Whose ears are you listening with?

Challenge yourself – we dare you.



In my first year of university, my composition teacher Larry Sitsky introduced me to the inimitable composer Harry Partch. Partch had his own set of ears; meaning he heard music very differently to everyone else.

Instead of utilising 12 semitones in one octave, Partch created the Genesis scale: a microtonal scale that divided the octave into 43 different tones (if you want to know how he did this, watch this clip).

As traditional instruments and notation did not cater for this microtonal approach, Partch set about creating a series of instruments that were built specifically for the purpose of playing his compositions based on the Genesis scale.

Sitsky loaned me a number of records (yes, I went to university in the days of vinyl) and dared me to listen to nothing other than the music of Partch for one whole week. I accepted his challenge and committed myself to a week of nothing other than ‘And on the seventh day, petals fell in Petaluma’, and other such mind-bending sonic creations.

I was living on campus at the time, and I’m sure I drove my neighbours batty. However, by the end of this week-long walk through the microtonal park, two startling things occurred:

  1. I started to make sense of Partch’s music. I could hear melodies, harmonic progressions and form. This seemed remarkable to me, as when I started the week, all I heard was nonsense (remember that, at this point in time, I was a girl of 18 years who had not been exposed to a great deal of modern music).
  1. Western music (based on an octave divided into 12 tones) sounded chunky and incomplete. The steps in between each note seemed huge to my now-changed ears, and somehow, quite unsatisfying. I had entered the world of Partch.

I had changed my ears.

In listening to works for wind band, particularly for younger, less-experienced groups, I wonder what ears we are listening with? Are they our own ears, governed by personal taste and life experience? Or are they ears that have been conveniently moulded into the form of ‘this is what a school band should sound like’? When selecting repertoire, should we be asking ourselves: ‘How relevant are my ears to my students? And how much should I consider how the world sounds to them?’?

I honestly believe that if we continue to play same-sounding repertoire at all levels, not only will the wind band genre completely stagnate, it will cease to cultivate future generations of listening, thinking musicians.

Selecting repertoire that ‘sounds like a band’ (as opposed to listening with ‘different ears’) may just be responsible for breeding cohorts of students who believe that instrumental music has one ‘sound’. And perhaps, just perhaps, these students do not continue with their music making after school because ‘they’ve heard all there is to hear’? Perhaps the sameness of the wind band genre, both in terms of colour and form (particularly in works for young students), is part of the reason that some students are not engaging in life-long music making?

So next time you are listening to repertoire for your ensemble to play, consider listening with new ears. Add a little Partch into the mix and instead of dismissing a newly found composer because their music doesn’t ‘sound like a band’, listen more closely, more intently. Listen more than once and look deeply into their scoring technique and musical intent. Perhaps they are breaking from the norm because they truly have something to say? Perhaps that composer is exploring new territory and doing their best to inject growth into the genre? Perhaps that odd-sounding work is a hidden gem that students will love, and that will also challenge you as a musician and conductor? (And what doesn’t kill us makes us stronger, right?)

If we’re to keep this band thing alive in our schools, we must start listening with a different set of ears.

Be brave. Be Bold. Be Partch.

I dare you.


Listen to Jodie Blackshaw with your own ears when St. Olaf College Concert Band performs her piece Twist on January 23 at The Drum Theatre, and in A Soldier’s Return at the Canberra International Music Festival on May 4.


About the writer

Have you ever played a ‘Blackshaw’ with your wind ensemble? If you have, then you know that a work by this Australian composer-educator is different from the norm. You will also know that it takes you, the director, on an alternate educational pathway that for some, is a little uncomfortable at first. That said you would also know that it is a surprise package, an audience favourite and presents you the director with interesting conducting challenges.

Such is the work of Jodie Blackshaw.

Jodie Blackshaw (b. 1971) grew up in the Riverina, NSW and after completing high school, and studied a Bachelor of Music (Composition) with Professor Larry Sitsky at the Australian National University School of Music. Since then, she has worked in a range of schools teaching classroom/instrumental music and conducting ensembles.

Through her teaching, conducting and composing, Blackshaw has passionately searched for a compositional approach to band that offers directors a product that centres on musical elements other than melody and harmony. In 2006, Jodie won the inaugural Frank Ticheli Composition Contest with her work Whirlwind and has since travelled throughout Australia, the United States, Canada and the UAE as a guest composer and creative music teaching clinician. Highlights of these travels include twice presenting at the prestigious Midwest Clinic in Chicago, the premiere of her emotionally compelling work, Soulström with the UNT Symphonic Wind Band under the baton of Professor Dennis Fisher, and her residency as the Joy Anthony Douglass Visiting Master Teacher at the Crane School of Music, State University of New York (Potsdam).

In 2016, Jodie launched her Off the Podium professional development webinar series, connecting like-minded, creative band directors throughout the world. She is currently studying a PhD in Composition at the Australian National University with a focus on composing music for children influenced by brain-based educational principles. Blackshaw is fanatical about producing quality, meaningful works for band and is frequently commissioned by various groups throughout the Western world to do just that. She desires that her music not just be “another piece, but an educational and spiritual journey for both the players and the director”.

This blog was published on Jodie Blackshaw’s website, where you can find out more about the composer.



Featured image: Naika Lieva via Flickr, CC BY-SA 2.0.

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