The Augsburg Podcast

The Augsburg Podcast

Jill Dawe: The Connectivity of Music

July 10, 2019

Jill Dawe: I seem to still go back to this idea that there is a simple way to connect with people and to believe in the multifaceted dimensions of individuals and their creative possibility and their talent and their experience, and to build out from that. And I am incredibly honored and privileged, I feel, to be able to connect with the world and with Augsburg students through music.

Paul Pribbenow: Augsburg University educates students to be informed citizens, thoughtful stewards, critical thinkers, and responsible leaders. I'm Paul Pribbenow, the president of Augsburg University, and it's my great privilege to present The Augsburg Podcast, one way you can get to know some of the faculty and staff I'm honored to work with every day.

Catherine Day: I'm Catherine Reid Day, host of The Augsburg Podcast. And today I'm speaking with Jill Dawe, associate professor of music, and we're going to explore her experience with learning in multiple forms. Welcome Jill.

Jill Dawe: Thank you.

Catherine Day: I wanted to begin with a memory. And music seems to be such a powerful form of triggering memory. And you shared with me a story from when you were four years old and how you learned... who you learned from, how you learned music and where that happened.

Jill Dawe: My mother was working as a teacher, so my grandmother would take care of me. She had a piano, and my uncle still lived at home. We didn't have a piano. So the piano, first of all, was this sort of fabulous toy or this piece of... it sort of sparked my curiosity. And my uncle could sit down and he could play things. It would just sound magical. I was mesmerized. And of course then I would go... When he was finished, I would go over to this toy, and I would sit down and I would do exactly what he did, and mine sounded terrible. So, I think my earliest inspirations were Love Is Blue and Raindrops Keep Falling On My Head, which I really, really tried to play as a four year old.

He had learned by ear. He could just sit down and play, so I thought I should be able to too. And my grandmother would make offhand comments, something to the effect of, "Gosh, he has a lot of talent. It's too bad he never did anything with it." And it's an interesting thing when you think about what children hear and learn. So I think in my mind, I thought, "Oh my gosh, in order to do something with it, you have to be in formal lessons."

Catherine Day: You initially started to play and learn by ear, and then you made a transition to a different form of music.

Jill Dawe: When I was eight, my next door neighbor's got a piano, and they would teach me what they learned. So I was still learning by route. I don't know about by ear, but certainly without notation. Eventually when we got a piano, it came with a system of stickers that were color coded so you could learn by reading the notes. But the notes were, Play the blue one four times and then play the orange one twice. And so I learned that way and then eventually I switched over to piano lessons where I learned actual music notation when I was maybe nine-ish.

Catherine Day: And so each of those forms of learning, I'm interested in how that might actually show up today as you are teaching students music and they come to you with a lot of different experiences. So I'm just wondering, have you been able to apply these maybe three systems that I heard you just describe? One was without notation, one was color coded, which intrigues me. I have a kid who has synesthesia and-

Jill Dawe: Oh, interesting. Sure. You hear color?

Catherine Day: Yeah, you hear color, and you... So she associates colors with notes, with words, with the alphabet. Numbers, actually. For her, it shows up in numbers. Anyway, it's an interesting-

Jill Dawe: Sure.

Catherine Day: So when I hear you describe the color piece, I'm thinking, "Well, that might have worked for some people with synesthesia because we have..." Augsburg has this embrace of all kinds of learners, so I'm just curious how it shows up as you teach.

Jill Dawe: That's a really interesting. I've not put these three pieces together necessarily this way, but I've been teaching since I was 10, actually. I started taking my piano teachers waiting list because there just weren't that many teachers, so she was teaching me how to teach. So that whole sort of being a student or being the teacher, I think, is a little bit... mixes together. So it's kind of a co-creating or Cole learning experience for me, I think.

