Of Crossovers and Role Blending: How Professional Growth Has Shaped My Personal Life… and Vice Versa

Robert Woody, University of Nebraska, Lincoln

Maybe it started when I was teaching middle school. I had my persona of “Mr. Woody, Music Teacher” for students weekdays 9:00am to 3:30pm. But I considered myself just regular Bob evenings and weekends. During the week, my mind raced with concerns of curriculum and classroom management. As all teachers know, those thoughts could easily spill into my time away from school. I made a point to separate my work life from my personal life. I strived to “leave my briefcase at the door” literally and figuratively.


That’s when I remember first trying to compartmentalize my life, but in all likelihood, the practice began years before I was a working professional. Like everyone else, I grew up filling different roles with the different social groups I was a part of. As a teenager, I wasn’t exactly the same person around my parents and teachers as I was with my friends! Perhaps it’s because students tend to associate school with rules, I developed much different expectations for myself when in school versus when out of it. This included how I oriented to music as a teen. While at school, I did…well, “school music.”


Primarily an instrumentalist, I played trumpet in the high school marching band, concert band, and jazz band. But outside of school, I listened to pop music, and lots of it.

Perhaps I’m dramatizing things a bit much here. I don’t presume that leading a musical double life is the kind of “breaking bad” that merits a television series. In fact, the “school music versus popular music” divide is pretty common among students and teachers alike. And there are other areas of life where we need to play multiple roles, some of which are difficult to juggle. Working mothers and fathers know this all too well. Now as a parent, I must admit that I’m not exactly the same person around my students and children as I am with my friends!


While multiple roles are a fact of modern life, I’ve come to believe that too much compartmentalization can be detrimental, at least for me as a music educator. In addition to doing this with my professional and personal lives, and with my alternate musical worlds, at times in my past I’ve also considered my role as teacher and researcher as independent responsibilities. In all of these instances, I’m now convinced that too much separation can be harmful to both sides of the divide.


I believe I’ve benefited over the last few years as I’ve allowed myself to blend roles and unify my worlds in certain ways. In this paper, I will reflect on how I’ve come to this realization, and share some of my favorite points in the process. By no means am I suggesting that I’ve got it all figured out. To be sure, this is just my outlook as I write this today. Not only do I expect it to change, I think I’d be pretty disappointed if it doesn’t. I hope, though, that some who read this will relate to what I share, and it will contribute to their own process.


Questioning the Value of Role Separation


The need to separate one’s personal life from their work life is well accepted these days. Can you imagine a media advice-giver like Dr. Oz saying we’d be happier and healthier if we just brought more of our work home with us? Not likely. The underlying assumption is that work means pressure, stress, and worry. Bring that home and it’ll strain marriages and relationships with one’s children. If you can’t unwind, relax and get a good night’s sleep, then your physical and mental health suffers and you can’t find fulfillment in your personal life. I’m literally feeling tension in my body just writing about it here.


As much as I joke with my friends about having a “cushy college professor job,” I would not say that my work life in music education has ever come easy to me. Many times over the years, I’ve scrambled to meet deadlines (missed a few, too) and had to deal with some difficult people along the way. I’m no stranger to stress from the job. Clearly there is nothing to be gained by bringing that home with me. But what if I didn’t characterize my job by its stressful times? I’ve wondered, is it possible to see my job differently? To not lose sight of the big picture? In my position, my primary task—that big picture—is to share music in ways that enrich the lives of others. I consider myself very fortunate in this way. Especially when I look for them, it’s not uncommon to experience moments of reward and joy in my job. Certainly it’d be alright to bring some of that home with me. Maybe I don’t need as much professional-personal separation as other people do. I am a music educator, after all, not a crime scene investigator.


It’s only recently that I’ve been even moderately successful in adopting this big picture thinking. As I look back to earlier years, I’m sure I operated according to a personal doctrine of separation. One thing that likely reinforced this was my foray into the world of research as a music education graduate student. My research training was weighted heavily to the side of quantitative methods. From this empirical perspective, being objective is paramount. You must avoid the appearance of bias or making research decisions based on subjective criteria. You guard against the Hawthorne effect and offer up statistical measures of reliability and validity. As I came to understand it, I should suspend my humanity in order to best carry out the responsibilities of a researcher.


