A Virtual Fieldwork Project in the Age of COVID

By David W. Stowe, Michigan State University

In the pre-pandemic version of my Music and Religion course, I assigned an observation paper based on a visit to a local faith community, a kind of entry-level ethnomusicology. Since this was no longer possible under COVID, I created an alternative assignment using the well-designed ARSP Mennonite Voices exhibit.

The original assignment required a five-page paper in two parts. The first part asked for details on the community and a precise description of what was seen and heard. Part two asked students to explain whether they heard what they expected, were surprised by anything, and reflect on how significant sound was in the event they witnessed. The revised assignment was as follows:

For obvious reasons, this assignment cannot be completed under Covid-19 conditions. Instead, I would like you to work with Mennonite Voices, found on the ARSP website: https://arspgallery.com/2019/04/26/mennonite-voices-main/

Work your way through the site, which gives some historical background and material on six separate churches: Pasadena and Upland, California; Vancouver, Montana, Houston, and Philadelphia. Be sure to listen to the links and video/sound examples. Then, describe and analyze the music or sound of Mennonite Christianity. Let yourself be guided by the elements of music-culture we discussed in Week 2. Please consider:

  • the community's ideas about music or sound;
  • how the community organizes the music socially (by gender, age, training, etc.);
  • the material culture of the music;
  • the sound of the music itself, in terms of melody, rhythm, timbre.

The first part should offer some description of what you saw and heard in the Mennonite communities. Some things to look for:

  • Who was creating music or sound? who was listening?
  • What sort of activity accompanied the music?
  • What instruments were used?
  • What did the music sound like?

The second part of the report should reflect on American Mennonite music-culture in terms of concepts from our readings and class discussions.

  • Did you see and hear what you expected from the community?
  • Were you surprised by anything you observed?
  • How significant did sound appear to be in the spiritual experience of the people in attendance?
  • What if anything is a common thread holding these diverse communities together?

These are suggested questions; you don't need to address them all. Feel free to focus on one or two of the communities for your write-up, once you've examined the six different locations. Your write-up should be around four pages (1000 words) double-spaced. Aim for a well-crafted report that balances description with interpretation, flows logically, has smooth transitions, and offers original insights about what you observed.

Students seemed to get a lot out of the assignment, and certainly had to revise their understandable preconception of Mennonites as old-fashioned European-American types. I plan to use it again this year.

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