And Yeah, I think that I try to figure out what connects. And usually, it's driven by what music a student really deeply wants to play. Just like I would've done anything to learn Love Is Blue when I was four, it's something that... that spark, and you just figure out. Once you can figure out that spark, then you figure out how to get a student there. And if it's not by notation, it could be by ear, it could be by improvising, it could be by coming up with visual imagery. That's the thing about music. There's so many paths in, and there's so many ways to connect, I think, to the world and to people with music or through music.

Catherine Day: That's pretty exciting.

Jill Dawe: Yeah, and it's fascinating. For your brain, it's endlessly creative trying to figure out, Okay, if not this path, then this path, or if not... The connection doesn't go this way, it could go this way or that way or another way. They all work.

Catherine Day: And so music, as you see it then, has something to do with unlocking more learning for people?

Jill Dawe: I'm hesitating because I'm sure there's science. We learn all about the brain as one way to answer it, and I think now that we can color code the brain and the different learning centers and such, we do see, for example, if somebody is reading music, singing and playing an instrument, say the piano, that when you study the brain, the brain's many different areas, don't ask me what they are, they all light up, and that there's some kind of an integrated system across languages and imagination, emotional experience, intellectual capacity, pattern discernment.

All these different areas somehow work together with music, plus physical coordination, sense of time. So I think that that makes sense then that there would be... you could enter through any of these angles, and all in service to connecting. It's all about just connecting.

Catherine Day: People would all say that the power of music is connection.

Jill Dawe: I think so.

Catherine Day: I think that's universally accepted, that when you can't reach people any other way, you can through music. And what I was just thinking about as you were talking about the different parts of the brain, I did see a photograph of how music does still reach people with dementia, and that that part of the brain does not atrophy or it still feels, it experiences it. And so music is an extremely important tool for people with dementia. As the student body, population has changed. What has been your experience of what we're just talking about, about the forms of inviting students in to learn the entry points for learning music?

Jill Dawe: That's so interesting. We say that the students have changed. And I guess for me, they have, and they haven't, maybe because I've had this privileged opportunity to work one on one with people. And so always at Augsburg, people have had the opportunity to study piano who are music majors, who want to be piano performers, who are science majors and who are doing it for fun or a biology major who... all different kinds of learners with different kinds of goals for music.

So from that sense, I don't know that it's changed for me because again, it's... you have melody, you have rhythm and you have the instrument, and you work to figure out how the student's brain works, and then also what kinds of musical interests really get the students motivated. And you just start there and then together, you figure out how to make music. Maybe that's making it simplistic, but in a way it's not.

That works with beginners. I teach children. It works with beginners, and it works with really advanced people who are looking to do, I don't know, graduate study or performance degrees. It's pretty much the same. How does your mind work? What really, really drives you in terms of your musical passion, and then how do we learn together given all the different components that come together in making music? What are the buttons that we press? What are the strengths that we build on? What are the weaknesses that we can firm up? Because there's so many ways to learn.

Catherine Day: It sounds really fun.

Jill Dawe: It's totally fun. It's sort of a creativity upon creativity. The teaching of it is, in some ways, as creative as the making of the music.

Catherine Day: That's what I was picking up. It sounds very co-creative. I guess, a collaborative, that what you're describing as an approach to teaching is to sit side by side with the student to some extent. Not to say you don't have a position across the table from them, but it sounds like you go both ways in the relationship.

Jill Dawe: That's actually flattering. Now, I don't know that I would have thought of that, but I would like to think that that's true. And I've learned too from different kinds of musicians. So I've been working with Somalis musicians and Oxford students, especially last year and learning about [inaudible 00:09:48] styles and then learning about Somali history and refugee experiences again, via music and working across language barriers and et cetera, et cetera.

And in that situation, although I was the teacher, I really was a learner. I was able to bring people together into a room, so that Somali music and Augsburg students could learn and co-create. But I wasn't necessarily the teacher. I would say maybe I was the facilitator or I was the experienced collaborator that could make sure all the parts can move together. But yeah. You learn as you teach.

