Sounds of Belonging: Fulbright Scholar Ailbhe Kenny on Communities of Musical Practice

Dr. Ailbhe Kenny

Dr. Ailbhe Kenny

by Linda Flores

In the midst of a hectic week of spring finals and performances, students and faculty gathered on a Tuesday evening to support and learn from Fulbright scholar, Ailbhe Kenny. Dr. Kenny, an Irish native, split her studies in the U.S. between Teachers College and New York University. She holds bachelor and masters degrees in Music Education from St. Patrick’s College in Dublin and a Ph.D. from the University of Cambridge. She capped her yearlong residence with a lecture about her research called “Sounds of Belonging: Insights into learning within ‘communities of musical practice’,” after which she will return to being a Lecturer in Music Education at Mary Immaculate College in the University of Limerick.

Dr. Kenny’s research is on the “sociology of music work” and how communities of musical practice develop, learn, negotiate, and even transform practices. She borrows heavily from Etienne Wenger’s model of communities of practice defined as “groups of people who share a concern or passion and learn how to do it better when they interact regularly, which includes mutual engagement, joint enterprise, and shared repertoire. Dr. Kenny adapted this to the musical process (versus music as the final product) by doing case studies on three publicly funded musical groups in Ireland: the Limerick Jazz Workshop, the County Limerick Youth Choir, and the Online Academy of Irish Music. She pointed out Wenger’s concept of “toxic coziness” in communities of practice where relationships are not alway pleasant and a sense of belonging implies a level of exclusion.

Nine months of in-person observation, document analysis, videos, participant logs, and interviews led to insights into the learning and identity development of the groups. Dr. Kenny found that all members were motivated by the opportunity to be challenged while creating music with others. The Jazz Workshop, the most diverse group in age and nationalities, had a casual modus operandi and organic informal initiation process. The Youth Choir had a competitive audition process that allowed the members to feel a sense of pride in representing their community. The Online Academy, with one third of members from the U.S., held a shared affinity with a rural Western Ireland identity often expressed with Irish sayings. All the members took their membership very seriously and held themselves accountable to the group process. Dr. Kenny counted 102 humor references total and noted the crucial role jokes and laughter have in reinforcing group values, promoting belonging, and teaching/learning music. In comparing the three communities, she concluded that formal institutions like TC could benefit from modeling communities of musical practice to encourage meaningful lifelong musical engagement.

Dr. Ailbhe Kenny on Musical Communities.

Dr. Ailbhe Kenny on Musical Communities, photo by Linda Flores

The second half of the lecture consisted of a spirited question and answer session. Dr. Harold Abeles, Professor of Music Education at TC, inquired about the socioeconomic diversity of the group and how hard it is for new members to break in. Dr. Kenny cited Wenger’s assertion that diversity is the key to sustaining the community, in which aspect the Jazz Workshop was exemplary but the Youth Choir was lacking. She observed that newcomers were usually musically confident but socially reserved as they learned the norms of the group. Dr. Randall Allsup, Associate Professor of Music Education at TC, asked about Dr. Kenny’s sociological approach to the research, which differs from his instinct to make the data normative and prescriptive to students. She explained that she works from a constructionist paradigm, where there is no certainty or absolute truth and everything is situated in context and allowed to be in flux. Faculty and students posed many more comments and questions in an attitude of humble openness towards Dr. Kenny’s perspective and expertise, carrying home with them ponderings about how creating communities of musical practice can benefit students in their future classrooms.