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Dr. Erin Cooper
Dr. Erin Cooper

by Dr. Erin Colleen Cooper, Assistant Director of University Bands

As we have been in remote learning for nearly a year, teachers and students have had to completely change their expectations for education. This has certainly been true for music classes but especially music ensembles. While we may enjoy making music on our own, nothing can compare to performing with others. Yet, even as many of us have been unable to play in large ensembles, we have had the unique opportunity to focus on other aspects of music and performance that are sometimes superseded by preparing for that upcoming concert.

This past semester the Symphony Band was able to spend more time learning about composers and artists along with their compositional and performance practices. One of my favorite resources I shared with them was the Tiny Desk Concerts featured on NPR. I have been an avid NPR listener and supporter for many years, and the Tiny Desk Concerts feature intimate performances by a wide range of artists from Billie Eilish and Miley Cyrus to Yo-Yo Ma and Wynton Marsalis. Since the pandemic began, they have been calling the performances Tiny Desk Home Concerts, so the artists can perform at home rather than at the coveted Tiny Desk. The students in Symphony Band were tasked with viewing any two Home Concerts and commenting on them in our Google classroom. It was so exciting to see students reconnecting with artists they love but also learning about artists they did not know at all. The discussions led to students sharing additional musical recommendations and resources with each other. While we missed making music together in person, we were still able to learn and grow as musicians.

As the pandemic has continued into the new year, we keep finding new ways to collaborate and share our music. Last month Tiny Desk partnered with globalFEST to create a truly special experience. The New York music festival globalFEST was created in the early 2000s to help deal with rising xenophobia in a post-9/11 world. Their vision, mission, and core values are beautifully stated here,, but they strive to share music from around the world in order to create unity and bring international music to the mainstream. Over the years, many artists featured at the festival have later been guests on Tiny Desk. However, this year they combined forces to share home performances from around the world which they called Tiny Desk Meets globalFEST.

The first featured performance came from our own backyard in Eastern North Carolina – and also literally from a family backyard barbeque! The ensemble known as the Dedicated Men of Zion is a family band all related through blood or marriage, and they perform exciting renditions of gospel music. This music is probably very familiar to many of us, but it can be comforting to see a live performance especially from a family of musicians. Another wonderful performance features BIPOC artist Martha Redbone. This Native and African-American singer-songwriter combines the musical heritages of both her father and mother’s cultures to create a voice that is truly her own. The result combines the many voices Redbone grew up hearing in Appalachia including her mother’s Native American influences from the Cherokee, Shawnee, and Choctaw as well as from her father’s gospel musical upbringing in North Carolina. Redbone’s performance from her home studio in Brooklyn is soothing, calming, and yet joyful in such difficult times. There are many more great performances from Tiny Desk Meets globalFEST, but these two, in particular, bring together both traditional and groundbreaking voices with influences from our own home state.

While we have spent much of the past year isolated from each other, it has been a wonderful opportunity to learn and grow in new ways. This goal can be multifaceted to appreciate new music as well as to combat racism and break down our own musical barriers. By sharing the music of BIPOC artists, we can expand our shared musical experiences beyond the traditional Western music canon. It can also help us feel a little less alone in isolation by enjoying the few live performances that currently exist. I hope you enjoy Tiny Desk as much as I do and that it can introduce you to your new favorite musical artist!

Watch Tiny Desk:

From the video description: “Dedicated Men of Zion come to you from their backyard barbecue in North Carolina, bringing with them an electrified version of sacred Gospel soul music. This family band (all related through blood or marriage) has been isolating together during the pandemic, and the members are excited to provide an uplifting note during difficult times.”

From the video description: “Martha Redbone performs her Tiny Desk Meets globalFEST performance from her home studio in Brooklyn’s Navy Yards. Native and African-American singer-songwriter Martha Redbone is known for her mix of folk, blues and gospel from her childhood in Harlan County, Ky., which she infuses with the eclectic grit of pre-gentrified Brooklyn. Inheriting the powerful vocal range of her gospel-singing African-American father and the resilient spirit of her mother’s Cherokee, Shawnee and Choctaw culture, Redbone broadens the boundaries of American Roots music.”

Tiny Desk Meets globalFEST Playlist

From the playlist description: “For the first time, the team behind globalFEST has partnered with NPR Music’s Tiny Desk concerts to present exclusive video performances by 16 artists, via NPR Music’s digital platforms, in a series entitled: NPR Music’s Tiny Desk meets globalFEST.”

Tiny Desk Black History Month Playlist

From the playlist description: “NPR Music’s Tiny Desk series will celebrate Black History Month by featuring four weeks of Tiny Desk (home) concerts and playlists by Black artists spanning different genres and generations each week. The lineup includes both emerging and established artists who will be performing a Tiny Desk concert for the first time. This celebration highlights the beautiful cornucopia of Black music and our special way of presenting it. We hope you enjoy.”

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