The more I’ve come to value the research enterprise, however, the less I’m concerned about the sacredness of objectivity. Let me say this a little differently to be clear. I’ve never been more committed to the value of research to offer insight into music and its role in human experience. But I don’t consider objectivity to be the hallmark of all good research. There are several reasons for this. First, no amount of parenthetical citations or reliability statistics can change the fact that behavioral scientists have subjective influence in the outcomes of their research. They choose the variables to study, and they operationally define them. They choose the research procedures, the materials for gathering data, and the processes for recruiting participants. All of this choice is okay, of course. One research study is not intended to provide definitive proof about anything. It’s meant only to offer some evidence that, upon publication after peer review, readers can judge for themselves.

The premium placed on objectivity—or at my most cynical moment I might say the appearance of objectivity—is what drives some to view quantitative research as formulaic and rule-driven. As a reviewer of research manuscripts over the years, I’ve seen plenty that reinforces this. Despite APA style now explicitly encouraging the use of first person, some writers continue to refer to themselves as “the researcher,” presumably because it sounds more objective. I similarly shake my head at the gratuitous listing of null hypotheses and the unvarying use of the phrase “statistically significant difference.”


Simply using these writing conventions does not ensure against improper bias on the part of the researcher. As I’ve looked back at some of my earliest research studies, I’m struck by how desperately I was trying to sound like a researcher. Sometimes this came at the expense of clearly communicating what I chose to do in my study. This reminds me of new student teachers who nervously stand before a class of children to lead learning activities. The main thought driving their behavior is “what would a real teacher do right now?” They try to act like a teacher instead of actually teaching.


The notion that objectivity brings clarity can ascend to a vaunted position in one’s mind, and I fell prey to that at times in my life. Although objectivity rightly exists as a laudable value in quantitative research, it is wrongly imposed on all research. I’m certain that’s why some struggle so much with qualitative methods—they judge it by the same value system used to evaluate quantitative research. They may accept the idea that phenomena can be described by words, rather than numbers, but they still expect to see the appearance of objectivity in order to deem a qualitative work a quality study. Of course, they miss the point that the very strength of qualitative research is the subjectivity it offers.


Diagnosing my Split Musicality


Objectivity can also be understood as a separation of personal feelings from professional responsibilities. I’ve certainly experienced that bisection in my musical life. As I mentioned in the opening paragraphs of this paper, I grew up as a performing musician in high school band, yet outside of school I was a heavy consumer of popular music. Any crossover was limited to a few arrangements of songs for the basketball pep band (I played a mean trumpet melody on Pat Benetar’s “Hit Me With Your Best Shot”). My musical divide was not just in terms of stylistic genre, but also in activity. In school I played only one instrument, always in large ensembles, always from notation, and always leading up to a concert. In contrast, the music experiences of my personal life revolved around listening and singing along to recordings, either alone or with a few close friends, and never for an audience. As a teenager I really didn’t have much breadth in either of my musical worlds. I basically had one way of being musical in each, and it didn’t change much.


This separation of musical selves continued into my years as a college music major. I did get some breadth in my music studies, specifically gaining much from my involvement in jazz as an undergraduate (though it may have been too little too late, as I never achieved the fluency I desired as an improviser). My out-of-school musical life also broadened a bit as I began to listen to classical music and jazz in my personal time. But with respect to popular music specifically, the musical divide remained intact. I soon came to view my personal taste for pop and rock as nothing to be proud of. It was at best a guilty pleasure, and at worst a threat to appreciating “true musical quality.” I could try to keep a foot in each of these musical worlds, but they had better not collide. Separating my musical lives was a good thing, for everyone involved. For the most part, this perspective continued through my public school teaching, my graduate school training, and my entry into the music education professorate.

The first steps in mending my split musicality occurred when I read Lucy Green’s book How Popular Musicians Learn: A Way Ahead for Music Education.


In it she reports on a study of 14 vernacular musicians, aged 15 to 50. It includes many insightful quotes from interviews with these participants about the development of their knowledge and skills, their musical attitudes and values, and their experiences with formal music education. It’s quite an understatement to say that reading this book got me thinking. Though I certainly wasn’t this kind of musician, I knew people like that, and honestly, I envied aspects of their musicianship. I reflected on my own experiences and musical skills, and became increasingly interested in bridging the gap between school and popular music. I wasn’t primarily concerned with increasing student motivation by using more accessible and fun material, or defending the legitimacy of popular music as an expressive art form. For me, embracing vernacular musicianship was about the inclusion of important performance skills and ways of approaching music that school music had largely overlooked.


