Faculty Spotlight: Dr. Rachel Whitcomb

rachel whitcombDr. Rachel Whitcomb, Associate Professor of Music Education, will be taking sabbatical this summer and fall to continue her work of developing a research project that will focus on the inclusion of popular music in public schools.

In addition, Whitcomb has recently been at the heart of a new ukulele class offered to graduate Law School students at Duquesne University. The class, discussed in more detail here, is a perfect example of the relevance of popular music and is geared at enjoying life through music.

Dr. Whitcomb offers the following insight into her upcoming research, the ukulele class, and the relationship between popular music and vernacular musicianship:

Within just the last few years, both the International Society for Music Education (ISME) and the National Association for Music Education (NAfME) have created commissions and special research interest groups focusing on popular music and vernacular musicianship. Teachers strive to provide activities that address the needs of their specific learners, and those needs vary from student to student, class to class, school to school, and community to community. My undergraduate students, soon to become beginning teachers, will need to acknowledge the types of music that their students enjoy in order to build rapport for further development of musical skills. The music that children listen to varies (e.g., popular, jazz, country, Americana, rap), so music teachers (particularly in middle school general music settings where curricular goals are not often documented) need to be ready to create lessons that are applicable to their specific students. I believe I can be of assistance to both pre-service and in-service music teachers by combining my prior knowledge of creativity and improvisation with my growing understanding of approaches to vernacular musicianship. By deepening my study of popular music pedagogy, I can assist our students in becoming creative, prepared teachers for elementary and middle school general music.

Popular musicians often learn informally, so the music education profession is working to learn more about these informal processes. The methodologies and approaches often used in general music classrooms will need to be adjusted to make room for more informal music learning, and teachers will need to have open minds about the inclusion of popular musical styles in order to be relevant in today's world. As a general music specialist, I am interested in reaching the general population. Preparing students to perform in traditional ensembles is, of course, vital. However, the majority of public school students will not be actively engaged in those endeavors but instead will listen to music, possibly learn an accompaniment instrument such as the guitar or ukulele, and purchase music for individual use. I want to give those students the tools and confidence to be musical in the future in as many ways as possible.  

A good example of the relevance of popular music right now on campus is a new ukulele class in the School of Law. The participants, who are graduate Law students, wanted a musical experience that would enhance their learning environment. We piloted the program this semester with four sessions. Since the goal of the class was to enjoy life throughmusic, I did not opt to teach musical notation. Instead, we learned five chords and a few strumming patterns and played along to songs like Taylor Swift's "Shake It Off" and Jason Mraz's "I'm Yours." I asked the students for song requests, and the songs were all radio-friendly in popular styles. We also composed a song together by determining a chord progression and brainstorming lyrics. The ukulele class is relevant to my upcoming research because for these busy graduate students, they are either going to make this kind of music in this class or they are not going to be actively involved in music at all. There is a need for this kind of group experience, and choosing popular music ensures more participation. 

During sabbatical this summer and fall, I'd like to find out what teachers are already doing to incorporate popular music into elementary and/or middle school music classrooms. In addition to the status of popular music in schools, I'd like to learn about teacher attitudes on the subject. I would also like to continue to work with the students in the School of Law to better understand their informal processes of learning music.

You can read more about Rachel by visiting her faculty profile page.


Duquesne University

Founded in 1878, Duquesne is consistently ranked among the nation's top Catholic universities for its award-winning faculty and horizon-expanding education. A campus of nearly 9,500 graduate and undergraduate students, Duquesne prepares students by having them work alongside faculty to discover and reach their goals. The University's academic programs, community service, and commitment to equity and opportunity in the Pittsburgh region have earned national acclaim. 

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