by Leigh Ann Henion
The first chapter of Jennifer Snodgrass’ new book “Contemporary Musicianship” is about Billy Joel. Why? Because in 2012 she noticed that her 8 a.m. music theory class students were sleepy. She used the piano man to wake them up, announcing: “You’re going to study Billy Joel. You’re going to write like Billy Joel. You’re going to learn everything you can about Billy Joel’s life and career!”
It was a spontaneous idea to make her students at Appalachian State University approach their studies through a specific and unexpected artist, but they were immediately more alert and engaged.
“Contemporary Musicianship,” published by Oxford University Press in April 2015, builds on this concept. Instead of the traditional coverage of basics and analysis, students learn fundamentals by studying the songs and stories of pop, country and classical artists. “This is a book written for students,” she said. “My students said, ‘Adele is amazing.’ So, Adele is in the book. They love Joshua Bell. So, Joshua Bell has a chapter.”
The narrative also draws from what Snodgrass learned during a sabbatical in Nashville, where she spent time observing how industry professionals – including sound engineers and songwriters – talk to each other about creativity and business.
“I know it’s hard to believe that students are near-screaming with excitement on the edge of their seats in an 8 a.m. music theory class, but that’s what happens,” she said.
It’s an enthusiasm that’s spread outside of the classroom. Snodgrass said, “After class, they grab their guitars, and they’re trying to figure out how to do what these musicians are doing with their own songs. It’s exciting!”
A recent gift shows that Snodgrass’ former students have taken her lessons to heart. To honor her book publication, a group of them flew her and her husband on an all-expenses paid trip to New York. Why? Because they wanted her to attend a Billy Joel concert.
“I know it’s hard to believe that students are near-screaming with excitement on the edge of their seats in an 8 a.m. music theory class, but that’s what happens.”