Guest blog: Jeremy Grimshaw, “Talking About Rhythm and Race After #MNkerfuffle”

Readers may recall that a few days ago I extended a call for blog participation, responses to a recent essay published on Musicology Now. My hope is that this space will allow for thoughtful participation in a difficult conversation. I am grateful to Jeremy Grimshaw for sharing his thoughts here.


When the Musicology Now controversy–aka #MNkerfuffle or #DonGiovannigate–first swept through the music-academic corners of the internet a few days ago, I added my voice to the chorus of dismay at the Pierpaolo Polzonetti’s racially tone-deaf, paternalistic, Eurocentric, canonistic article. (A super-brief summary for those out of the loop: the American Musicological Society’s online general-audience publication, Musicology Now, posted an article by Polzonetti about an opera class he taught to prisoners in a correctional facility; many readers, myself included, recognized the generosity and good intention with which he undertook the work, but took serious issue with the way he described the prisoners and the racially stereotyped assumptions and generalizations he made about their musical preferences.) As heated conversations about the article popped up in various places, it became clear that best thing for me to do, as a cis white hetero male tenured professor and university administrator, would be to keep my mouth shut for a while and keep my ears open to the voices of scholars whose perspectives have been directly informed by, and whose work directly responds to, the types of outdated and damaging ideas Polzonetti’s article brought to light. I am grateful for the insights and courage of these scholars, especially those in earlier and/or less secure stages of their careers, and those who themselves have had to confront damaging stereotypes in their own professional and personal lives.

I’m intent on continuing to learn from these perspectives, and in that spirit I wish to pose a question that these conversations have brought to the forefront of my pedagogical and curricular thinking. It has to do with a racially loaded word in music scholarship: rhythm.

One of the major deficits I see in music academia today is that our pedagogy privileges pitch and neglects rhythm. We spend an incredible amount of time and effort teaching students how pitch works: intonation, scales, modes, triads, voiceleading, counterpoint, all receive considerable attention–some receive their own semester-long classes. And this is all well and good. But we do not lavish the same attention to the temporal complexities of music. (And frankly, that’s due in part to the fact that much of the canon in which we coach our students, well, isn’t that temporally complex.) It is quite possible for undergraduate students to graduate from some of our most prestigious music programs with a sense of rhythmic accuracy and acuity that pales in comparison to their intonational, modal, and harmonic skills. Some even humorously and self-deprecatingly indulge in self-stereotypes, dismissively claiming that typical performers on their instrument “just can’t count.” I would like to see more explicit, dedicated pedagogical time devoted to rhythmic skill. I would like students to be able to not only execute challenging rhythms in a virtuosic solo passage, but also be able to attain and sustain rhythmic accuracy over extended syncopated and polymetric loops, patterns, and grooves. I’d eventually like to see some kind of basic drum skills course or requirement incorporated into music curricula similar to the way we require all music majors to complete (or test out of) keyboard foundations courses. This would do two things: it would produce musicians with better rhythmic skills, and it would also give explicit validation and recognition to those skills and to the students who excel in them.

And as a percussionist, a gamelan scholar, and teacher of world music courses, I think non-Western musics have a role to play in a music curriculum that places more balanced emphasis on rhythm. I think the musicianship level of students in my courses is raised by their hands-on experiences with syncopations and polyrhythms in Ewe drumming, the intense and extended hocket in Balinese gamelan, and the complex rhythmic/metric ratios in Carnatic music. These are certainly not the only elements of these musical traditions that I teach in my world music classes, but the rhythmic components are, I believe, the elements that coincide most with what I see as some of the most glaring deficits in our musical pedagogies.

But talking about rhythm and race is treacherous, because it evokes old and awful stereotypes about intrinsic racial rhythmic abilities–stereotypes which themselves are bound up with old and awful racial caricatures about the mind-body binary, embodiment, and sexuality. I even saw one commenter on #MNkerfuffle suggest that saying the word “rhythm” in the same sentence as the word “African” was as bad as saying the N- word. The irony here is that I believe that historically, a big part of the reason we privilege pitch and neglect rhythm in our music pedagogies and curricula, and to a certain extent in our canons, is precisely because of these negative stereotypes–not just that certain ethnicities were more intrinsically adept at rhythm, but that those rhythmic skills were associated with other supposedly intrinsic and decidedly negative traits. It was not yet a century ago that the headline “Does Jazz Put the Sin in Syncopation?” appeared in the Ladies’ Home Journal. Much of the handwringing about jazz in American culture and in American musical institutions in the early twentieth century had to do with anxieties over the relationship between rhythm, dancing, race, and sex. (We hear echoes of those same anxieties and stereotypes in Polzonetti’s much-derided description of the “the blatant lyrics and pounding beat of rap music”–a summary that overlooks rhythmic complexity altogether, and simply articulates a vaguely threatening rhythmic force.) I believe our curricular emphasis on pitch is, at least in part, a lingering remnant of the mind-body duality and its attendant association of harmony with the mind/intellect/restraint and rhythm with the body/physicality/libidinality. Those associations were and are laden with racist and xenophobic anxieties.

