soloist, chamber musician, educator, producer, concert host and with major symphony orchestras. …more 

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