Around the same time I was reading about vernacular musicianship in my professional life, I had the opportunity to experience some new things in my personal music life. I did karaoke for the first time and enjoyed it immensely (I continue to sing karaoke when the opportunities arise, using the stage name Bob Jovi). I also brought a guitar home from my university and tried to play some things beyond the 3-chord songs we were doing in my general music methods course. Just for fun, some evenings I sat in front of the TV and scratched out the chords of some of my favorite pop songs. And then came the big one: I had occasion to sing with a live band. I had gotten to know a group of college-age kids from a community group I was a part of. They were young vernacular musicians who got a kick out of talking ‘80s rock with a music professor. They eventually asked me to sing Journey’s “Don’t Stop Believing” at a little event of theirs (this was before the TV show Glee got a hold of the song). My heart nearly beat out of my chest as I took the small stage to do it. It was invigorating.


This personal growth worked itself into my professional life, first in my teaching approach. I made a point to share in my classes how popular music had a place in schools. In my general music methods teaching, I enjoyed showing how similar the learning practices of popular musicians are with pedagogical aspects of Orff Schulwerk. I encouraged students not to hide what vernacular musicianship they had, but to use it in their performing and teaching activities.


Eventually I teamed up with my colleague Dale Bazan to create a Popular Musicianship class for our Bachelor of Music Education students. In it, they organize themselves into rock bands, and learn to play electric guitar, bass, and drum set. They work up covers of songs they like and create original music. For many of these college musicians, this experience marks the first time they’ve ever written a song, or played music by ear, or performed the kind of music that they listen to most in their lives. This effort has also allowed me to continue building my own fledgling vernacular musicianship. Dale and I collaborated to write and record an original song, and we were joined by a couple more of our UNL music colleagues to form the band Rubric. So far we’ve only played one gig, a three-song set of covers at a music student function, but we’re anticipating more!



Me as lead singer for music education faculty rock band Rubric. The earrings are clip-ons and the tattoo is temporary.
Me as lead singer for music education faculty rock band Rubric. The earrings are clip-ons and the tattoo is temporary.

I remember reading in Lucy Green’s How Popular Musicians Learn that these musicians are very open to unfamiliar styles, including classical music, as a source of new ideas for their own work. Perhaps they recognize that seemingly unrelated things can contribute to each other if given the opportunity. Over the last few years, I’ve seen this played out in my music education students as I’ve observed them developing new skills of popular musicianship. Their existing musicality, acquired largely through formal training, is actually very useful once they discover how to apply it differently. Once they get past insecurities and inexperience, and engage in authentic vernacular music making, that are able to do things that are truly inspiring.


[Click on the link below to watch a video of students discussing their experiences in the Popular Musicianship Class at the University of Nebraska.]


Students talk about Popular Musicianship Class.


There is enough partisanship in the world, and I’m now committed to speaking out against it in the field of music education. I am not beholden to any one style of music, or any one perspective on how “musical quality” is defined. People can gain great reward in multiple ways…by playing an eminent composer’s music in an orchestra, by doing free improv with a couple roommates in their garage, by writing and recording a song via computer, or by strumming their favorite Taylor Swift songs alone in their room. I don’t find any one of these activities as nobler or more musical than the others. At one point or another in my life, I’ve done each and every one of these things (well, not with Taylor Swift music specifically, but you get the idea). The vernacular approach is by far the musical norm in the world, and I believe it is deserving of greater representation in our schools.


Taking the “If” Out of “If I Could Do It All Again…”


So far I’ve touched on two types of crossovers: professional-personal responsibilities and school-vernacular musicianship. Some of my most meaningful development on both of these fronts has come from being a father. As I write this, my daughter Ellie is an 8th grader and my son Bennett is in the 5th grade. (I feel compelled to mention that naming him Bennett was NOT another professional-personal crossover. I have great respect for Bennett Reimer, but my son is named after a grandparent.) Though I’ve never tried to serve as music teacher for my children in any formal way, I’ve obviously influenced their musical development. But they have also taught me—or reminded me?—much about the ways that music is naturally human.


Being born to a music teacher and researcher, my kids were probably destined to have an atypical musical upbringing. As a first-time father-to-be, my reading of psychology research allowed me to know that babies in utero can hear outside the womb during the last trimester of pregnancy. So, yes, I sang songs quite a few times to my unborn children—Mom was quite tolerant to let me carry out this personal experiment—in order to see what kind of recognition they’d show after birth. Also, when Ellie and Bennett were preschool and toddler age, I taught a graduate class about early childhood music. I shared many personal stories in teaching that class, and also arranged for our class to sit in on some Kindermusik-type community instruction, which my children also attended. Although it seemed natural to involve my kids with the graduate class in these ways, I was surprised to find myself shaping my parenting in light of the material we covered in class related to child development.


