Traditional music degree on tap at UL.
In a 1965 editorial, titled “They Call That Music??!!” Burton Grindstaff wrote in the Opelousas Daily World: “Cajuns brought some mighty fine things down from Novia [sic] Scotia with them, including their jolly selves, but their so-called music is one thing I wish they hadn’t.”
Now that UL Lafayette is poised to offer a degree program in traditional music (read: Cajun and zydeco), Grindstaff may be turning over in his grave. At the same time, there’s a good chance Dewey Balfa, Gladius Thibodeaux, Revon Reed and Louis LeJeune have played “Lacassine Special” and other Cajun standards in the great beyond countless times since the word got out.
Recently, the Louisiana Board of Regents approved a new bachelor of arts program in music with traditional music and music business as two areas of major study at UL. Now it’s up to the National Association of Schools of Music to grant it accreditation.
“In traditional music, there are very few programs like it in the country,” says Dr. Mark DeWitt, who joined the UL faculty in 2010 as the inaugural holder of the Dr. Tommy Comeaux Endowed Chair in Traditional Music. “So we’re really doing something new here.”
And such newness will apply to the way traditional music playing is taught, and locally that means by ear as opposed to “academically” traditional.
“What I would like is this: Basically, yes, that the traditional music will be taught in an un-traditional way,” says DeWitt, who doesn’t see developing music books so students can read traditional music notes. “That’s not the point.”
However, lyrics are another aspect where singing in French and pronunciation are important, and DeWitt is cool with instructional books. “But as far as reading the notes, that’s not what I had in mind,” he says. “Now, for an accredited bachelor of arts in music, will they need to learn how to read music? Yes. So, my plan there is to propose that they learn how to read music, but not for their major, traditional instrument program.”
In the meantime, courses and camps have been around for years in the area teaching people how to play traditional music on the traditional instruments. Dr. Garth Alper, department head of the School of Music and Performing Arts, doesn’t see a problem.
“We already have a partnership with a lot of the same people,” Alper says. “We’re certainly looking to support all of those initiatives in the community and to have a partnership with the community.”
Musicians and instructors who have been teaching people how to play the music have nothing to worry about. Familiar names in Cajun and zydeco music circles, such as Kristi Guillory, David Greely, Al Berard, Wilson Savoy and Corey Ledet, are teaching at UL or will in the future.
“Really, one of the missions with the new degree is to support the musicians in the area,” Alper says. “And many of those musicians will be teaching here. It’s gotten a hugely positive response from the traditional musicians in the area and the community and the university.”
A final decision for UL’s new degree courses may not come until July, but that is not a problem for getting the program up and running.
“They’ve already given us permission to teach the classes. We just can’t officially call it by its title until we get their approval,” Alper says. “Even if the stamp of approval were delayed, we could still offer the classes.”
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