From Brahms to B.B. King, Bill Monroe, and Blind Lemon Jefferson, Professor is well-versed in music
By Brevy Cannon
The film “Deliverance,” with its haunting scene of hillbilly banjo pickin’, is an unlikely teaching aid for a music professor who specializes in Beethoven and 18th century music. Except if the class is Professor Richard Will’s graduate seminar on American Roots Music, which investigates the invention of the American hillbilly.
So how did Will go from teaching about his specialty — the world of Beethoven’s sonatas, overtures, and symphonies — to teaching a class on the American hillbilly? With help from the McIntire Department of Music, Central Virginia’s music scene and his violin.
“I’ve always been interested in country music, and bluegrass especially, and in popular music more generally,” explained Will, who grew up in a household immersed in all types of music. His mother and father listened to classical, jazz, swing era and big band music. His older brother and sister introduced him to the Beatles and rock’n’roll, and from there he explored country and bluegrass. “I feel that music chose me rather than the other way around,” he said.
But Will’s wide-ranging musical interests were put aside to focus on classical music almost exclusively, beginning with his high school violin teacher and continuing through his undergraduate years spent majoring in violin performance at the University of California, Santa Cruz.
During graduate study at Cornell, Will was able to branch out, studying intellectual history and literary theory, and non-Western and popular music. The first class that Will taught at Cornell covered Popular Music Since 1950, and his enthusiasm for the subject was evident as his class received an award as one of the best freshman writing seminars.
After earning his Ph.D. in musicology in 1994 for his dissertation on classical period symphonies, Will’s nonclassical interests were stymied again when he began teaching at the University of Washington. Though Will had already proven his interest and skill in teaching about popular music, rigid divisions within the music department restricted Will from teaching anything other than his core classes in classical music. “That eventually felt constricting, and I was ready for something more open,” he said.
That desire brought Will to U.Va., where he has been an associate professor of music since 2001. Only after moving to Charlottesville, did Will realize the rich music scene that he had walked into. “Central Virginia is a real hotbed for all kinds of bluegrass and ‘old-time’ and acoustic blues, and there are just a lot of people here to work with and play with and explore.”
Will began performing more often than he had since graduate school, “but performing mostly bluegrass fiddle instead of classical violin, and that led to starting a bluegrass jam session … with students, and that led to teaching [this] course on American music and the hillbilly identity,” Will said. “So it’s been a long-simmering interest that has just had a bit more opportunity here at U.Va. to develop.”
Though the Central Virginia music scene helped revivify Will’s interest in bluegrass, the teaching philosophy of U.Va.’s music department allowed him to share his bluegrass interests with students. “The advantages to this department are openness on a number of different levels,” Will said. “Greater openness to musics other than the Western classical tradition, and then within the courses that are on the Western classical tradition, we have a rather nontraditional approach.”
Traditionally, in this country, undergraduates must take a sequence of classes on Western classical music — first a course on Medieval and Renaissance music, then a course on 16th and 17th century music, and so on over three or four semesters—“Plato to NATO,” as it’s called.
In contrast, U. Va. offers what are called ‘gateway’ courses that cover a great range of music in the 20th century — popular, non-Western, jazz, classical, the American musicals, etc. — and consider the big theoretical questions of how to study and think critically about music. After the ‘gateway’ course, students can take whatever music classes interest them. “Every student has a faculty adviser, and we help them construct a coherent program out of this freedom,” Will said. “That openness was enormously attractive to me.
“There are a number of music schools that are working on revising their curriculum and [U. Va.’s curriculum] has been one of the models for that,” Will said. “In the world we live in, where technology makes music of all kinds and all historical periods available at any time, not very many people listen to and devote themselves to only one kind of music and rank that sound above all others, which old-fashioned music appreciation programs used to promulgate.”
Will has made numerous contributions to the study of Beethoven and 18th century music, including his service as author and reviews editor for the scholarly journal Beethoven Forum and his book, “The Characteristic Symphony in the Age of Haydn and Beethoven” (Cambridge University Press, 2002). Fortunately, now that he’s at U.Va., he doesn’t have to sideline his other musical interests.
Graduate student Allison Robbins, who “really enjoyed” Will’s graduate class on American popular music, described it as “a deeper look into the early 20th century and issues of race and popular culture.”
Students certainly agree with Will in valuing American popular music — Will’s spring 2004 undergraduate class on the subject filled all 120 spots in the first day of registration. Because of such demand, this spring the class will expand to 180 spots. But don’t bet on finding a seat on the second day of registration.