This past weekend, I spent four days in Louisville, Kentucky, attending the annual conference of the American Musicological Society. It was an amazing conference, and I thought this might be an interesting forum for reporting some of the highlights.
Being only six-and-a-half hours from home, I decided I would drive to the conference. That would have been pretty much a miserable decision on my part; however, one of my colleagues at work decided she would like to attend, and so we rode up together. Trust me, this is the way to spend hours on end in a car. In relatively good time, we found ourselves in Kentucky on Wednesday. We had some dinner and settled in for a whirlwind weekend.
My first word of warning to my co-worker, who had never attended AMS before was, “Don’t plan to sit through entire sessions. Give yourself at least one paper’s worth of downtime for each three-hour slot.” So, how do you suppose I spent my first session? Elbow deep in papers, of course. Truthfully, I couldn’t help myself. I went to the first two in order to support friends, but the topics were endlessly fascinating, and I just couldn’t leave. By dinnertime on the first day I’d seen thrilling research on French and Italian opera, German Expressionism, and the environmental sounds of war. Nerdy, to be sure, but I was hooked.
Thursday night consisted of dinner with friends old and new in the hotel restaurant followed by cocktails at a bar that also serves as an aquarium. We were off to a rousing good start.
Friday morning was slated for business on my end. I had several meetings scheduled, so I didn’t make it to any papers. Nonetheless, I ran into people in the hallways that developed into numerous conversations that revved my creative engines and brought lots of excitement about my research and my teaching.
Then, I attended one of my favorite things of the weekend. The Committee on Career-Related Issues (not a very stream-lined name…) sponsored a panel discussion on careers in musicology outside of teaching. The panel included representatives from the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, a sound archive, an art museum, an editor, and a worship director at a Catholic university. The discussion involved not only career opportunities for musicologists who don’t want to (or cannot) teach, but strove to loosen the grip of the stigma attached to non-academic vocations in musicology. This was a re-affirming boost to the self-esteem of all of us who have struggled with the teaching market of the past decade. It was well worth cramming myself into an overheated, tiny, and awkwardly spaced room!
After breaking away from musicology for a much-needed and thoroughly enjoyable coffee break with my cousin, I returned just in time to catch a paper on 19th-century orchestral song – right up my alley! And suddenly, I was back in the groove…
Friday night was one where all of my arduous and innocent intentions were led merrily astray. I had planned to attend a pedagogical workshop and panel, but having encountered a large group of friends, some of whom I hadn't seen in years, I opted to take the night off for pizza and fun. And both were had in spades!
Saturday became a cram session with full panels on music in Disney film and a series of papers discussion “music and the nerves” in the nineteenth century. I also had another important meeting before rushing off to yet another session on using popular music as a teaching tool for ideas of rhythm. There was dancing and laughing and drumming – good times!
After the panel, I met up with a friend to relax and ended up having a fascinating conversation with someone else about a writing program instituted at his institution. I’m always delighted to hear about music programs that value a well-rounded approach in their students’ education. I spent the entire evening focusing on the aspect of musicology that means the most to me – teaching. It made my soul happy just to be there.
Sunday was the final day of the conference, and that morning was the session I had been the most excited about. It was all about Mahler –aaahhh! So good! I’ve been a regular fixture at Mahler sessions since my first AMS conference in 2005, but this year was the first time I truly felt like I belonged there. Several friends were in attendance, and for the first time (at a Mahler session anyway), I felt brave enough to ask a question!
It's funny how one questions their own authority as a scholar in an environment like an AMS conference. Everyone there is educated and knowledgeable about music, and as such, there is almost a caste system in place. Students seem to be at the bottom of the totem pole, followed by people who don’t teach, folks who teach part time, those working for smaller institutions, the faculty of larger school, and we are all seemingly led by a handful of “superstars.” I guess I made a step up the ladder this year, which is nice, but I can’t say the system makes me terribly comfortable. Nonetheless, even though one rarely hears it talked about, it is definitely there.
So, here’s the thing. I was so excited to put my thoughts into words when I got back from the conference, but the longer it went unfinished, the more I found myself thinking, “What am I actually trying to say?” Yes, it was great to be surrounded by like-minded people and to have a time to surround myself with musicology, but ultimately, I’m not sure what else there is to say.
Molly M. Breckling holds a Ph.D. in Historical Musicology from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Her areas of research interest are the songs of Gustav Mahler, popular music, and music history pedagogy. Her goal is to help others listen to music more actively and to develop a greater appreciation for the music that surrounds us every day.