So my question is: how do we address the rhythmic deficit in our curricula and canons, given rhythm’s complicated racial history? Is there a way to incorporate world musics and popular musics in this effort in a way that respects and explores their rhythmic complexities (along with their other complexities) without reinforcing old racial/rhythmic stereotypes? Can we recognize and respect and teach rhythm, as it exists across multiple genres and traditions, without invoking rhythm’s racial baggage?

And here is a perhaps dicier question. I worry that in music academia we are far behind other disciplines, and far behind where we should be in 2016, in finding ways to foster, recruit, and teach students from diverse backgrounds. I believe that the curricular privilege we place on pitch grants an advantage to the students already connected to our institutions and our canonical repertoires, which, alas, have not developed along culturally neutral or racially equal planes. This means that prospective students with musical abilities developed outside of those institutions and repertoires–including the realms of popular and “world” musics–may come with skills that go underrecognized and undervalued. These might include mastery of particular stylistic nuances, technological and sound-production skills, and, yes, rhythmic skills. Some of these skills may have developed in musical contexts closely associated with ethnic communities and/or with racial identities. Is there a way to reach those prospective students, and acknowledge their skills, and enrich and expand our definitions of musical competence, and thereby enrich and expand our curricula, without re-entrenching the stereotypes and caricatures–and concomitant anxieties–that contributed to the narrow boundaries of our canons and curricula in the first place?

5 thoughts on “Guest blog: Jeremy Grimshaw, “Talking About Rhythm and Race After #MNkerfuffle”

  1. Thanks, Jeremy, for a thoughtful piece that continues the dialogue. Thanks, Felicia, for giving us a space to keep up the conversation.

    I especially agree with the final paragraph in Jeremy’s piece above. I’ve been thinking about a lot about how and what we teach as “music” in our music departments. The last place I had these conversations was the November 2015 Ann Arbor Symposium IV on “Teaching and Learning Popular Music.” In particular, Jon Covach gave a particularly powerful keynote that asked some similar questions, even going so far as to wonder whether our current ways of teaching music (as you describe above) are even sustainable in the long term within higher ed. I’m a freelance classical musician and I can tell you that most small and/or regional symphonies are on the brink of disappearing completely. But yet we continue to train our young people (from elementary school through college) to play this music and these instruments. Maybe if we were doing a both/and with classical/art music AND popular music in our music departments but most of our music programs aren’t even going that far, and some are even doubling down on classical/art. The issue of diversity, access, and privilege regarding music programs is absolutely important and real. That’s the tip of the iceberg, though. Expanding our canons and curricula is about not only making room for diverse folks in music programs, it’s about using our music programs to help our students and ourselves engage with and value human difference in even more fundamental ways.

    • Thanks for your thoughts, Anna. And I should make clear that I’m not suggesting any short-term scorched-earth curricular demolitions, but I am advocating for more comprehensive dialogue. If we never think and talk critically about what we do, and which repertoires/activities/ensembles we make room for and which we don’t, we default to a curatorial mindset and eventually all our ensembles become accidental period-practice ensembles.

  2. A curriculum that incorporates musics in a way that explores rhythmic complexities without (usually) reinforcing racial drama and stereotypes does already exist in the US: the wind band tradition. However, musicology generally eschews it. There are a number of musicians who get their formative musical training in band (wind, marching, symphonic, jazz etc), and band also tends to be incredibly more diverse than orchestra. Band is less also likely to get canceled than or defunded due to its attachment to sports. If we’re looking for diverse students to nurture, perhaps we should start there. That’s where you would have found me.

    • Thanks for the response, Brandi. I’m intrigued by your suggestion–particularly because it tracks pretty closely with the musical education I had growing up playing in band in the rural western U.S., in a place and time not generally considered particularly diverse. I’d like to know more about what you mean when you say that “band also tends to be incredibly more diverse than orchestra.” Do you mean in terms of repertoire? In terms of the demography of its participants? (I’m not disagreeing–just pursuing the thought further.)

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