Catherine Day: Right. I think we tend to give a lot of power to the expert, that form of expert power... It's not to say you don't have expert power, because clearly you do, you've mastered a form of learning and performing. But this other kind of learning does strike me as being really valuable for a rapidly changing world, that if we see ourselves as facilitators as well as experts, what does that open for us, and what does that teach the students at Augsburg as they go forth and go to the next level, if you will, into work?

Jill Dawe: So, one of my explorations this year during my sabbatical has been this idea of who holds knowledge. And so if you flip around the model and you assume that everybody's an expert, it makes it even more interesting. As I'm teaching somebody who is... Well, and it gets more interesting the further outside of your experience that you are the process and the collaboration gets more interesting. So the further you're able to go outside your own box or parameters or assumptions, the more creative and adventurous the learning begins.

So yeah, I think flipping that model around, again, is an interesting thing. So if we consider that at the get go, everybody is an expert. And what exact experience and unique perspective is that expert going to bring? I think in some ways, it brings me back to my Newfoundland roots again where folk song and folk traditions are really strong and was just part of what I've always been in. So I think that led me really naturally to the Cedar Cultural Center, which looks at global traditions. However, we defined those and... or folk traditions or things that are not classical traditions necessarily.

So I think my interest might have started with that, with my interest in folk traditions, things that are done by ear, oral traditions. But again, it was also my interest in connection. This was through music. It was a way for me to connect with my neighborhood across language barriers. It was just shared space. You experience this music together. The opportunity was formalized through a grant by Doris Duke Foundation, which partnered Augsburg College with the Cedar Cultural Center in programming that would bring awareness and sharing of knowledge around Islamic identities and Muslim art makers.

So in our world, that meant that Somali singers and artists from around the world and also locally were able to bring their knowledge to campus. In one of our... Just to make this a really short story, there were lots and lots of things that happened, but in one AugSem so first year experience, we did a little song teaching session that brought Somali artists, local Somali artists, people from the Cedar Cultural Center in the community into the AugSem classroom.

And one of the videographers, I guess, from the Cedar was documenting the experience. They made a little four minute video, which has 128,000 views, the last time I looked. I have no idea why. It's just our classroom doing this song with a very famous international Somali artists, but also local and 128,000 people are interested in that. So again, it makes me think about, who holds knowledge and how you share knowledge.

Catherine Day: That's really exciting. I think we forget how things travel now.

Jill Dawe: Wait.

Catherine Day: And so if you hashtag something and you... or however it's being distributed, it's on YouTube. And so presumably, that person's name brings people, brings audience to what you're doing.

Jill Dawe: To my classroom. To our AugSem classroom.

Catherine Day: Right. It's fascinating. And again, this idea of who holds knowledge and who's the expert. And maybe if you don't mind, just bringing people into... Many people, again know, but we are a location with the... I think it's the second largest population of Somalis outside of country. I don't know the facts, but it's a significant center.

Jill Dawe: It's a significant Somali community or Somali American community. And of course we are also located in Cedar Riverside neighborhood, which historically has always been a neighborhood where waves of immigrants have called home over the years. So it used to be Danish, German, Norwegian, Swedish, and then Korean. I think when I first got here it was a little bit Korean, a little bit East African, Eritreans. And now, the neighborhood is almost completely Somali communities. So we're in a really rich area for a sharing of cultural perspectives and artistic traditions.

Catherine Day: I'm really interested too in this connection you made to oral tradition. So in some of our other conversations, we might have talked about... let's say we talk about native American culture or we talk about spiritual tradition. The notion of the spirituals as a form of communication. We are a culture that tends to privilege written word, things carry forward in that particular way and we are less sophisticated about the oral tradition.

As I recall, there was something you've been exploring around that false dichotomy, maybe, of those separations, the ability to notate and the power of the unnoticed on notated work. So I'm just... I don't know. Oh my gosh.

