Instructor Uses Racial Justice Grant to Unite Students Through Music

A pair of hands playing piano
Photo by Elia Pellegrini on Unsplash.

Autumn 2019 was Andrew Millar’s first semester teaching at Ohio State’s Newark campus. Not long after his start, he saw an amazing grant opportunity through the Affordable Learning Exchange (ALX), a program that supports instructors across all Ohio State campuses to help provide affordable and engaging courses for students. Millar saw an ALX grant as a way to bring the online course materials for his MUSIC 1101 class to a higher standard, and to improve the experience for students of all majors to critically engage with and participate in music. Check out what Dr. Millar has accomplished while collaborating with the Affordable Learning Exchange.

Please explain the current course you teach and why it is special to you.

My course is called MUSIC 1101: Piano—Group Instruction 1. It is for college students of any major and various backgrounds in music to engage deeply with music and with how to play the piano. Because of the amount of diversity on abilities and interest within each class, there lies the dilemma to accommodate all their differences meaningfully within a single college course. I brought my many years of my experience as both a pianist and teacher to the task.

What did you accomplish with your first project grant? Did everything go as planned? Any challenges?

I am honored that the ALX team for the 2020 grants found my project a good fit. I began a program of consults with librarians, instructional designers, and copyright experts among others to ensure that my materials for CarmenCanvas were developing along the right track. Via a collaboration with the School of Music on Columbus campus, I received access to music notation software to facilitate the development of reading and composition skills among my students.

What motivated you to do another ALX project? Why was adding a racial justice component important to you?

Regarding the racial justice component: when I first heard about this opportunity, I once again felt that this was a great fit for my MUSIC 1101 class. Music is universal and is engaged in by all people, regardless of their social and cultural background. In this sense, music is fundamentally human and has the potential to unite us across the great divides that exist and help us to behave in an ethically motivated manner, respectfully, and humanely towards one another.
Success in MUSIC 1101 is the capacity to engage in a life-long process to musical engagement that does not end after the semester is over. It is also about each student critically engaging with the fellow learner’s work. The racial justice theme seems to fit so well with this.

How do you plan to expand on this year’s project from your 2020 project?

The summer of 2021 is my time to define this aspect of my project and work towards it. Recent discoveries that that have deepened my perspectives and open the door to specific course study units include my research into the background of the Fisk Jubilee Singers. This African-American choir brought late-nineteenth century audiences in North American and Europe to their knees with their deeply felt singing of the spirituals inherited from their ancestors. The settings of the spirituals were often in the 19th-century choral traditions familiar to Western audiences: thus this, phenomenon was one of the first where African American music making began its journey to sit at the cornerstone of the globally popular musical genres that emerged as the twentieth century unfolded.

Other cultural studies projects that I have begun including are the music of the Janissary musicians from the Ottoman Empire who charmed and influenced the music of the Western nations in the several centuries leading up to World War I. Simple twists of melody, rhythmic, and tonal features can be appreciated by the elementary student of the piano that are all derivative of this line of thought.

My new course materials and study units will include consideration of that complex musical element known as style: what it is that makes one type of music sound so different from another. The answer lies in cultural context through time and by place. My goal is to facilitate the learning about a not-so-familiar culture via music: the music is often immediately appreciable and, consequently, an understanding of the other culture can and should follow.

How do you plan to transform your course as well as provide affordable materials for your students?

My online CarmenCanvas course is my place of publication for all study units and course engagements that I create. The basic structure of Course Modules created to date will remain unchanged, but I anticipate using Discussion Posts and breakout sessions within my online class times more from this point forward. I want students to speak about what music means to them and perhaps most importantly, I want them to react to what their fellow learners in class are doing. The racial justice component will introduce a subjective component where students should feel free to share and contribute to a goal set by the group.

I must create original patterns and other starting gestures in musical notation of my own creation due to the copyright barriers of today. These could be correlated with live recordings available through the public domain or via Ohio State online services. I anticipate that the globally popular musical styles, including blues, jazz, and rock will be an important style-area for the racial justice discussion in my class. I wish to balance it with units in world music appreciation, which will include selected cultural musical traditions such as that of the Turkish Janissary musicians. I see the approach to first keyboard studies by the Hungarian composer Bela Bartok as evocative of a very ancient, broadly human type of music making. I believe I can place this into a critical context as we learn to play the piano and consider the deeply human roots of what is going on.

I have begun a search for photographs to illustrate the pages of my course in resources such as ArtStor. While many images of musicians and their hands at the piano can reveal so much, the questions of image copyrights is a problem I must work to solve. I would like the pages of the Canvas course to be visually appealing using illustrations, narrative text, and items in musical notation, taking advantage of as many of the design features that are possible.

How do you hope this grant will impact your students?

I hope the racial justice component will serve to deepen my students’ appreciation of music and the piano. Many of the ideas I have discussed concerning racial justice have already been in place and active to some extent, but I will now make them front and center and position them as a galvanizing force among all the study units and other course elements. I believe this racial justice component will offer a new avenue for critical thinking and respectful interaction among my students. There are typically diverse cultural backgrounds among the students in any Ohio State classroom today: my objective is to invite students to explore music via their own culture, those of their peers, and consider musical cultures even further afield. May they recognize that among all people there is more in common than there is different and that the approach to musical engagement can facilitate this recognition.

Whether you are a Newark student or not, Millar's course is 100% online, and any Ohio State student can take the course.


Photo by Elia Pellegrini on Unsplash