Center for Community Engagement

The humanness of music

Pioneer Valley Soundscapes expands understanding of music in the community

October 2013William Cumpiano, a master luthier—one who repairs stringed instruments—poses in his workshop on the Northampton-Easthampton town line. Cumpiano was featured in
A Taste of Music in the Pioneer Valley's Puerto Rican Community, one of the many documentaries in the Pioneer Valley Soundscapes archive. Photo by Thomas Sibley '10, story by Jenny Morgan.

In recent years, Assistant Professor of Music Jeffers Engelhardt has been on somewhat of a mission: to get people in the Pioneer Valley thinking “more expansively about the human involvement in music.”

In 2009, Engelhardt made real a piece of this mission by creating the community-based learning course, Pioneer Valley Soundscapes, to enable students to practice fieldwork and document the musical landscape of the region. For Engelhardt, part of thinking expansively about music has also meant blurring the boundaries between the campus and the community—and this spring, he’s introducing new technologies that will enable community participation in Pioneer Valley Soundscapes in unprecedented ways.

As an ethnomusicologist, Engelhardt studies the relationship that people have with music, and he does so by spending long periods of time working with music-making communities. Before he developed Pioneer Valley Soundscapes, Engelhardt was frustrated with teaching ethnomusicology with theory alone. “Even for me, reading secondhand accounts of ethnomusicology has a certain degree of abstraction,” he says. “All the more so for students first encountering the idea that music is something more than what’s captured on a page.”

Inspired by the growing number of community-based learning courses at Amherst, Engelhardt decided to take the plunge and develop a course structured around students conducting semester-long, ethnographic projects. With help from the Center for Community Engagement and Academic Technology Services, Engelhardt created Pioneer Valley Soundscapes to get students doing the “nitty-gritty fieldwork” instead of reading about it. Engelhardt calls this process de-objectifying music. “The real work is doing fieldwork: interacting with people and getting to know musical communities and the humanness of music.”

The first thing Engelhardt does with students each semester in Pioneer Valley Soundscapes—which has also been taught by Assistant Professor of Music Jason Robinson—is facilitate a guided brainstorm of potential research projects. This is where his commitment to expanding students’ concepts of music in the region comes in. “There are so many untold stories,” he says. “It’s not just the star up on stage at the Iron Horse.”  By the third week of the semester, students begin to dig in, taking that “terrifying first leap into moving from the hypothetical to having a relationship.” Halfway through the semester, Engelhardt finally brings in the theory. “Since they’re so deeply into their projects, they can connect practice to theory rather than vice versa and really identify with some of these classic texts in the anthropology of music, but from a very different perspective.” The final step is sharing the work: students’ final projects are 10-12 minute audio or video documentaries that tell the stories of music in the Pioneer Valley.

From improvisation jazz in Northampton to a Tibetan dance called Varja in Conway, there’s been a lot of ground covered, and more than just in geographic terms. Students are stepping outside of the familiar to conduct these ethnographies, and it can be profoundly transformative. “Very often, students are crossing language, class, religious, and musical stylistic boundaries in ways they never would have if they didn’t take this class and have this persona of being an ethnographer,” Engelhardt explains. “Students have gotten into conversations about who they are and where they come from and what it means to be at Amherst.”

 According to Engelhardt, the process is “mutually transformative” for students and musical communities alike. “Communities learn about themselves,” he says. “The excitement and inspiration that happens when people who are part of these communities see themselves in relation to others has been great.”

After five years of teaching Pioneer Valley Soundscapes, Engelhardt is continuing to push the boundaries between the college and the community by making music more accessible through technology. He’s currently developing a mobile application that will let anyone record and upload sounds and images from the Pioneer Valley using a smart phone. “It’s a way of letting people contribute to the project in a really interesting, soundscape-y way,” he explains. “They won’t be developed ethnographies. More like, ‘Here’s a beautiful waterfall on my hike,’ or ‘Here’s a street musician in Easthampton.’ It’s quick, unedited sharing.” Engelhardt is also interested in getting the student ethnographies and crowd-sourced content into the real world, and to that end, he’s hoping to create QR code installations around the Pioneer Valley for people to interact with. “It’s making student work more accessible, and letting community members have an interesting role to play.”

As spring draws closer, Engelhardt is most looking forward to seeing the newest iteration of the class take shape. “It’s always a wonderful symbiosis between the students who come and the music and communities that interest them,” he says. Engelhardt welcomes music and non-music majors in the class. “It’s an unusual way for students to get into the music curriculum if they’ve never thought to turn to the music department before. It’s a great way to do complimentary work that cuts across different experiences and interests.”

Visit the Pioneer Valley Soundscapes website to explore the films, recordings, and images produced by students throughout the course's five-year history.

Pioneer Valley Soundscapes is one of fifteen community-based learning courses to be offered in spring 2014. Browse the entire selection of upcoming courses.

Academic engagement seeks to connect the intellectual rigors of academic study with the needs and expertise of the community. By building mutually productive relationships between the Amherst classroom and the world beyond, the Center for Community Engagement strives to simultaneously enhance learning and address community goals.