Q&A with the editors of SOUND PEDAGOGY

Colleen Renihan, John Spilker, and Trudi Wright, editors of Sound Pedagogy: Radical Care in Music, answers questions on their new book.

Q: Why did you decide to write this book?  

Colleen Renihan (CR): As I write in my chapter in the book, in 2018, our university struggled with several events that revealed ingrained, systemic racism at the university and within the School of Drama and Music specifically. We had several town halls in which we sought to talk about these issues, but it became clear that curricular interventions would also be necessary. I began talking with students about empathy in opera in my courses, but realized that the conversation was bigger than this. Building on William Cheng’s Just Vibrations, John, Trudi, and I recognized that a conversation about how a pedagogy of care in Music could be transformative.  

John Spilker (JS): Many people helped me see the need for a pedagogy rooted in care. The transition from the PhD to a liberal arts teaching institution was exciting and challenging. To support me, ten years ago, Provost Judy Muyskens appointed me to work on our summer New Student Welcome/Orientation Programs under the collaborative leadership of Karri Sanderson, our former Dean for Student Engagement. Karri taught me how to see students holistically. Looking at my classroom, I noticed how my primary focus on intellectual rigor overshadowed my passion for emotional development and well-being. At that time, a student leader, Kaitlin Beck, introduced me to the work of Brené Brown, and the rest is history. My PhD advisor, Denise Von Glahn, always supported my holistic intellectual-emotional growth and reminded me, “you always have options.” During the pandemic, my spiritual leader, Rev. Dr. Kirstie J. Engel, equipped me with leadership tools on boundaries, conflict transformation, and nonviolence as a way of living. All of these influences support my continued work developing and refining a pedagogy of care and equity. 

Trudi Wright (TW): As I started on the tenure track at Regis University, our school lost two, bright young students to suicide. These tragedies were the beginning of my search for a more caring pedagogy in the classroom due to the mental health crisis our students are experiencing. What I find most heartening about this project is that care can show up as so many different strands in the classroom. When professors intentionally infuse forms of care into their classes, students are being supported by a web of that care.  

Q: What is the most interesting discovery you made while researching and writing your book?  

CR: Care is complicated. But: I was not only buoyed to learn that many others (Magnet, Mason, & Trevenen; Leah Lakshmi Piepzna-Samarasinha) recognize the fraught and complicated nature of care, but that despite its complicated nature, it is nevertheless still a fruitful orientation.  

JS: Musicology is a pedagogical act with a transformative intra-disciplinary impact. Care is inextricably linked with intersectional equity. Interdisciplinary work and collaboration are vital to music and equity. Care-based work is complicated, often falling on individuals from minoritized groups, who receive little care from others or space to care for themselves and their communities. In our post-COVID landscape, managers extract care-based work through toxic-positivity and emotional labor, tools of unfettered capitalism and neoliberalism. 

TW: We have to work at care. If we want to show our students care in the classroom (and for us, care is system that is built, not just a few moments sprinkled into a course), we have to weave care into the way we work with colleagues and the way we treat ourselves.  

Q: What myths do you hope your book will dispel or what do you hope your book will help readers unlearn? 

CR: We and our contributors write in the book about the many ways that Music as a discipline harbours values like perfectionism, individualism, rigour, and competition—many of the things featured in Tema Okun’s articulation of white supremacy culture. These are so deeply embedded in our curricula and practices that they go unnoticed and uncontested. We hope through the book to shed a light on some of these practices that may prevent pedagogies of care from taking root. 

JS: In 2023, music programs in the United States remain sites of unchecked manipulation, abuse, trauma, and unhealthy competition for many, but especially those with minoritized identities. This truth runs contrary to the colonizer view that we often state: “music heals,” or “music speaks when words fail.” These vague platitudes overlook diverse musics and communities along with their rich ways of knowing, and silence divergent experiences and perspectives that could strengthen our music communities. Working together, we can listen, name, resist, and repair ideologies and practices that cause harm. Drawing from Ch. 21 of bell hooks’s Critical Thinking (Routledge, 2010), faculty can lead the way by using mental health resources to do our own vital inner work. Through reflective praxis, we can transform our behaviors and the learning environments we lead. 

TW: As my brilliant colleagues have articulated, we don’t want readers to just accept the way things have always been in our music schools. This is a very important historical moment that gives us the opportunity to question unequitable, uncaring structures in our university music programs and form new systems with care at the root of our practices.  

Q: Which part of the publishing process did you find the most interesting?  

CR: The support we received from Laurie Matheson has been a true blessing. 

JS: Over the course of six years, we developed a care-based system of collaboration rooted in our research, and it impacts our teaching. I am amazed by the ways in which the project changed over time as we allowed our work to be responsive to communal needs and social issues. I’m grateful for the ways that Colleen and Trudi have shaped the ways I live, love, learn, and lead.  

TW: We worked with incredible contributors and editors. I am so proud to be part of this truly collaborative process.  

Q: What is your advice to scholars/authors who want to take on a similar project? 

CR: The collaborative aspect of this co-edited collection has been incredibly difficult, but well worth it. As academics, we don’t often give ourselves the time or space to have lengthy conversations about the issues we write about. It has been an immense growth experience to have worked with such caring, thoughtful pedagogues as Joh and Trudi. 

JS: Collaborate, take risks, and ask for help! I never would have published a book-length work on my own. Some of my best ideas, research, and writing are located in the collaborative introduction. Trudi and Colleen have deeply influenced my writing, researching, thinking, and teaching. To date, our introduction is the piece of writing of which I am most proud. We experienced some painful failures that left us feeling unsure and isolated during 2020. We broke our silence and reached out to senior scholars for help, and they showed up in a mighty way, reassuring us and connecting us to resources so we could be successful. 

TW: If you keep care at the center of your collaboration, a project like this is life-changing. That can only be possible if you have the right team in place. Colleen and John are fantastic collaborators!! 

Q: What do you like to read/watch/or listen to for fun? 

CR: I love to read stories about mothering, and I love reading Canadian authors. I’m half-watching too many series to list here! 

JS: I enjoy reading historical nonfiction on wellbeing topics and racial (in)justice in the United States. I just finished The Warmth of Other Suns by Isabel Wilkerson. I love The Simpsons, historical period dramas (The Crown), Henry Louis Gates, Jr.’s PBS documentaries, and horror films (The Conjuring series). I love dancing to 1990s/2000s R&B, neo-soul, and queer pop. I enjoy listening to Ella Fitzgerald, Eryka Badue, Jill Scott, Jazzmeia Horn, Madonna, Beyoncé, and Prince. Some of my hobbies include genealogical research, tending a plant-rich freshwater fish tank, visiting cemeteries, and collecting coins and wine. 

TW: I love listening to audiobooks of fiction, and musical theater cast albums. I live with two sports fans, so I watch a lot of football, golf, and basketball (Go Nuggets!). I also like to keep up with the news on National Public Radio.  

Colleen Renihan is an associate professor and Queen’s National Scholar in Music Theatre and Opera at Queen’s University. She is the author of The Operatic Archive: American Opera as History.

John Spilker is an associate professor of music at Nebraska Wesleyan University.

Trudi Wright is an associate professor of music and director of the music program at Regis University.

About Kristina Stonehill