Jill Dawe: That is a huge fascinating question. I feel like I could do a whole semester course on notation. How do I begin? Okay. So I'll just speak for me. What I think is fascinating about Western notation is that we have this system of ink dots on a page that allow us to hear what music people were playing or singing in the 1600s. That's just incredible to me. A, that we can even translate sound into a visual map, and then that that visual map can be... it can travel across countries and continents and centuries, and that we can still recreate, to some degree, the sounds that were composed hundreds of years ago. It's incredible. So that's one thing.

The other thing is that we also know since the beginning of humans, I think, although again, outside my content area, that humans make music, and that it's also true that tons and tons of music has been lost because it wasn't written down, but we know it existed. And that lots of musical traditions around the globe continue to be passed from generation to generation via oral traditions. For example, Indian classical music, which is passed from masters experts to apprentices over many, many years of study. And it's also integrated with understanding of history and spirituality.

And so those traditions are preserved. They're just not notated. So this idea... So on the one hand, I think notation is fantastic. On the other hand, and especially now in the 21st century where we have YouTube and cell phones that can record our music, I'm not sure if the written page has exactly the same... if it holds all the information. So I've had my first handful of students at Augsburg who are self-taught from YouTube videos.

Catherine Day: Oh wow.

Jill Dawe: Which is awesome. [crosstalk 00:18:35]. There's incredible piano lessons out there on YouTube. And people who have learned from video games, they know the music, they learn it by ear from video games, and then the video game composers are smart and put lessons and notation out there. So these kinds of alternative forms of transmitting knowledge are also fascinating.

Catherine Day: It makes me think I'm going to apply it to my own experience becoming an artist in a different form than I'd expected. And it was really interesting to me. I was learning how to draw and I found it very stressful, and there was something I wanted to draw. It was a very complex photograph I'd taken in Yellowstone Park. And I had made up my mind that I couldn't visually project that photograph onto paper and draw onto the paper. I had decided that that was against the rules, but it was purely my decision because... I don't know if you see the leap of the point, but it's saying, what is drawing?

Well, I had made up my mind drawing had to be that. I looked at something and drew it while I actually was looking at something and drawing it. I was just tracing over a photograph that was my photograph of something, but it was interesting to me how the rules got in the way. And I'm just wondering, how often does that come into play in your classroom? Are there rules that are imposed by the culture of music? Are there rules that are imposed by the students? How does that affect your teaching?

Jill Dawe: Oh my gosh. That's another huge question. The answer's yes. So on a personal level, I think we all work with assumptions and frames and assumptions that we don't even know we have that could be limiting or could be freeing. I think that we as humans, we create all kinds of agreements. We have political systems and educational systems and we have syllabi with rules and outcomes and goals, which are in, some ways, agreements between us because we have to communicate.

On the other hand, they can also be... they can keep us in boxes too. So I think one of the things that the arts brings, perhaps, is we're supposed to be able to be creative thinkers and to be able to look outside the box or to flip the frames back on themselves. To go back to your visual analogy, to look for the resonance, the connection, the center pieces that bring these systems together. I don't know. That's a tough question. That sounded like a really vague answer.

Catherine Day: No, I'm really interested in that idea of... I think oftentimes when people talk about teams, they might go back to an experience they had. Maybe it was in childhood, maybe it was a trip they took or a chance to go to camp, but they have some experience. It's truly amazing. And they spend the rest of their lives trying to recreate that.

Jill Dawe: Oh wow.

Catherine Day: To some extent, we're always looking for, where am I going to have that happen again? And as you were describing this experience of learning, I was picturing that. This idea of resonance was what I started to think about is that the way in which perhaps music is such a vital part of teaching and learning because it's a place where you maybe get to find that moment of residence and then you keep looking forward again and you try to recreate it. What's the possibility of that as we think about the power of music to make peace, form alliances, break down barriers.

