Graduate Spotlight: Mari Black, Music and Music Education ☆

Mari is a talented multi-style violinist and has recently completed her dissertation concerning the college experiences of professional multi-style violin string players.  She plays jazz, tango, folk, Western Classical, as well as Celtic, American, and Canadian fiddling.  She is a performer, teacher, and researcher.  She graduated from the doctoral music education program at Teachers College this May.

1.  Can you describe your educational background

My education was rich, diverse, and energetic.  I’ve been in higher education for twelve years now.  I enrolled in community college early and learned many skills I used as a doctorate student here at Teachers College.  My community college in Massachusetts was very culturally diverse and the faculty was extremely engaged with every student.  I was in an honors commonwealth program and the program helped me later in life with the doctorate school process, especially with designing and conducting an independent research project.  When many of my peers at Teachers College were struggling to figure out the beginning process of obtaining a doctorate, I was already experienced in this process because of the independent research projects I got to do with my professors at community college.  After I completed my undergraduate degree, I attended the Yale, School of Music and obtained my masters and Artist Diploma in violin performance.  One of my great mentors there was Willie Ruff and he inspired me to start asking big artistic questions, especially around thinking about music from an interdisciplinary standpoint.  He have me opportunities to hear from non-musicians about rhythm and other musical concepts and this was extremely eye-opening.  I ended up at Teachers College for my doctorate when I came to New York to study jazz with pianist Mark Soskin and bassist Chip Jackson.

2.  Can you tell us a little about your dissertation?

My dissertation has to do with the college experiences of professional multi-style string players.  Formal college education is not traditionally a part of pre-professional training for musicians outside of the western classical music idiom and the increased interest in multi-style string playing in the United States is fairly new.  Therefore, there is an incompatibility between being a multi-style musician and going to get a formal college degree since most music schools focus just on Western Classical music and sometimes jazz. My research explored the experiences of multi-stylists who attended formal college music programs and went on to become professional multi-style musicians.  I asked them about their time at college, looking for things that are helpful and not so helpful for these types of musicians.  My goal was to get a better understanding of how different types of college level training can affect a multi-stylist’s journey towards a professional performing career.

3.  Is there anyone in particular at TC that has had a profound influence on your life?

At TC, there are lots of people who influenced my dissertation and many of these professors happened to be outside of the music department.  I took many higher education classes and curriculum and design classes.  Anna Newman’s Interview Research class was extremely helpful in terms of designing my own dissertation study.  Dr. Michelle Knight taught me to be really specific about what I mean with different terms.  She would ask me questions like, “Can you elaborate on that further?”, “Can you tell me more?”, and “What do you mean by that?”  My advisor, Dr. Lori Custodero, was so helpful with my research.  I felt as though I didn’t really understand what true doctoral-level research was when I started and she took my research to a level that was more complete and professional.

4.  What are you working on now?

I have been focusing on my performing life and am getting ready to record my solo album.  I am traveling for concerts and participating in teaching projects.  Right now, I am especially interested in working on the bridge between dancers and musicians, helping them to create more communication and expression with each other.

5.  What do you hope to achieve in your lifetime regarding your doctoral studies and how has your studying at TC shaped these goals?

I want my work to have an impact on the world, especially the multi-style community.  When I went to college, I remember worrying that there wasn’t a school that could give me everything I wanted, a place where I could master my instrument, learn new styles, have performing opportunities, and work on my academics.  I remember wondering what I should do and where I should go.  Now, as a teacher, I get asked questions about colleges by other young multi-stylists who are feeling the same way, so I know it’s an important area to be working on.  There are good efforts being made by college programs to incorporate multi-style music, but we don’t know much about how college programs really affect multi-style students who want to become professional performers.  There is not a lot of literature on multi-style music since it’s fairly new and no experimental studies.  I believe that it’s important for someone to start documenting these issues from an insider’s perspective.  I hope to continue this work that I’ve started with my dissertation and help build college programs for multi-stylists, possibly as a program director or consultant.  I hope to use the knowledge from my first hand experience to build on multi-style music education.