As my children grew, I thought a lot about how I wanted music to be a part of their lives. Like many well meaning parents, my hopes for my children probably represent a combination of: (1) the things about myself that I like and want them to take on for themselves, and (2) the recognition of my inadequacies that I want them to avoid. In my case, the initial musical guidance I offered my children had more to do with the latter. Of course I wanted them to be musical, but not exactly how I was musical. I didn’t care if they become career musicians, and I didn’t want them to feel pressure to musically achieve in school or elsewhere. But I wanted them to be able to have the amazing experiences that music can bring.


When my kids were old enough to play musical instruments, I exerted some influence, and musical breadth was at the forefront of my mind. Ellie first started playing guitar and all along the way I encouraged her to continue on the child-like path of making up her own songs to accompany. Now years later, I still listen to the recording of her Grammy-deserving song about her pet guinea pig, Quiver (may he rest in peace). When she reached the fourth grade and the beginning of string instrument instruction in school, I steered her toward the bass. As for Bennett, I bought him a drum set a few years ago. I went with an electronic kit that could work through headphones since, well, I was giving a 7 year old a drum set. He can also plug an iPod into it to play along to recordings. Three years later, he can now play beats on that thing that I couldn’t begin to try. Just this year in 5th grade he’s started percussion in the elementary school band program.


My wanting them to play bass and percussion is not so I can have a backup band should I try to become a rock star after all. Rather, as I looked at the likely opportunities they would have in the future, I thought these instruments would offer the breadth I’d come to value so much. They could play classical music in the school orchestra or band, take advantage of the school’s jazz band also, and experience vernacular styles outside of school. I recognize of course that people can make music of any style on any instrument. But with my goal of musicianship that spanned the school-vernacular divide, these instruments made it seem most readily attainable.


Though I admit to exerting influence in the instrument choices, they’ve been willing participants at every step. They seem to love music—and all kinds of it—and they don’t seem to hate practicing, at least not any more than all of us do. My contributions have been pretty typical for a school music parent. I make sure they bring their instruments to school on the right days, and occasionally practice at home. I drive them to and from private lessons, and of course pick up the tab. But I’ve also made a point to keep their iPods stocked with a broad variety of music. I’m not sure if I was prouder the day Ellie came home from jazz camp asking to download Miles Davis’ Kind of Blue from iTunes, or when Bennett asked for calypso music for his iPod as he eagerly awaits being old enough to join the community steel drum band for middle and high school kids. I’ve been a supportive school music parent, but I’ve been equally encouraging of musical activities my kids have found outside of school, like Lincoln’s Academy of Rock program and a church youth band. I don’t anticipate either of my children becoming a career musician, but I’d like to think that they’re both on the path to being musical people for their lives.


Their musical development also has been the context for a professional-personal crossover. I’d read enough of the psychological literature to know the value of one-on-one tutoring in learning. I’d also read about the importance of the “warmth dimension” in a child’s first private music teacher. In other words, for the youngest kids, a teacher’s musical expertise is not as important as an encouraging and child-centered approach. For my kids’ first teachers, I drew from my undergraduate music education students. Not only could these college students use the money, but essentially they’d undergone a semester-long interview for the job by sitting in my classes. I had gotten to see them in action, and they had gotten to know my educational values. The university students who have worked with my children have done wonderfully. Of course, there have been some awkward moments when they didn’t know if I was speaking to them as their college professor, a fellow musician, or the parent who couldn’t seem to get his kid to practice enough between lessons.


Over the years, school schedules and childcare arrangements have also necessitated my bringing the kids to campus with me. On more than one occasion they’ve read books and done homework in my office while I carried out various teaching and advising duties. They’ve even sat in on class sessions for some of the music making and dancing. And with many of their private lessons also occurring there, my kids have become regular visitors to the music building on my campus. One of my favorite memories is when 5-year-old Bennett had a very minor role in the UNL Opera performances of The Magic Flute. Obviously I’ve become comfortable letting my students see a very personal side of me, namely as a parent. For their part, my children have seemed to enjoy seeing me in the role of professor as well.





Daughter Ellie with a movement class at the 2012 Orff Schulwerk Teacher Education Course.
Daughter Ellie with a movement class at the 2012 Orff Schulwerk Teacher Education Course.
Son Bennett with a music education student backstage at UNL’s 2005 opera The Magic Flute.
Son Bennett with a music education student backstage at UNL’s 2005 opera The Magic Flute.

