The Trombonist-Turned-Musicologist (No, this is Not a Joke): How Embracing my Past Defined my Future

We are excited today to share a guest post by Alyssa Wells about her path from playing trombone and baritone in bands to pursuing a PhD in Musicology. Thank you, Alyssa, for sharing your story!

Wells - Headshot.jpgAlyssa Wells is a Musicology PhD student and Rackham Merit Fellow at the University of Michigan. Her research interests include: labor union and industry bands, protest music, the politics of sound and space, and communist and socialist composers. Before coming to the University of Michigan, she completed master’s degrees at the University of Massachusetts Amherst in Musicology (M.M.) and German and Scandinavian Studies (M.A.). While at UMass, her research on Hanns Eisler and music festivals in the German Democratic Republic received funding from the German Academic Exchange Service (DAAD). Alyssa also holds a B.A. in Music (trombone) and German Studies from Western Michigan University. In her free time, she enjoys running, cooking, telling terrible jokes, and making annoying puns.

If you would have told 19-year-old me that I am now just about halfway done with a PhD in musicology, I would have probably laughed…

Figure 1 – Alyssa, aged 19. Clearly enthused about musicology

…In fact, until the past year, musicology had never truly felt “natural” to me. The field was intriguing and inspiring enough to decide to devote my life to it, but what I studied simply did not furnish me with the same deep personal connection that I consistently witnessed my colleagues experiencing. 

I found temporary refuge in studying composers who engaged in musical endeavors that I viewed as valuable. I had grown up in a nonmusical family, in a community that had little access to professional music making—a fact that became acutely apparent to me as I realized that almost all my peers at Western Michigan University had received professional lessons prior to beginning their bachelor’s degrees. While working on my master’s degrees at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, I was led to the communist composer Hanns Eisler and the circles in which he traveled. I admired their efforts to make music accessible to all by providing public opportunities for music education. I couldn’t help but think that if my parents had received the type of education that Eisler and his colleagues were attempting to implement, they would not have mistakenly bought me a hat that says “TRUMPET” (I play trombone…) or taken countless pictures of a random girl with a mellophone when I marched in drum and bugle corps (I played baritone…).

Studying like-minded individuals who seemed to be working toward preventing similarly endearing mistakes sustained me for some time. Yet, I would get the nagging feeling that something was not quite right every time a colleague would chatter away excitedly about a piece or performance studying. What was driving my complete apathy towards the music to which I was devoting my life? By my second year at the University of Michigan, I began to see that the path I was on was not sustainable. I needed to find something that I could throw myself into on a more permanent basis, so I decided that if I could figure out what had led me to be in this position in the first place, perhaps I could combine these formative experiences into something I could use as a dissertation topic. What follows is a much more organized (and significantly less angsty) depiction of my academic soul searching, accompanied by my conclusions, or “dissertation essentials.”

I quickly realized that my educational path had been driven by my love for brass instruments and music education. I began to play trombone as a middle school student, having chosen the instrument because it had “less buttons” than my nemesis, the piano. (By the time I would finish my bachelor’s degree, I would learn that this sentiment seems to reflect the personality of most trombone players rather accurately.) I was truly a band nerd in high school, rarely having more fun and being more invested in music than during marching band. Because of this, I ended up marching drum and bugle corps for five years with the Glassmen and Carolina Crown and grew addicted to the enjoyment and excitement people could gain through music.

Fig2Figure 2 – Alyssa (left) performing with Carolina Crown (2009)

By the time I began college I was hooked. I knew I wanted to be involved in music for the rest of my life. Reflecting on what initially ignited my passion for my music helped me articulate two of my “dissertation essentials:”

Dissertation essential #1: The music I study should be exciting and enjoyable.

Dissertation essential #2: Band.

I began my time at Western Michigan University on the wait-list to join the trombone studio and become a music education major. By the time I became a member of the studio in my second semester, I realized that I would be financially unable to be a music education major because, when compounded with my interest in a German degree, it would require a fifth year of me. Nevertheless, my always supportive trombone professor, Steve Wolfinbarger, continued to push me to be the best trombonist I could be while I pursued a dual Bachelor of Arts degree in music and German studies.

Figure 3 – Dr. Wolfinbarger expressing why Alyssa wasn’t a performance major (2012)

His passion for pedagogy and genuine concern and investment in his students was essential to my completion of the degree. Additionally, the performances and presence of the incredibly talented professor of tuba and euphonium Deanna Swoboda, not to mention the continued international success of my female studio-mates, provided a strong antidote to the sexist environment of drum corps that I experienced every summer.