Jill Dawe: Right. Yes. And I think about that just in my own life, I think. I love the music itself. It makes me weak need, it's my happy place, whatever. But it also has allowed me a way to travel the world and to connect with people. It's allowed me ways to stretch my brain and my body. As you acquire all these different things that you have to play, it's allowed me, yeah, opportunities to find shared space.

So we look at... In a [Composer Libretto 00:22:55] studio, I've been part of, locally, we bring together diverse composers, diverse meaning different genres, different kinds of musical aesthetics or goals and diverse writers. So sometimes poets, sometimes playwrights, sometimes librettos, sometimes... I don't know, different kinds of people. And then teams of performers, performers who were primarily actors, performers who are an opera singer, a performer who is a rock and roll person.

And we bring together the team and set a parameter and a set of goals. And you work in threes, you have 24 hours, you make the song, and then the next day you come back and you perform it with the performers and people give feedback. That is only in the form of questions and curiosities and not in judgment.

Catherine Day: So is it kind of the Liz Lerman critical response process?

Jill Dawe: Exactly. The Liz Lerman process. So replace judgment with curiosity and look for that shared space. Where are the edges? Where did these different yet similar people come together to co-create something that was perhaps... I don't if I want to say different than the sum of its parts.

Catherine Day: So that process, which people can find online, it's Liz Lerman's critical response process. She's a MacArthur genius, a choreographer. But she devised a form of critique that really serves the artists rather than serves the audience. What does that process do? So what is your intent when you... Is this group you're exercising your muscles as creators? Do people get to see what you've created from this group?

Jill Dawe: Nope. That one is entirely professional development and process driven. So the product is off the table. If you get a product, great, that's a bonus. But that is not the goal. The goal is to... It is a collaborative process and to mind the edges. But so interesting that you know the Liz Lerman method. So for years, I've been using it in my piano studio class here, and how it's worked for me, I've adapted it and I'm sure simplified it, but how it's worked for me is we do studio class, which is students play for each other in [inaudible 00:25:07], our formal recital hall, which can be daunting.

And traditionally, in classical piano, you would call it a master class, where the teacher would... that would be me or our guest would give feedback to the students. So I flipped the model. Using Liz Lerman, my students ask questions for each other. And so typically, you'll get students who will say things like, "Oh, that was really good," which is lovely and well-intended. And I keep saying, "But how do we help each other?" Yes, it was really good. And can you ask a question?

And so then students will learn in time rather than saying things like, "Wow, your peddling was really blurry. I couldn't hear the melody." They will learn to flip it around and say things like, "I was really found myself listening to your peddling. Can you tell me what the goal was?" And then sometimes the performer will do something surprising and say, "Well, my goal was to make things really blurry, kind of like adding reverb on a digital piano." And then we can all say, "Wow, you achieved that." So the questions will be often... or the answers will be surprising, and I think we can learn and the conversations get interesting.

Catherine Day: Yeah, because you've gone beyond good or bad, up, down, yes, no, to discovering actually what the intent and the goal was of the work. And maybe the student doesn't even know what their goal is. They may discover that in their process, but then they learn what they're communicating.

Jill Dawe: And the students, I'd like to think, learn how to be really active listeners and they learn to turn on curiosity, which then they can use in their own playing and learning too, "Why am I doing that this way?" Or, "Gosh, how do I make this melody more clear, or do I want to?" Rather than, "Oh gosh, this is bad," or "I'm frustrated," or "This doesn't sound good." So it's, again, looking at the process and the learning.

Catherine Day: I personally think Liz Lerman's process could be very valuable in so many different settings. Like, what if we were actually using it in our political process? How would the world be different?

Jill Dawe: I completely agree. And I love it that you know that system.

Catherine Day: Well, I learned it as an artist. So-

Jill Dawe: Of course.

Catherine Day: ... I became a painter, somebody introduced it to me. It's been used a lot...

