Forwarding folk: A discourse on the course

“Folk music can’t even pretend to be pretentious. It really just brings everybody’s heads down to the same space. And that’s what I love about it. When I sing a folk song I want it to be good. I want to pursue excellence in this craft. But in my pursuit of excellence I don’t want to lose anybody. In the folk department the higher up you go the more people you gain because they’re like ‘Oh my gosh I can do that too not because it’s easy, but because I can and it’s empowering” This is Michaela Stock a junior at Hope and a member of the folk department. She was part of folk’s recent revival performance outside the music building, and wanted to explain the importance of folk and its inclusivity. “My first year in folk ensemble there was a football player playing mandolin and he killed it. Yeah sometimes in practice he didn’t hit every note, but what was the most beautiful thing about folk was that you could go to the football team, hand them a piece of wood with strings on it and say ‘do your thing,’ and it’s acceptable as a craft as an art as a legitimate piece of music that’s real.

And there are not that many spaces in academia where you’re asked to get A’s where you can express and be legitimized at the same time.” Stock experienced this inclusivity firsthand coming to the music department freshman year, as she would continue to explain. “Something I felt first semester freshman year being a completely DYI (do it yourself) musician was coming into a space where there was a knowhow. There was a set of rules and a code of conduct that I obviously missed the memo on. Folk doesn’t really have that. We don’t even have a uniform for our concerts. You want to talk about accessibility? We’re singing Bob Dylan to an audience of kids ages 15 to 80. That is community. That’s saying to everybody out there that we’re the same.”

But folk holds special significance outside of individual experience. To learn more about this, I talked with Matthew Gilbert, a member of the class of 2019, a department representative of Hope’s music department, and the Vice President of Hope’s chapter of NAFME (the National Association for Music Educators). “Folk music is an essential part of American history. Classical music and everything we got from someone else, we got that from Europe, whereas American folk music was an American creation. It is part of our history as an American people” Gilbert then went on to explain folk’s prevalence at Hope “There were three to four [ensembles] with on average six to seven people, sometimes ten or twelve. I can also say firsthand as an audience member, the whole main bank of our concert hall was at least filled.

There’s passion among the performers in it as well as the audience members.” His description of folk’s typical audience is what I learned to call a full house from my time in theatre, an achievement made all the more prestigious when accounting for the size of the Jack Miller Concert Hall where they have performed. This makes Hope’s recent actions of almost entirely removing folk courses and changing the current folk ensemble to be a single credit course all the more perplexing. But the music department has continuously had a unique way of accrediting coursework, as Gilbert would go on to explain.

“Between years 1 and 3 the typical music major’s schedule is 17 to 21 credits.” Now this might not sound exceptional to students familiar with Hope’s credit intense pre-med or public accounting programs, but the music department has a further unique method of accredidation, as I discovered when Stock asked Gilbert about the credits received for MUS 214, a required 200 level course described in Hope’s course catalogue as a major requirement. “One credit.” That is what Matthew relayed as the accreditation for a course that meets three days a week for an hour, and Matthew quoted as “the fundamental building blocks of music.” He continued, citing the typical courseload and zero credit ensemble standard as key reasons why folk students were immensly frustrated by a normally zero credit ensemble course being raised an extra credit. Especially considering that “it’s required to take one ensemble, but as a major you’re expected to take three or four,” as Gilbert described With that perspective, it’s understandable that the music department might have felt need to reform.

However, Gilbert described their methods enacting this reform as less than ideal. “It’s just a big mosh pit of we don’t know” Michaela elaborated on the personal impacts of Hope’s confidentiality. “I feel ignored by the music department. To feel ignored as a student, to feel ignored as an artist, and to feel ignored as a department with needs within a greater whole that I know we can get resources from, it’s controlling, and it’s not looking at the bigger picture” She continued, saying, “Folk music has a history and is now the voice of the people. It’s like our democracy as artists. When you take away folk music, you take away our voice, and that’s what hurts the most.” This ideology led the folk students to play an hour long outdoor concert in front of the Jack Miller last week in suport of furthering a folk department and making folk ensemble zero credit ensemble course like the other ensembles.

Gilbert wanted to clarify that actions like that performance or the department’s silence do come from bad intentions. “I don’t think the department is trying to be malicious and shove folk out, but students want to keep the department.” Instead, Gilbert and Stock wanted to highlight the problem of ambiguity. Stock stated “Sometimes when I speak about the folk department, I feel like I’m speaking into a void. I wish that whoever was speaking would show their face and then see our faces, too.

We just want to be understood and understand back. [I wish] there was a way to have a dialogue besides just the email I got this week. I just want to know that the institution respects me like I respect them. Once we lay that groundwork, we can move forward in a way that is productive.” Gilbert finished the interview with this note to the department: “We as a department want to act as an example of Hope’s ideals. Hope is a place that’s inclusive to all people from all backgrounds, and that’s exactly what we want the music department to be: [open] to all forms of people and all forms of music. If the folk department isn’t there, then we’re not catering to all of what music can be and all of the opportunities future students could have.”

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