Photo: Leslie McFalls
Meet The 2021 Music Educator Award Recipient: Jeffrey Murdock On Why Music Education Is Bigger Than The Classroom
A semi-finalist of this year's Music Educator Award, Jeffrey Murdock was expecting a call from Harvey Mason jr., the Interim President and Chief Executive Officer of The Recording Academy. Still, he didn’t expect what Mason would lay on him when he gave him a ring: he had been deemed the 2021 GRAMMY Music Educator Of The Year.
Once the initial shock wore off, though, the University of Arkansas associate professor of music realized he had an important new platform. "I realize that the 2022 candidate is already being selected," Murdock soberly notes. "Which means I need to make the most of this time."
JUST ANNOUNCED: The winner of this year's #GRAMMYs Music Educator Award is Jeffrey Murdock, an associate professor of music at @UArkansas.@Mistahwax spoke w/ Murdock, who prides himself on being not just a teacher of music, but a mentor in life.@RecordingAcad @GRAMMYMuseum pic.twitter.com/lVp7BsurJn
— CBS This Morning (@CBSThisMorning) March 11, 2021
Murdock has already made a significant impact on his students' lives. His department values "diversity, equity, inclusion and access in all areas," and that inclusive, encompassing philosophy extends to his entire attitude about music education. To hear Murdock tell it, music education is not a means to an end to get a grade, but a lifelong pursuit that extends to all corners of one’s lived experience.
Read on for an interview with Jeffrey Murdock in which he looks back at his educational roots, which teachers inspired him at a young age and why music education is far larger than the four walls of a classroom.
Congrats on receiving the 2021 Music Educator Award (MEA)! Take us back to the moment when you learned the news. How did you learn the news? And what was your reaction?
Thanks so much! I remember clearly the day I learned the news. A phone call was scheduled with Harvey Mason jr. and I was expecting the phone call to actually be an interview of sorts. Mr. Mason called me as scheduled and got straight to the point, telling me that I had been selected as the 2021 GRAMMY Music Educator Of The Year!
I was speechless for a few seconds, I thanked him, and I hung up the phone. Then I ran and told my wife, who immediately started crying, at which point it sank in for the first time that I had actually won! Even now, it still feels a bit surreal, but I've begun to embrace the excitement of it all.
I realize that the 2022 candidate is already being selected, which means I need to make the most of this time, so that's where my focus lies at the moment!
Tell us a little bit about your school, your music program and your students. What are they like? What do you teach? What do your students enjoy about your school's music program?
I teach at the University of Arkansas, Fayetteville. Our campus is the main campus of the U of A System and the flagship school of the State of Arkansas. The Department of Music is housed within the J. William Fulbright College of Arts and Sciences. Our music program offers degrees in performance, music education, general arts (Bachelor of Arts) and graduate degrees in performance and music education. Our students come mostly from Arkansas and the surrounding states.
Our program is quite progressive in the way it has embraced the tenets of diversity, equity, inclusion and access in all areas, including our audition process and the way we approach applied lessons, thereby creating space for students of diverse cultural and musical backgrounds. Students feel safe, welcomed, and affirmed in our department.
What's the school system like in Fayetteville, Arkansas? Do students have a lot of opportunities for music education? If so, tell us a little more about said options. If not, what can you do to change that?
The school systems in Fayetteville (Fayetteville Public Schools) and in the Northwest Arkansas area are home to many phenomenal music teachers. Some of the very best teachers in the country - (like MeMe Hagers) are teaching in our elementary schools. All of our middle and high school band and choir programs are thriving, with highly qualified music teachers like Terry Hicks, Gretchen Watt, and Michael Crouch at the helm. As a music educator at the university level, I spend quite a bit of time visiting the schools, working with teachers, working with my music education colleagues at the U of A to provide professional development, and service opportunities for teachers in our service area.
As a music educator yourself, I'm sure you've had teachers and fellow educators who made an impact on your interest in music education. Who were some of the teachers and folks who taught you the value of music education? What sorts of lessons and values did you learn from them?
My first music teacher was my piano teacher, Bernard McDaniel. My first public school music educators were Mrs. Felicia Cooper (my middle school choir director) and Mr. Bill Crowell (my high school choir director). Mrs. Cooper, in particular, was impactful to me because seeing a Black woman as a choral director allowed me to see myself in my current position. The way in which she nurtured every student and taught so much more than music was not lost on me.
Additionally, she gave me opportunities to accompany the choirs, conduct various pieces and assume leadership roles, even as a pre-teen. These opportunities early on shaped my musical development and forged the trajectory that led me to this point.
I learned music, I learned character, I learned perseverance, I learned responsibility. I learned all of those things through participating in ensembles throughout middle school and high school, from music educators who were passionate about their craft.
Why is music education so important to you? And why should everyday people care about music education? What does music education offer to students that they may not be able to learn in traditional lessons and schooling?
When I speak of music education and those who engage in music-making, I typically prefer the term "learners" as opposed to students. This is because access to high-quality music education is not limited to students in an educational setting. Music education happens in the home. It happens in the community. It happens in religious gatherings. And all persons who are willing to participate in the learning process should be given the space and opportunity to do so.
Music changed my life. It is important to me because music can speak to people and situations that are inaccessible with mere spoken or written words. Music is everywhere, and as such, people engage with music on many levels and in so many spaces. The everyday person should care about music education because, no matter how one engages with music, the music that is being engaged was created by someone who, at some point, had a mentor, or a music educator who helped them hone the skills to create art that is consumed by the masses.
Music education is not limited to the "traditional" or "formal" way of teaching and learning. Limiting music as such excludes a majority of our world from the music-making process, and this is unacceptable. In schools, the music educator frequently touches the lives of the learners more frequently than a teacher of a core subject such as math or history.
As such, music educators have a unique opportunity to shape the lives of learners over multiple years, creating a safe space for learning, for creating, and for engaging. Music education unlocks a level of creativity that, which tapped, can offer a new perspective when engaging with other areas of academia.
What advice would you give to young students now who are interested in pursuing a career in music performance, the music industry or music education?
The sky is the limit! There are so many careers that have music at it's core, and there are myriad opportunities in which people can engage in the process of music-making. Take a chance. If you are passionate about music, you should be doing music. The feeling of creating something beautiful through music is one of the most rewarding experiences in life, and I'm thankful that I live a life that is full of those rewarding experiences on a regular basis.
Now that you’ve been awarded the MEA, what do you hope to do to enhance music education in your school and your city?
My passion lies in leveling the field of music education such that every learner, every day, has access to high-quality music education each day, no matter who the learner is, where the learner is from, what the learner's socioeconomic status is or any other marker.
I intend to spend more time in schools, spend more time with stakeholders, and championing music education in the community, while also creating space for every music learner at a table where everyone feels safe to be their best and most authentic musical selves.