Radford University shares the universal language of music

A Radford University music education professor and three aspiring music teachers trekked to Nepal to share the universal language of music.

For the 20-day expedition, Jennifer McDonel, assistant professor of music and director of music education, was joined by second-year music graduate student Lauren Milburn of Bethel, Connecticut; Taylor Ouzts, a junior majoring in music education from Arlington, Virginia, and Bryan Dowd, a sophomore music education major from Floyd.

The group taught Nepalese teachers and demonstrated Music Learning Theory (MLT), a research-based theoretical framework for how children learn music.  They worked in conjunction with the MusicArt Society, chaired by Sumit Pokhrel, whose mission is to provide music education to all children in Nepal, regardless of financial status.

Their educational journey included workshops in Katmandu, Nepal’s capital and largest city; in Jhapa on Nepal’s southern plains near India and in Pokhara, near the Annapurna mountain range in northwest Nepal.  McDonel’s group demonstrated and led music activities and taught techniques based on MLT, the latest understanding of how music learning occurs.

“Music is ubiquitous, it is part of our humanity that transcends language and culture,” said McDonel, for whom this was the third trip to Nepal in support of the MusicArt Society. “We taught and demonstrated to teachers and their students what we know of the music education research and best practices that can help more students experience the sheer joy of making music.”


From left: Radford University's Bryan Dowd, Jennifer McDonel, Taylor Ouzts and Lauren Milburn join a local colleague, Narendra Lama (center), who teaches violin at the MusicArt Society for a research interview.

Nepal has a rich musical tradition, according to McDonel, and thanks to the internet, many young people access and enjoy western pop music. Beyond expanding the cultural impact of appreciating and making music, the MusicArt Society wants to help provide more jobs as music teachers and musicians.

“The MusicArt Society helps teachers expand the profession of teaching music because both teaching music and performing music can be marketable skills in an economy that is trying to grow,” said McDonel.

At one of their workshops held in Pokhara, Dowd recalled a young boy, named Lunduh, who experienced the joy of learning.

“He was just so open and into it. I could see he was picking up the basic things we were teaching –  singing and moving and playing with the music props. Afterward, he was still in the zone, it was infectious,” said Dowd. “After the sessions, we jammed with the students and teachers and we got to know them so much better.”

Milburn said Lunduh’s response was typical of the openness and enthusiasm of the Nepalese with whom they worked.   At seven different sessions in five locations, the team worked with more than a hundred students and teachers.

“Watching the teaching and learning during the trip was humbling,” Milburn said. “All too often, I find I get caught up in day-to-day worrying about my future. At day’s end, though, the trip and working with such eager students reminded me that it must always be about the students. The experience strengthened the spark in me that will drive my passion, my teaching and my career.”

The trip was partially funded through grants from the McGlothin Foundation, the newly-launched Research Rookies Program, housed in the Office of Undergraduate Research and Scholarship and the College of Visual and Performing Arts.  Dowd is one of Radford University’s first class of Research Rookies, an initiative that provides select freshman and sophomore students with the opportunity to collaborate on research projects with faculty mentors.

"It was an eye-opening experience," Dowd said.

The enthusiastic hospitality at the workshops and throughout the trip was inspirational for Milburn, who added: “Students, parents, teachers and administrators all got into the music and the activities. Music can be a community experience that goes beyond a classroom.  It was overwhelming to be so warmly welcomed into a new, different community.”

Beyond the novel cross-cultural experience, Ouzts said he was eager to embrace the research component of the experience, a qualitative narrative of teachers' perceived efficacy of MLT-based teaching. 

"MLT was developed in the United States, but we are seeing evidence that this learning theory can be used to teach music of eastern cultures as well," McDonel said. "It is fascinating."

Ouzts concurred, saying, “I saw the speed and ease with which the students and teachers picked up our methods and their excitement. The next step will be to analyze our interviews with the teachers and review their thoughts and reactions to what we shared with them.”

The team plans to present their findings at the April conference of the International Research in Music Education organization in Bath, England.

“Trips like this are a way for me to share the education I am getting at Radford,” said Ouzts. “It helps me learn about other people and cultures. An opportunity like this, sharing what we know and learning from others, helps moves us forward together.”

McDonel said the trip aligned with Radford University’s core mission of “Student Empowerment and Success” in which the Radford faculty engages and supports Radford students in the discovery and pursuit of their unique path, within and beyond the classroom. McDonel called the experience "transformative." Such educational experiences are central to Radford University's mission of service to all students, from the undergraduate to the doctoral levels.

“This is the favorite part of a teacher’s job – to see the light bulbs go off, to see students' eyes light up when they make connections and learn new skills,’ said McDonel. “There is a lot involved in helping our students prepare to teach at all levels.  Experiences like this build bridges across cultures by teaching and learning through music."

Jan 30, 2019
Don Bowman
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