Picturing Music History: A Community-Based Public Musicology Class Project

A few years ago, based on increasing student interest, I was asked to create my college’s first course in Black American music history. I use a variety of media in my teaching, from primary sources to film to comics to picture books. It is this last format that provided the inspiration for my students’ capstone project in the Spring 2022 semester.

Julia Grella O’Connell, D.M.A., SUNY Broome

I teach in the music department of a community college, where I’m the sole musicologist on the faculty. A few years ago, based on increasing student interest, I was asked to create my college’s first course in Black American music history. This class, From Spirituals to Hip Hop: American Music of the African Diaspora (MUS 113) has run every semester for the past five years, is part of the music history sequence, fulfills the college’s DEI requirement, and has a high cross-enrollment. My teaching locates the study of Black American music in the context of the political and social history of the United States from the 16th to the 21st centuries, and focuses on the symbiosis between music and culture, in which culture both creates music and is created by music. While for the first few semesters of MUS 113’s existence, my course was the sole repository of teaching about the contributions of Black musicians and composers across genres in the music history sequence, my college’s strategic plan now encourages the foregrounding of composers and musicians of color in the standard music history courses as well. I use a variety of media in my teaching, from primary sources to film to comics to picture books. It is this last format that provided the inspiration for my students’ capstone project in the Spring 2022 semester.

As a musicologist in the community college setting, I see my work as embodying public musicology. In keeping with this spirit, I wanted to devise an alternative to traditional assessment models for MUS 113. My students enter the classroom with widely divergent skills, resources, degrees of preparation, and background knowledge. I strive to bring to the fore the unique abilities and perspectives of each student in order to ensure success. I have found that creating project-based assessments is a great tool for individualizing student success and grading for equity. And, beyond optimizing student performance, my project-based assessments are portable: they can, and have, gone out of the classroom and into the wider community, where they serve as multi-generational teaching tools, raising awareness of our area’s place in the struggle for the full rights of citizenship for Black Americans. For Spring 2022, I wanted to situate my students’ work as much as possible in our local community of Central New York State. I decided to do so by assigning students a capstone project that asked them to create picture books about local music history.

A picture showing the front covers of eleven picture books on the subject of BIPOC musicians.
Part of my collection of picture books.

I have long used picture books in the classroom. They are wonderful teaching tools for all ages and abilities. Because of the restrictions of the genre, effective picture books must demonstrate subject authority in the highly concentrated form of clear and simple text and arresting images. Picture books invite a multisensory experience of learning which appeals to diverse learning styles. The extraordinary illustrations in the best picture books are for many students an introduction to ways of embodying complex meaning through symbolism, a visual parallel to the sonic meaning expressed in music. The ability to create a convincing picture book is contingent on a high level of content knowledge and critical thinking, and engages multiple intelligences across the various aspects of the work.

For my students’ picture book capstone project, I divided the class into three groups and assigned a different subject to each: folk guitarist Elizabeth “Libba” Cotten, who spent the last twenty years of her life in nearby Syracuse; ragtime pianist and composer Charles Cohen, who migrated from Georgia to Binghamton, New York, with a traveling medicine show around the turn of the twentieth century; and avant-garde composer, singer, and pianist Julius Eastman, who grew up in Ithaca and spent many years teaching and performing at SUNY Buffalo.

I assigned students to their groups after a couple of weeks of observing their work in the classroom. Because little is known about Charles Cohen, his group would need to do “out of the box” research. This group needed to have a good number of locally-based students who were relatively comfortable conducting research in person, interviewing community knowledge bearers like the county historian. Elizabeth Cotten is a well-known figure, about whom there are at least two picture books already, but I wanted another, richer take on her life. Of the two pre-existing picture books, one has a verboseness that weighs down the narrative, and the other uses a grayish color palette and a smudgy drawing technique that fail to convey the vitality of Cotten’s story; the challenge for the Cotten group would be to improve upon this existing work. To this group I assigned students who were newer to research techniques. As for Julius Eastman, there are no children’s books about him yet, and he is a challenging figure to present in this highly stylized format, not only because of the complexity of his music but also because of his unabashed queerness, his use of racial and sexual slurs in the titles of his pieces, and his tragic and untimely death. How does one distil Eastman and his work into simple text and pictures? To the Eastman group, I assigned the most intellectually sophisticated, curious, and musically advanced students.

The students were responsible for every aspect of the creation of their picture books. They self-divided into work teams within their groups dedicated to research, concept, writing, and art. Work deadlines were staggered by team, since the concept was dependent on the research, and the writing and art were dependent on the concept. To prepare for their work, students had access to my own extensive classroom collection of picture books about Black history and music\, and I devised a library system by which students could check out and return my books. They were also encouraged to use the public library and the small children’s book collection in our college library. Students were required to read and analyze a minimum of ten picture books, closely reading and describing the art, the font, the layout, the language, and the storyline, to familiarize themselves with the elements of a successful picture book biography. To keep each group member accountable for their own work—the bane of group projects!—each student was required to fill out a Personal Accountability Log every time they worked on the project, and to turn it in weekly. The college library made meeting space available to the students so that they could collaborate outside of class. At several points throughout the semester, each group’s teams presented their progress during class time, and several class periods were also dedicated to working on the project.

  • Picture of the cover of the picture book for Charles Cohen.
  • Picture of the cover of the picture book for Elizabeth Cotton.

The Charles Cohen and Elizabeth Cotton books are pictured here. Both are delightful, and demonstrate my students’ wonderful commitment and enthusiasm. Sadly, the Julius Eastman book did not come to fruition. The group engaged in some impressive research (including a phone interview with Julius Eastman’s brother), and developed an intriguing concept: echoing the repeated, eponymous text of Eastman’s piece “Stay On It,” to show that, in spite of Eastman’s difficult life, his perseverance in the face of many challenges can be a message of hope. However, a combination of personal difficulties and intrapersonal conflict within the Eastman group resulted in an incomplete project.

I received a small grant from the college foundation for this project, which I put towards printing costs (the books were color-printed and spiral-bound at Staples). Each student received a copy of the book they worked on, and copies were also deposited in the SUNY Broome library. At the end of the semester, in a wonderful act of public musicology, my class assembled at a local urban public school where they read their books to fourth graders, who turned out to be a highly engaged and receptive audience!

A tiled image of Dr. O'Connell with her students and their picture books, including some of the books' inside pages.
Dr. O’Connell with her students and their picture books.

I plan to return to the picture book project in future semesters. I’ve found it to be a fun and exciting way to inspire students, to situate and increase awareness of Black music history within our local community, and to create objects of beauty and interest that can be used as intergenerational teaching tools across grade levels and ages. In addition to advancing equity in assessment and drawing upon multiple intelligences, the picture book project can serve as an act of public musicology, taking students from the college into the community and making them ambassadors of local music history. I hope to resurrect the Julius Eastman picture book assignment in a future class, but for fall of 2022 we did something different, though equally engaging: an historical reenactment, with authentic music, of a famous abolitionist convention that took place in our area of Central New York.

Julia Grella O’Connell, D.M.A., SUNY Broome