Dissertation essential #3: Pedagogy and education are important to me.

            Dissertation essential #4: Women are musicians, too.

For two and a half years, I floated through school, taking the required German and music courses. I had no real plan but thought that I could figure things out.

Figure 4 – Alyssa enjoying German things in Vienna (2010)

By the end of my junior year at WMU, I discovered that there was a field where I could write about music and German literature: musicology. Thrilled by the idea that I could perhaps do something with my life, I pursued musicology as a career.

            Dissertation essential #5: I like German things.

I began a master’s degree in musicology at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. My first year was apparently too easy, as I began a second degree during my second year and would graduate in my third year with an additional master’s degree in German and Scandinavian Studies. I believe that I survived my first years of graduate school thanks to my time in drum corps.

Figure 5 – Alyssa and her family on graduation day in Amherst (2015)

While in high school, drum corps fueled my passion for music and while I was at WMU, it provided me with a distraction from the woes of being an undergraduate. By the time I reached graduate school, I realized that it had also taught me to work hard, fight through adversity, and take criticism well. An outcome of my time marching that resulted from the unfortunate reality of sexism in the activity was that I also had grown to feel as if I constantly needed to prove myself—in the context of DCI this was largely because I was often one of the only women in the section. Translated to graduate school, this pushed me to overachieve, but this time in a slightly less sexist context.

Dissertation essential #6: Don’t give up. Finish this dissertation. Just. Keep. Going.

One of the most fortunate events during my existential-crisis-turned-self-evaluation was working toward my ethnomusicology minor as a part of my musicology PhD. I saw a chance to pursue a topic that had seemed to be forbidden by musicology: marching band and drum and bugle corps. One thing led to another and I was given the opportunity to do research with drum corps in Japan and the Netherlands through the Center for World Performance Studies, exploring what the activity means to individuals and how it fits into their lives.

Fig6Figure 6 – Alyssa with the Tokushima Indigoes Drum & Bugle Corps (2017)

I ultimately learned that drum corps and marching band still has a hold on my own life. Together with the work I was doing on music festivals in East Germany, I almost felt like I had something sustainable. Every item on my “dissertation essentials” list would be satisfied, even if it meant perpetuating musicology’s problem of excluding the study of wind and brass bands and the marching arts. But being a self-proclaimed over-achiever, I of course needed to expand on my list.

Dissertation essential #7: Sticking to the dissertation essentials is fulfilling.

I hit my lucky break while doing some background research for a final paper. I came across photographs of marching bands that accompanied labor unions during parades and protests in the United States between the two World Wars. I began to ask: Who were these people? Where did they learn their instruments? What music did they play? Did they accompany the labor union choirs that have been researched so extensively? I came to the realization that just because wind bands and marching ensembles do not occupy a prominent position in the musicological canon did not mean that I had to ignore the subject all together. Perhaps most importantly, the heavy involvement of German communist émigrés in labor unions and workers’ movements. I realized that pursuing this subject meant that I could make use of all of the dissertation essentials I had outlined.

In exploring the topic further, I came to realize that my extensive first-hand experience as a female baritone and trombone player in marching ensembles has given me the insights to ask questions that have not been extensively researched. For example, I am particularly aware of the physical body and the space that it occupies. Although a drum corps and marching band can motivate a sense of unity between the individual and the ensemble, the scarcity of women within the brass section meant that this unity would never be complete; jokes and sexist comments ran rampant and casting decisions were heavily influenced by gender rather than ability. This leads me to question how individuals felt their place in the wind ensembles and marching bands that were a part of labor union music making. These questions lead me to even larger avenues for investigation that relate to the politics of performing in public, how visible identities form meaning, and how the sound of a marching band can compel bodies to act.

In turning to my past, I learned that it is possible for me to feel the same fulfillment as my colleagues with my own research. Instead of being discouraged by the lack of scholarship in musicology about wind or brass bands, I have grown encouraged. I do not need to turn to orchestral or operatic music, I can study the music with which I have personal experience. I do not need to focus on music that people paid to see, I can instead learn about music that was blasted on the streets for all to hear. I do not need to eliminate my passion for education and pedagogy, I can ask how other people learned music. I can use my research to explore how others who were uprooted from the places and music with which they are most comfortable learned to adapt and redirect their passion while continuing to help others. Without the sum of my experiences informed by the trombone and baritone, I would not have found this passion for research that has been ignited within me.


Dissertation essential #8: Keep finding ways to have fun with what you do.

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