Professional Growth in a Challenging Job Market: An Interview with Katherine Palmer, Applied Ethnomusicologist and Performer

Applied ethnomusicology is making inroads towards recognition as a valued contribution within professional organizations beside traditional academic research and/or teaching careers. Its embrace by some organizations is reflected by publication opportunities dedicated to the topic and by active branches of members with this shared interest. Volume 17 (2012) of Ethnomusicology Review, for example, dedicated its contents to exploring the topic of applied ethnomusicology as did the 2013 issue of Yearbook for Traditional Music (Volume 45) - an issue that builds on momentum gained by the International Council for Traditional Music’s Study Group on Applied Ethnomusicology. The realities of a competitive and sparse academic job market call for an evaluation of viable careers in ethnomusicology, and, as the ER and ICTM publications reflect, there are opportunities for ethnomusicologists in careers that include applied ethnomusicology as one element of the job profile or as its primary component. This interview takes a closer look at how one individual came to a career in applied ethnomusicology. Her experiences show that this career path is shaped by skill in participation and instruction, and is rooted in intellectual exploration and exchange through continued participation with international organizations.

Katherine Palmer is a performer, music educator, and ethnomusicologist. She designs and teaches the educational programing for early childhood music at the Musical Instrument Museum in Phoenix, Arizona. Her day-to-day tasks include: designing instruments that use locally available materials but that are modeled after existing global instruments, helping children create and play their own instruments, teaching songs from different music communities of the world, and implementing educational programming that develops musical and cognitive skills. In addition to her activities at MIM, Katherine is active as a clarinet performer, clinician, and college-level world music course instructor. She is an active member of professional societies in the areas of ethnomusicology, music education, and museums. I interviewed Katherine about her academic background, career planning, and perspectives on working as a full-time applied ethnomusicologist. Her responses provide insight for people who are considering careers inside and outside of academia.  


KW: What does the word “applied” in “applied ethnomusicology” mean to you, and how did you come to it?

KP: To me, “applied” means putting into action and practice the things that you study during a degree in ethnomusicology.

I came to ethnomusicology in a roundabout way. I was entering my doctoral studies at Arizona State University and knew that I wanted to study the compositions of Latin American composers. But I wanted to do it in a way that allowed me to learn more about folksong and folklore, so I decided that I would do an MA in ethnomusicology in conjunction with a DMA.

Between the two degrees, I became interested in diverse areas: social reform, identity formation in youth through music education, contemporary compositions by Latin American composers, and the transmission of Latin American music to students. I have several areas of research, each of which happened by chance but all of which I have been able to apply in my day-to-day work with children and youth at the museum.  

My MA thesis is titled “Social Reform through Music Education and the Establishment of a National Identity in Venezuela,” and my doctoral project was on the Peruvian composer Armando Guevera Ochoa. It is a biographical sketch and features transcriptions of his works for clarinet. During my MA, I participated in the Center for World Music's “Andes and Beyond” three-week learning program. After my doctoral work was complete, I went to Tanzania with Clarinets for Conservation, a non-profit organization that travels to the Kilimanjaro region to teach clarinet and plant Mpingo trees. During my time there, I also collected children’s songs. I use these to enhance the already established curriculum of early childhood movement and music, and K-12 music education in my position at MIM.


KW: Aside from clarinet instruction, were there other “applied” components in your role with Clarinets for Conservation?

KP: The Mpingo tree, also called African Blackwood or Grenadilla, is a major commercial export from Tanzania. Wind players should recognize it as the materials from which clarinets, oboes, piccolos, and bagpipes are made. So we are bridging the gap between product and product source: the students learn the discipline of music and they learn about issues of deforestation, which is a huge problem in that region. By planting trees—another objective—we hope to teach them about sustainability. While an Mpingo tree takes 75-100 years to mature, they also increase the nutrients of the soil and absorb a significant amount of carbon from the environment. The people who live where these trees grow make carvings out of it, but to create a musical instrument takes technologies that are not present in the region. Most Tanzanians have never seen, let alone heard, a clarinet.


KW: How did you come to your current position as a museum educator?

KP: As I entered the final year of my doctoral studies, I knew that I wanted to supplement my learning. The internship at MIM in the Education Department was an opportunity to learn about non-profit organizations and institutional careers outside of higher education.


KW: Who are your guides/mentors?

KP: Ted Solis, my teacher and mentor as ASU, has been my primary inspiration. His “learning-by-doing” style of teaching brought me to recognize the value of students actively making music in a tradition in order to understand it inside and out. I also turn to the work of Lee Higgins (Community Music: In Theory and In Practice, 2012) and Patricia Shehan Campbell (Songs in their Heads: Music and Its Meaning in Children’s Lives, 2010) for essential information about music making and how children interpret music.


KW: What are the lessons from your own career in applied ethnomusicology that you would share with people in the early stages of their careers?

KP: While it is important to have a specialty, I also believe that it is essential to be a generalist. Having a wide breadth of knowledge and experience that you are comfortable talking about and maybe even performing enables you to engage new audiences with diverse music and information. While at ASU, I enjoyed playing in the Latin marimba band and with the Javanese gamelan ensemble. There, I learned how to reduce traditions to simple components that are teachable and learnable in a short amount of time, which is essential to my current role.


KW: Did you know at the time that you would move into a position in public ethnomusicology? Were you preparing for this area, or was it coincidence? 

KP: During my studies, I never imagined that a position like this existed. After all, I'm developing and teaching my own early childhood world music curriculum, leading 6- to 10-year-olds in instrument-building activities, and developing meaningful programming and content for youth and families in an informal education setting. It's a pretty amazing experience, and I'm lucky that it came along when it did. While it feels like coincidence, all of my training, studies, and travels have led me here.


Pictured here are examples of instruments created by Palmer as templates for her students at MIM. These instruments are a part of a class in which students recreates instruments from global traditions using materials found in local hardware stores. 


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