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Rocking in the Midwest: Transmitting and Performing Social Class in Rock Music Education

Periodic Reporting for period 1 - ClassRockED (Rocking in the Midwest: Transmitting and Performing Social Class in Rock Music Education)

Reporting period: 2019-09-23 to 2021-09-22

The Marie Skłodowska-Curie Individual Fellowship ‘Rocking in the Midwest: Transmitting and Performing Social Class in Rock Music Education’ (ClassRockED), led by researcher Dr Kayla Rush, ran from September 2019 to September 2021. This research project examined questions and issues of social class and identity in a private, extracurricular, fees-based rock music school, utilizing participant-observation, interviewing, and participatory sound recording methods. It sought to critically address the following four research objectives, identifying and analysing

1) symbols and representations of social class in rock music
2) ways in which these symbols are performed and transmitted in rock music teaching and learning
3) key differences between private, fees-based popular music education and other available types of music learning
4) potential applications for policy making
As an ethnographic project based on in-person, face-to-face field research, the project experienced significant delays and disruptions due to the COVID-19 pandemic, and as such the four stated objectives have not yet been fully addressed. However, a further grant from the Department of Further and Higher Education, Research, Innovation and Science (DFHERIS) of Ireland, via the Higher Education Authority (Cost Extensions for Research Disrupted by COVID-19 scheme) has extended the research and analysis period through June 2022, allowing the project to proceed on an extended timeline, and thus to meet the majority of its stated goals.

A literature review at the beginning of the project revealed that very little research and writing exists on private, extracurricular, fees-based popular music schools, despite their rapidly proliferating global presence. As such, this project represents a significant step forward in academic knowledge, illuminating a new, previously unexamined area for study and analysis. Due to travel constraints and uncertainties as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, the researcher received approval to relocate the field research from its original planned location in the United States Midwest to the location of the host institution in Dublin, Ireland. In-person research commenced with local organization Rock Jam’s music camps for children and teenagers in Dublin in summer 2021. Interviews with adults involved in Rock Jam began shortly after.
While the delay to data collection means that the project’s findings are still taking shape, initial analyses show enormous potential to significantly expand the state of the field beyond the boundaries of current knowledge. This research suggests that in order to understand the social culture and musical culture of private rock music schools, analyses must begin with understandings of musical ‘riffs’, especially those played on the guitar. Playing riffs was summer camp participants’ most common free time activity; riffs were also used as key pedagogical tools by staff, and they played roles in student-to-student sociality, indicating their wide-ranging importance for research participants.

As a crucial component of this analysis, Dr Rush is currently developing the notion of riff capital. Rooted in sociologist Pierre Bourdieu’s theory of ‘cultural capital’, riff capital provides new language with which to describe and analyse the social value of riffs within popular music settings. Importantly, riff capital theorises and calls attention to the ways in which musical riffs and instrumental knowledge impact and are impacted by gender, race, and ethnicity. In so doing, it argues that musical knowledge is never neutral, but instead interacts with and is shaped by individual musicians’ social positions and identities.

Findings and analyses related specifically to social class, the main focus of this project, are still emerging. Initial results in this sphere show great promise for abilities to speak to, interact with, and expand upon existing theorisations of social class and education within sociology, music education studies, anthropology of education, and ethnomusicology. In particular, this research provides new insight into

1) the role of middle-class fathers in their children’s music education
2) re-configurations of value within cultural capital for twenty-first-century middle- and upper-middle-class families
3) shifting understandings of the social class of rock music
4) notions of workforce preparation in contemporary educational settings

To date, this project has resulted in 1 published peer-reviewed journal article, 1 peer-reviewed book chapter (currently in press), 2 invited talks, 4 conference presentations, and a short media piece for a general audience. A variety of further outputs – scholarly writings, presentations, and creative outputs – are currently being developed.
Riff graph - original model
Cover image