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Marc Medwin: Music, Teaching, and the Art of Listening

Assistant music professor brings passion and humanity to classroom

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Assistant Professor of Performing Arts Mark Medwin says that “listening is the heart of his business on this planet.”

Medwin has elevated listening to an art form, and it’s inextricably intertwined with his calling as a musician, music journalist, researcher, and teacher. Last spring, Medwin even designed and taught a music course that was devoted entirely to exploring the art of listening.

For Medwin, who is blind, listening is a matter of survival. He uses his sense of hearing to listen to all sorts of things that other people may barely notice, from the sound of the brakes on Metro trains (which predict when they are getting close to a platform)to the subtle sounds of stress or other emotions in people’s voices.

Medwin brings these listening skills and emotional intelligence into the classroom, giving his students new ways to approach music and understand sound. He holds an MA and PhD in musicology, which he describes as “the study of music as it relates to everything else: music and culture, music and technology, music and physics, music and brain science.” And this is Medwin's teaching philosophy too. Students in his classes can expect to explore everything from the history of rock, to Black liberation theory, to how the speech rhythms of Martin Luther King, Jr. parallel the music of John Coltrane.

Music, Passion, and Joy

Students who have taken Medwin’s classes say he has an encyclopedic knowledge of everything music related, has expanded their interest in music, and introduced them to new genres. They use words like joyful, passionate, funny, and interesting to describe his lectures on music.

When you read Medwin’s description of Stay on It, a piece by one of his favorite composers and musicians Julius Eastman (who was just featured in AU’s most recent music webinar), it’s easy to see why students are drawn to his lectures:

“You can hear the instrumental groups morph, swirl and emote in glorious layers, a celebration and a manifesto, the perfect middle ground between improvisation and composition, between order and the gloriously raucous evocations of street life, the bent notes of blues become the wail of sirens and suddenly snap back as the music parodies its way into ‘place’ again no compromises here!”

For his part, Medwin believes that teaching is a gift. “I love teaching and can’t begin to tell you how privileged I feel to talk about music and have this be my livelihood,” he explains. “I get really excited about the prospect of bringing music to people in a way they haven’t experienced before. It’s almost sacred.”

Disability and the Spoon Theory

Last year, at American University’s Disability, Access, and Teaching symposium, Medwin was introduced to a new way of describing the daily challenges of living with a disability. It resonated with him. “The presenter described spoon theory, or the daily energy expenditure as a disabled person, usually not visually apparent, via the metaphor of measuring with coffee spoons. The crux was that the activities seemingly requiring very little effort can be exhausting for anyone dealing with the multiple challenges of a disability,” he explains. “As a teacher completely unaware of disability pedagogy and theory, the experience was as eye-opening as it was on a personal level. For the first time, without need for apology, forced humor or justification, I was in an environment where my experiences as a blind person did not have to be explained but were understood and mirrored in a diverse and inclusive atmosphere.”

For Medwin, the spoon metaphor rings true in all his daily routines. It represents all the extra steps that are required for a blind person to get things done in a world designed for people who can see. The extra steps can be exhausting, and they can even limit how much a person with a disability can realistically get accomplished in a day. Medwin uses reading as an example. While most people can just grab a book off a shelf and flip through it, Medwin has to get access to a perfectly scanned PDF that can be opened in Acrobat. “It might work, or it might not, because every program has slightly different technology,” he explains. Then he uses a screen reader that converts the text to speech. Sometimes the text works, but often it’s garbled, and reading it is like putting together a jigsaw puzzle. Medwin may try another piece of software, and then another.

“By the time I’ve figured out how I can read something, thirty or forty minutes have passed,” he says. “And sometimes it doesn’t work at all. This is the spoon theory. I have used up all this effort, and I’m exhausted.”

Given these realities, Medwin’s productivity has been remarkable, both inside and outside the classroom. He maintains an active career as music journalist, writing for magazines like Cadence, Coda, and Signal to Noise, and for the journal Jazz Perspectives. He writes liner notes for new musical albums — long essays that include “lots of analysis” and historical context — he is hard at work on two liner note essays right now. Medwin has also played keyboards in several experimental ensembles in Chapel Hill, Durham and Raleigh, North Carolina.

Work and Evolution

Medwin’s research and performative interests include contemporary classical music, improvised music and electro-acoustic music. His work is continually evolving. As he observed the political events and civil rights movement sweeping the nation this year, he realized that could do even more in his research and teaching to contribute to fostering an antiracist environment in the world of music.

Medwin has been studying Black music for more than two decades, and he has always been aware of the dangers of approaching music from a Eurocentric narrative. He presents the contributions of Black artists like Anthony Braxton, Bill Dixon, and John Coltrane as those of composers. But now he is also working to also highlight “their roles as improvisers, storytellers, and bearers of a multivalent Black tradition, in Coltrane’s case one rife with the spirituality he espoused in interviews and liner notes.”

Medwin is a believer in the simultaneous celebration and disillusion of binaries — of simultaneous narratives as a form of antiracism in practice. He has recently taken an inventory of his work to merge seemingly divergent cultural point of views, including liner notes for Sun Ra’s piano trio album, where Black “Classical” music and “Jazz” intersect, to articles for Fanfare magazine about Malaysian-born American composer Su Lian Tan and Taiwan-born percussionist Yun Ju Pan. “Both musicians have made careers at the intersectional boundaries of various classical and popular genres and styles of a pangeographical nature,” he explains.

“My exposure to broader narratives has come at the most opportune time, when our national and the international dialogue is engaging with similar racial and cultural issues, which, despite the pain involved, will certainly bear worthy fruit,” Medwin says. “I am taking small but crucial steps toward participating in that dialogue. Coltrane wanted to be a force for good, and so do I.”