Different Spheres? Thinking about Women and Song

While taking a few days leave, I finally finished a great book about 18th century women composers of songs, by Leslie Ritchie.

There’s loads of fascinating information there, most particularly about the literary side of song-writing.  I think it’s fair to say that the author’s strength is on the literary, “song-writing”, rather than the musical composition of songs.  My interest in literary matters has been lifelong, but my own academic background is from a musicology discipline rather than literature, so I devoured the book enthusiastically, but didn’t gain as much from the music point of view.  I didn’t always agree with the interpretation of the analysis (though the harmonic analysis itself wasn’t faulty) – and I’m off to inspect a copy of Ann [Anne] Young’s Elements of Music this afternoon because I don’t think the “songs” about or by women were actually songs at all. They look like dance tunes to me.  And I rather suspect that when the former owner of the British Library’s later edition marked one item as “a woman” and another as “a man”, she might just have been noting someone connected with the dance,  or someone she heard play it, rather than whoever wrote it.  Either way, dedicating a dance-tune to a woman or calling it “Lady Whatsit’s Favourite”, has no real significance. You named tunes after people to pay them a compliment.

But enough of my nitpicking. The other interesting idea appeared early on in Ritchie’s book, and that was an attempt to unpack the idea of “separate spheres of influence”.  To understand that, I had to read the introduction and first article in another book, No more separate spheres! : a next wave American studies reader, edited by Davidson and Hatcher (2002).  There I learned that the idea arose in 19th century America, thanks to a writer named Alexis deTocqueville (Democracy in America, 1840).

Suffice to say here that we would be wrong to declare that all women moved in the domestic sphere, and all men in the public, commercial sphere, for two or even three reasons: firstly, there is a continuum. It’s not one or the other. Secondly, if we continue to think along these lines, we’re continuing a concept that is now very outdated. And thirdly, although we say “all women”, in this context there’s the tendency to mean fairly well-educated white, middle-class women … but their “sphere” or area of influence was very different from women of other classes and ethnicities.

Having said all that, I’m left with one observation.  Who used the songs in the University of St Andrews’ early music legal deposit collection? Notwithstanding all these very valuable and thought-provoking observations, I put it to you thus: even if they just sang the songs, they were people who could read, and whoever played the piano/harp part could also read music.  They borrowed the music by the kind offices of the university professors.  White, middle-class, educated women borrowing music?  In Georgian times, in St Andrews? In all probability, yes.

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PG Cert Research Project

In the next few weeks I shall be beginning to research my project for my PG Cert.  The subject?

I am researching the best ways to teach topics such as electronic resources, bibliographic citation, or historic Scottish music books, in the context of library instruction, in order to get maximum student engagement.

To support this, I’ve obtained a couple of new books for the library:-

  • Allan, Barbara, Emerging strategies for supporting student learning: a practical guide for librarians and educators (London: Facet Publishing, 2016)
  • Bent, Moira J., Practical tips for facilitating research (London: Facet Publishing, 2016) [In fact, I met and contributed a couple of tips to this author for this book.]

Desk research will obviously also involve use of e-journals etc.

Although I paid close attention to, and gained a lot from the IAML UK and Ireland Academic Music Librarians Seminar and Annual Study Weekend, it is significant that no mention was made of pedagogical theory.  My challenge will be to examine the issues in this light.

Abstract for ISME Conference

The Royal Conservatoire of Scotland is hosting the ISME Conference this summer – ie, the International Society for Music Education.  I felt it would be fitting to give a paper, since I’m engaged in research and pedagogy as well as music librarianship.  I’m pleased to say that my abstract was accepted.

A Historic Approach to Studying Traditional Music: Valuing Older Collections

Theoretical/Pedagogical Background

This paper arises from my own approach to the historic Scottish song and fiddle collections that have been the focus of my doctoral and postdoctoral research; my concern that music performers should develop an understanding of the historical context in which repertoire originated; and my studies for a credit-bearing short course at the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland, ‘The Teaching Artist’.

Aim/focus of work/research reported

I have had opportunities to teach undergraduates about early collections of Scottish traditional music, to increase their awareness of key resources and their place in the historical canon. Whilst today’s performers may do no more than plunder these collections for appealing tunes, or lyrics telling a poignant story, their history gives students deeper insight into what the material meant to earlier generations; and provides them with a source of interesting anecdotes for future use.

Students learn to search for library resources and to examine unfamiliar older material, whilst the treasured rare collections get increased exposure and appreciation.

Method/approach of the work

Taking a constructivist approach to teaching, and striving for experiential learning, I prefer to introduce one or two typical collections, and then to encourage students to interrogate these early sources by close examination of the music and its paratextual material, ie by studying the title page, dedication or contextual notes, and the form of musical presentation.  Students are tasked with presenting their findings to the rest of the class, highlighting interesting features.

Results and/or summary of main ideas

Students remark upon many features, depending on the collections they examined.  The presence and nature of accompaniment (or its absence); commentary in the preface about the method of compilation or approach to performance; attitudes to authenticity; notes relating to particular pieces; or even something as comparatively old-fashioned as sol-fa notation all prompt observations about the volumes’ compilation and intended audiences.  Researching the material and devising a presentation promotes deeper engagement with this historical material.

Conclusions and implications for music education

Taking a historical approach to traditional music counterbalances to students’ preparation for a career in the performing arts, by enriching their understanding of how the repertoire developed; learning how to research and interrogate the sources; and sharing their findings.

They also gain insight into the value of library collections that have been built up over the years, and a readiness to spend time with older resources that are a little harder to understand than today’s.