Looking at music-making from many different angles

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Professor Lyndsey Copeland discusses her research and addressing the inequities embedded in the field of ethnomusicology


Article by Camille Rogers, Doctor of Musical Arts candidate, University of Toronto Faculty of Music & Centre for Sexual Diversity Studies, and Co-Artistic Director, OperaQ

The Faculty of Music’s newest ethnomusicology faculty member, Professor Lyndsey Copeland, often concentrates on “mundane and quotidian aspects of musical practice,” looking at music-making from many different angles. Copeland was recently awarded the Early Career Prize from the British Forum for Ethnomusicology for her article “The Anxiety of Blowing: Experiences of Breath and Brass instruments in Benin.” (As first prize winner, Copeland will give a keynote lecture at the BFE-RMA Research Students Conference in January 2022.). The article engages with various aspects of musical practice, from the visceral and embodied experiences of performers, to the emotional anxieties and attachments musicians feel towards their instruments and bodies, to the protective and preventative measures performers take in order to manage and alleviate anxieties.

Currently, Copeland is working on an ethnographic monograph about amateur brass bands in the Republic of Benin, West Africa. The book explores the musical techniques, material practices, and socio-political meanings of brass band performances in Beninese communities. She gives attention not to professional, star musicians but to “amateur musicians who play music part time, for fun, on second hand instruments,” often performing for social events, funerals, and religious ceremonies. “I, as a brass player was part of high school bands and marching bands and amateur brass bands…from New Orleans style to Balkan to Funk,” she says, explaining that for her, amateur music practice is worth acknowledging and studying.

Copeland is also interested in other small everyday practices around music, especially in the realm of “sound studies and virtual sonic interactions.” In the future, she would like to explore “how people connect via sound and musical practice online,” concentrating on the “small interpersonal human interactions that make musical and cultural moments meaningful.” Online trends such as ASMR and mokbung are particularly intriguing to her, simply as “sounds that people make in the dark on YouTube for others, to make others feel better.” The relative accessibility of digital sharing platforms has allowed for new types of musical connections, and Copeland believes that “moving away from elite musical practices and technology” could be one way of “encouraging fair representation in the study of music.”

Copeland’s ideal vision for ethnomusicology is inclusive, “one in which everyone who wants to be there is there, and we see a representation of the variety of the world's epistemologies and perspectives in our conversations, in our scholarly debates, and in which people treat each other with kindness and empathy and understanding.” More specifically, Copeland would like to see “constructive conversation and community building, and agreement on next steps that that we can take. There's been, for good reason, a lot of destruction and there's been a lot of impetus behind dismantling.” For Copeland, the important step of naming and acknowledging problems must be followed by more practical, concrete action. “I would really like to see rebuilding towards equity and justice, and ethical practice. And that's the hardest work.”

Anthropology and ethnography have been engaging with issues of racial justice for decades, and in the 1980s in particular, both fields went through a reconsideration and restructuring of their methods. Copeland explains that ethnographers “started reckoning with their positionality…often with their race, class, gender, [and] sexuality and how that infiltrated and influenced every aspect of their ethnographic work with other human beings.” Ethnomusicology, as a closely related discipline, went through a similar overhaul. “Fast forward forty years later and we're still thinking about these issues—as we should be!” However, Copeland adds that there is now an increased sense of urgency, which she believes may motivate more substantial change.

In the summer of 2020, Copeland continues, ethnomusicology as a field began to engage in a “renewed conversation about representation and inclusion,” sparked by critiques of the Society for Ethnomusicology as well as the discipline at large for failing to hold themselves accountable for ongoing racial inequities. Copeland points to a relatively new issue gaining attention: more people are asking the question of whether or not ethnomusicology itself should exist. “Something that's come out of more recent conversations is the perception that musicology is this kind of microcosm of all else that is wrong with the world,” Copeland explains. “It distills for us these issues of power and ideology and patriarchy and racism, in the practice of this particular discipline…in the practice of studying people making music.” Consequently, questions of ethics are more at the forefront of ethnomusicology than ever before. “I think there are a lot of people who want to do the right thing and maybe are not sure how to do that.”

What, then, can be done to address the current inequities embedded in the field? “I think about this issue a lot,” Copeland shares. “I think about the fact that I'm white…the fact that I now have a tenure track job and that many other people do not. And I think about how I, in my relative position of power…how I can help others?” She suggests several ways she and other colleagues can contribute on an individual level, including “bringing in new graduate students that we want to see flourish and lifting up other people's voices in my own writing and presentations.”

Beyond individual efforts, universities are best positioned to support meaningful change. Copeland suggests institutional strategies such as affirmative action in hiring and admission, including offering more funding sources for students, could support progress in terms of diversity across the field and particularly in positions of power. In the end, she says, it comes down to “making the decisions around hiring [and] admissions to include people. And I've seen some of that happening and that is encouraging.” She proposes another example from within U of T itself: “this past year, for the first time we changed the name of ‘world music ensembles’ to just be called ‘ensembles’ like any other. I think it's promising and productive that we are calling all ensembles ‘ensembles,’ because that's what they are. That's one way of leveling the playing field.”

“I think it's lamentable that humanities disciplines place such a premium on single authored publications. I would love to see more collaborative work, I would love to see more community engaged work, and I would love for that work to be given credit by institutions. ”�

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Copeland also points to “even more radical institutional hiring practices that acknowledge the value of different epistemological modes and different kinds of knowledge.” For example, she suggests one direction for universities could be “hiring to a tenured position someone who does not have a PhD but someone who is a community elder.” Copeland thinks this is a step towards valuing other types of work beyond publishing in peer-reviewed journals. “I think it's lamentable that humanities disciplines place such a premium on single authored publications,” Copeland explains. “I would love to see more collaborative work, I would love to see more community engaged work, and I would love for that work to be given credit by institutions.”