Blurring the Lines to Sharpen My Vision


The experiences I’ve shared here have contributed much to my current outlook on music education. I’m optimistic that our profession is poised to bridge the divide between school music and popular music that exists in the minds of so many students and teachers. As I’ve written about elsewhere, this issue will not be fixed with more pop song arrangements for band, choir, and orchestra. I believe what’s needed is for our profession to show greater appreciation for the informal learning processes of vernacular musicianship. The merits of peer mentoring and exploratory learning—hallmarks of vernacular musicianship—have been well established by educational research but for some reason they’ve not taken root in our profession at large.


I’d like to see the secondary curriculum continue to expand beyond large ensemble classes, and I believe this can happen without the dissolution of these traditional staples of school music. We need not choose between preserving tradition and embracing a progressive agenda of new curricular offerings. Perhaps, though, we need to better acknowledge that the specialized skills developed through large ensemble performance, if left unsupplemented by other musical experiences, do not provide the comprehensive music education we purport to value as a profession. I just cannot shake the fact that the vast majority of these students pack away their instruments (including choral singing voices) into permanent storage after high school.


Borrowing from vernacular musicianship could mean giving students greater opportunity to make music by ear, exercise creativity and personal expressiveness through song writing, experience performance on more than one instrument, and gain some fluency in improvisation. Giving our students these experiences wouldn’t be done to make them pop musicians, but to make them better musicians altogether. In other words, I don’t believe that offering a breadth of musical experience would result in a deterioration in large ensemble quality. A band or choir or orchestra made of better all-around musicians should need less overall rehearsal time to work up a concert-ready performance. As supporting evidence for this idea, I point to a recent research study of mine in which school musicians with vernacular experiences showed better instrumental facility and better melodic memory than those without any vernacular background.


Musical breadth can yield a more efficient musicianship, and I believe this principle is applicable to other areas of my professional life too. A musician who can only play by ear or only play from notation will likely view each as a separate specialized skill. But if you ask musicians who can do both, they will say that ear playing and note reading come from the same core musicianship. Similarly, if I consider my responsibilities as a teacher to be separate from those as a researcher, then I’ll likely struggle to do both well. But if I focus on the ways that my teaching overlaps with my research, as I invest myself and grow in them, I can become a better teacher and researcher simultaneously.


The merging of the formal and informal in the musicianship I want for my own children can also be applied to efforts to balance my personal and professional lives. For example, earlier in my career as a teacher and researcher, I struggled to find the time for personal growth as a musician. As I’ve come to appreciate the value of informal learning, though, I’ve felt much less tension in this way. I’ve come to realize that in order to grow musically, I don’t need to have a night free every week to sing in the church choir or join a community concert band. (Although, I will continue to look for opportunities to do these things.) If there’s one thing that vernacular musicianship has shown me, it’s that musical development does not always require the formal structure that has traditionally defined school music. I’ve grown a lot over the last few years musically “messing around” at home, attending ukulele jams at the local music store, and improvising vocal solos to Dave Matthews Band recordings while driving my kids to school.


Perhaps also an overvaluing of formality helped create prime conditions for me to struggle with “work-life balance.” I may have too readily subscribed to the notion that my job is all about discipline and effort and time commitment. With this mindset, the main reward of work is, well, getting time off work. I’ve been better off trying to exploit the intrinsic rewards of my career—the moments of music making and the positive relationships with students and colleagues. I want to celebrate the joys of the process and not just push through to the finish line, like a runner trying to complete a marathon I didn’t sign up for in the first place. This is the job I wish to have. So, I’ve told myself, if my day-to-day process is so arduous and devoid of intrinsic reward, then it’s time to change my process.


If I view my various roles and responsibilities as independent from each other, then yes there probably aren’t enough hours in the day to excel in all of them. But as I’ve deliberately looked for them, I’ve found surprisingly numerous ways that my roles can overlap. I’ve sought to capitalize on what a music career can bring personally. I don’t always have to “make time” for my family. Sometimes instead I can find ways to make my family part of my job. As a father, I’ve found many kid-friendly aspects of my professional life. And although I was reluctant to do it when I first entered the professorate, I’ve thrived as I’ve infused my teaching and research with more of my personality and individual musical tastes. I think it’s allowed me to actually be more effective in my position, instead of just trying to act like a music education professor should. Accordingly, I encourage others in our field to look to their personal lives for direction as professionals.


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