Music Co-Creation at The Key and Vocabularies for Community Partnership

21 January 2020

By Andrea Mazzariello, Assistant Professor of Music, Carleton College

February 2020 will mark a meaningful anniversary for me: three years since I first sat down in front of a computer and a digital piano with youth at The Key, and asked what they might want to learn to make or learn to do. Since then, my ongoing project there—which I did not realize at the time was a project, much less an ongoing one—has received a great deal of attention and support from Public Works, Project Pericles, the Center for Community and Civic Engagement at Carleton, the Humanities Center at Carleton, and from many other Carleton faculty, staff, administrators, and especially students, for which I am deeply grateful.

This brief reflection will talk a bit about that ongoing effort and support, but will focus especially on September-December, 2019. You might call that “Fall Term and Winter Break,” but I prefer to use a calendar that centers the experience of our co-creators versus our particular institutional method of marking time. September 2019 began a collaboration between Carleton senior Joey Castaneda ’20, several young musicians at The Key, and me. And unhooking “Carleton Time” from Key Time (aka Earth Time) feels especially productive as a rhetorical move. It demonstrates just one way that, for all of the earnest desire to inspire a co-creative process on the part of all parties, we are engaged in a perpetual act of translation. I think foregrounding this is important; indeed in many ways that translation is the project.

I’ll let Joey demonstrate that, in text drawn from a long reflection on our shared experiences at the Key this past fall. He writes:

“Ending the academic week every Friday at the Key was incredible. No matter how hard the week was to get through, being able to end it in such a warm community was huge for me; I always left feeling much better than I did when I got there.”

This is absolutely true of my experience, down (especially) to the ways in which language tells a bigger story than one perhaps intends. The academic week in Joey’s account lives in a different space than that in which we collaborate with youth at The Key; one presents obstacles that must be overcome while the other provides an antidote to the emotional costs of that overcoming, specifically in the form of warmth and community. Joey goes on to say that he was “really able to connect with and get to know some of the Key’s regulars,” and that “he felt like a part of the community at large” as a result.

This is not to say that he/we aren’t members of the Carleton community at large, or of many of a number of smaller communities that are subsets of or intersections with it. But our experience of co-creating with youth at The Key and then reflecting back upon it, and the subsequent collision of norms and values, sets the normative behaviors of the other, quotidian, big-and-little-I institutions of which we are a part into bold relief. The Key is defined, and indeed defines itself, as a space apart from these other communities; different rules apply and different priorities reveal themselves.

As a thought experiment, imagine a young person at The Key asking Joey or me how we were doing, and that we then were to move into the typical Carleton response of “well it’s week (insert number between 1 and 10), so, you know, totally crazy.” I expect this would seem completely baffling. At The Key, Carleton is often regarded as a site of enormous privilege, full of kombucha coolers and Mac laptops and, importantly for the work we have been doing, lots and lots of really cool (and expensive) music equipment. Week n struggles seem quaint, at best, if they are legible at all.

Again, reflecting back on the ways in which we communicate inside the academic institution reveals the extent to which those communications are coded, and both resistant to outside understanding and—critically—vulnerable to falling apart as we observe those points of tension. Am I really going to talk about, say, how I only get one day of midterm break in that particular room? A room that, again in Joey’s words, “boasts a broken soundboard connected to broken speakers, an electric bass without any strings, a guitar with broken hardware”? After we really see the discrepancy, the stark contrast, sustaining a sense that we are somehow aggrieved by virtue of busy-ness becomes much more difficult.

And that is the irony of the ways in which the extraordinary privileges of my position multiply. The act of reflecting upon my experience of trying to enable young people to make music allows me to walk away Having Earned A Valuable Lesson About My Own Life. As this project moves forward, I aim to find ways to short-circuit these structures, in which we operate by default. Again, I receive an overwhelming quantity of material and intangible support for this project; the goal is to become a conduit through which these resources pass, transform, and then, most critically, land where they are most urgently needed.

What we are doing appears structurally to be about helping a community institution resource itself more deeply. But what has emerged for me is a different ambition: to become an agent of cultural change in my academic institution and in the larger communities of privilege of which I am a part, designed as they are to concentrate resources in the hands of those who already have them in abundance. Seeing and articulating this is nothing new, but that saying so is de rigueur doesn’t make doing so any less urgent.