Jill Dawe: Absolutely.

Catherine Day: ... in many different places. So it has a real currency and power. And I am always fascinated, who does use it and what might we do? What could happen if we used it in more places?

Jill Dawe: Right. And I think that that's been one of my great privileges to work here is having a foot in the arts world, our rich arts world, so I have to credit Ben [inaudible 00:27:53] Music Theater for introducing me to this system feedback, but also having a foot over at the Cedar Cultural Center and having exposure and learning from Somali artists from around the globe, and then being able to bring those experiences and translating them back into an individual piano lesson or students that I teach here that that porous on off campus learning and that integration of systems, I think for someone like me, has been a really fascinating. I'm looking for the shared space, I guess, between things that might seem to be opposites, if we want to bring it back to where we started the conversation.

Catherine Day: We have to discover, what is that relationship between opposites and attractives, if you will, because could these things be in service to helping us lessen our polarization, our inclination to separate from one another? I ask it naively.

Jill Dawe: And I'm always looking for the shared space, which sounds touchy feely. But the more that I mind that idea and read, I think that there are ways to do that. Look for the places where the edges rub, and there's almost always shared space. Music can also certainly divide, but music is also a place where a lot of people can find that resonance and let go of some of the... maybe some of the differences and enjoy getting into that shared space.

Catherine Day: So when you think about the future of music and the future of music here at Augsburg, what is it you're excited about going forward? What could be different?

Jill Dawe: I can only speak for myself, obviously. For me, things I'm thinking about is who holds knowledge. Again, back to that. So how do I bring artists from off campus onto campus in ways that are reciprocal and respectful and where the learning goes both directions in authentic ways. I think I'm interested in opening conversations about all the different ways that music serves in the world, by ear or hip hop or classical or to me, one of the miracles of music is it's multiple, multiple dimensions, and how do we expose students and invite students in from all of those different traditions, I think, is something that I'm interested in.

And for me personally, I guess just learning more styles and connecting with more people. I'm happy to be connected to a Balkan community where we're looking at avant garde compositions by Balkan composers. I am lucky to be part of the Cedar Cultural Center and lots of global traditions and artists. I'm, of course, having my training in the classical world and love the incredible music that is produced in that genre. So I'm working with music theater people. It's all fascinating.

Catherine Day: We want to include a recording that you were kind enough to let us capture of you playing the piano, and the purpose of it was to share something about a specific person and this idea of a single note and silences, I believe. Would you introduce that for us?

Jill Dawe: So Arvo Part is an Estonian composer who started writing when Estonia was Communist, and his early works are works that integrate many of the avant garde traditions of the United States and the Western world. And his works sometimes were premiered to great a claim and sometimes created controversy. And as his work progressed, I think the controversies and the political tunneled and I don't even know, personal tunneled, caused him to question what he was doing as an artist and he retreated in silence, and it was a self-imposed silence.

And in the silence, apparently, he studied Bach and he studied history and spirituality and really looked at what music meant to him. And he came out with this piece that was his first piece in a new style that he called [foreign language 00:32:19] or little bells. And as much as I can understand, it's based on this idea that there is a single pitch and from the single pitch, you can generate a kind of music that has a resonance and a meaning that transcends.

And so interestingly, from this very minimalist, sparse style, he has become one of the most listened to contemporary composers in the world. So I was just interested in that and interested in, again, of the seeming flipping the frame of starting from a single pitch, rather than starting from a system like polyphony or a system like... I don't know any of the ways that we defined genres. So I chose this piece called For Alina, which I think you'll hear, has a stillness to it and also a power.

Catherine Day: I've been speaking with Jill Dawe, associate professor of music. Thank you very much. And I'm Catherine Reid Day, host of The Augsburg Podcast.

Paul Pribbenow: Thanks for listening to The Augsburg Podcast. I'm President Paul Pribbenow. For more information, please visit