We all have voices in our heads. Those who knew Bennett Reimer might be able to hear his—soft in tone, bold in content, thought-provoking and humorous. Over the course of eight years, gathering weekly with him and other colleagues in the Center for the Study of Education and the Musical Experience, interacting with him and with students during his quarterly visits to my philosophy classes, talking casually in hallways and social gatherings, and engaging with his scholarly work since my undergraduate years at the University of Miami, I’ve come to recognize certain qualities of that voice: its aesthetic properties, its meanings, and its ability to spark thought.
His voice invited us to lean in and opened a space for us to reflect on our teaching and our scholarship. With only a comment, a question, or a provocation, he could spark communal reflection and debates. They stimulated all, often lingering long after the exchange. What I valued most about his voice was that it did not dictate what we should think on a particular issue in the field—though he clearly had many unwavering principles and strong convictions. For me, his voice invited us to think dialogically, systematically, more critically, all while keeping our eyes on a pragmatic horizon. In both writing and oral discourse, his “voice” impacted most who came in contact with it. That voice accompanies our work today.
In Anne Lamott’s book, Bird by Bird, she recommends that writers silence voices in their heads by picking them up by the tail and dropping them into a mason jar. Bennett Reimer’s is a voice I prefer to keep by my side, especially when I’m embarking on a new project, preparing to discuss research findings, or reviewing the work of others.
I’d like to share three themes that emerge by my keeping his voice out of the mason jar.
The first is SEEKING SIGNIFICANCE, a type of significance described by the Oxford dictionary as “the importance of something, especially when this has an effect on what happens in the future.” More than anyone I have known in our field, Bennet Reimer’s was the voice reminding us to “seek significance” in our research. That idea emerged quite forcefully to me as a newly minted assistant professor at Northwestern University in 2003, while reading the postscript of On the Nature of Musical Experience (1999). One sentence captured that sentiment: “There is simply no good reason for studying something unimportant when so many important matters confront us.” Those few words, which he would reinforce in his writings and in conversations from time to time, challenged me to revisit and question the meaning of my prior work. More importantly, having just completed my doctorate and launching a research agenda, it guided my future scholarly pursuits. His voice lingers today: Are our research questions more than just interesting? Why is a research question or finding important? To whom? Does our research have the potential to help illuminate something that can positively and meaningfully impact music education practices? The lives of others?
The second theme is SEEKING RELEVANCE. In Bennett Reimer’s words, “the end point of [music education] philosophy, its most deeply important effect, is on how children in schools…are enabled to more fully internalize the ways of knowing and being that music and only music can provide.” Here, in his last publication in the Music Educators Journal (2014), he reminds us to ask questions and seek findings that are particular to music and relevant to the people our practice is designed to serve. In seeking to make his work more relevant, he was willing to take chances by translating abstract philosophical studies and arguments into general music textbooks, listening guides, and other curricular materials, or even national standards. Were he around today, he might ask us: Who is translating scholarship in meaningful ways for practitioners, policy makers, or other educational leaders? How can we make our scholarship more present, more accessible, more relevant to those creating music learning experiences for children and adults?
The final theme is SEEKING THE MUSICAL EXPERIENCE. In a period when our profession has become increasingly interested in examining and addressing important issues of cultural diversity, equity, and social justice, Bennett’s admonition to consider how the music experience may offer something unique to these matters is worth remembering. In his 2008 Senior Researcher Address, published in the Journal of Research in Music Education, he stated: “claims of social justice…and the issues they raise for us as music educators need to be addressed with both respect and circumspection, in which musical experience and its political and moral ramifications are not seen to be in conflict but in which they are understood to be interdependent.” I hear his voice when I read an article or hear a talk in our field that barely mentions the role or function of music in its text or when music is so tangential to seem inconsequential. While many have disagreed with the specifics of his argument, the general idea is worth reflecting upon. How does the music experience add “a distinctive dimension of meaning to its contextual realities” and how do “those realities themselves define what music essentially is and does?” I remind myself of this in my work, remind my undergraduates in building their advocacy claims or personal philosophies, and my graduate students in their initial research endeavors.
You, too, may have been influenced by Reimer’s voice, on occasion giving you pause, opening a reflective space to think about your teaching, mentoring, and scholarship. Our collective work is all the better for having had Bennett Reimer’s voice in our heads.
Lamott, A. (1997). Bird by bird: Some Instructions on writing and Life. New York: Anchor Books.
Reimer, B. (2014). Reflections on “Music Educators Journal” in Its Centennial Year. Music Educators Journal, 100, 3, 27-32.
Reimer, B. (2008). Research in music education: Personal and professional reflections in a time of perplexity. Journal of Research in Music Education, 56, 3, 190-203.
Reimer, B., & Wright, J. E. (1999). On the nature of musical experience. Boulder, CO: NetLibrary, Inc.