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PCC and Pragmatic Music Theory

Some of us still remember what music class was like in elementary school. For some, the memory is of experimenting with rite-of-passage instruments like the paper-towel-tube maraca or the kazoo. As we honed our musical talents through 4th and 5th grades, we progressed to the instrument of all instruments, the recorder. I can still hear the perennial recorder staple, “Three Blind Mice,” playing in my head, thanks to my elementary school music teacher, Ms. Albo. But ultimately, it is the music teacher who strives to find creative ways to make music relevant to students who makes the biggest difference.
[quote float=”right”]By placing the focus of music study on the goals of the students rather than confining it to sheet music, the instructors at PCC are able to universalize and connect local musicians from all sorts of backgrounds and skill levels into a community of artists.[/quote] The Pueblo Community College music department, headed by Dave Edwards, is one place in the city where the study of practical theory is being revived. By placing the focus of music study on the goals of the students rather than confining it to sheet music, the instructors at PCC are able to universalize and connect local musicians from all sorts of backgrounds and skill levels into a community of artists. This elasticity is reflected in the teaching methods of Judith DeRosa and Rick Stanton, a guitar instructor at the college.

Stanton stands out as a great example of an experienced musician turned educator, working to contribute to the vision of PCC’s music program by passing on the knowledge of how to convey theory and the creative process to his students in relevant ways. What sets PCC apart is its pragmatic and adaptable approach to teaching and learning music. In this sense, the program’s mission is somewhat unconventional with respect to the more classic model for teaching music that might be found in the academy. Stanton’s musical background has deep foundations in rock n’ roll, jazz, and the blues, all of which developed and thrived through breaks from convention. Similarly, PCC is breaking both tradition and new ground.

As a musician who developed his sound and style through playing with a diverse collection of musicians, and also through experimentation, Stanton begins his pedagogy from the premise that “music is alive.” And, for this reason, extra attention is paid in Stanton’s classes to cultivating the knowledge and tools that provide the most expedient route for students to develop the skills of improvisation. Part of Stanton’s philosophy is that, “If you give people the tools to develop and express their music, they will create.”

To Stanton, learning to play music is like learning a new language and playing music is like having a conversation. So, Stanton encourages his novice students to begin finding their sound from what feels natural, and to build fundamentals from their interests.

However, beginners aren’t the only musicians pursuing music at PCC. [quote float=”left”]Stanton also works with professional-caliber artists – many self-taught – who are seeking to refine their skills or to better understand why they play the way they play.[/quote]  For some of his more advanced students, the tone of the classroom is more about collaboration and community. That is to say, the focus of their lessons is on learning to jam and perform with others, because learning to write lead for a song performed by a band is a beast much different from playing solo.

Accordingly, Stanton, along with his colleagues at PCC, is working on a project that will culminate in the creation of a stage band. The idea is that this group will receive college credit to jointly study the nuts and bolts of creating and being part of a professional band, but also will showcase the broad talent of musicians studying at PCC.

As Stanton simply states, “music is alive” and has within it the capacity for “endless creativity.” So, where PCC is helping to bridge the gap between classical music education and practical music theory, Rick Stanton is helping Pueblo musicians realize their ordinary genius.

By Matt Ramirez

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