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Helping Sound Students Apply New Ways of Thinking to Creative Practice

Raised in a musical home in Jamaica, Assistant Professor of Instruction David Chavannes loved performing with his family at church and participating in music competitions across the island country—even playing for beach weddings in Montego Bay.

Growing up queer, Chavannes was teased and bullied by his classmates, “but music was something I could use to earn their respect,” he explains. “For that reason, music became a big part of my life, and it’s a big reason why I came to the United States.” He moved to America in 2006 after being awarded a scholarship to earn a degree at a Massachusetts college, and he has lived here ever since.

As he studied Western classical music performance, Chavannes began to think about where his career might take him. “There isn’t a lot of critical thinking that goes into how these training programs are structured,” he explains. “They’re still rooted in a time where making a living as a concert musician was the ideal.”

While working on his first graduate degree in 2012—a Master of Music in Choral Conducting and Piano Performance at the University of Kansas—Chavannes developed tendonitis. After graduation, he went on to earn a Master of Music in Collaborative Piano at the University of Maryland as well. During that time, his injury became so severe that he had to put piano performance aside for the first year of the program. This offered him an unexpected reprieve to think about what he wanted to do next.

Searching for a way to connect his creative work to current events and the world around him, Chavannes decided to explore doctoral research programs. He chose to study at the University of Pennsylvania and hoped that earning a PhD in Africana Studies and Ethnomusicology would help him learn the history of his people while also integrating his creative and research practices.

“While I was there, I connected with a handful of faculty members who understood that there’s more than one way to make research,” he explains. “Performance can help us understand social and political dynamics, as well as be a forum to communicate and engage with other people’s ideas.”

He formed a lasting connection with E. Patrick Johnson, who later became the dean at Northwestern’s School of Communication and introduced Chavannes to the MA in Sound Arts and Industries program.

“I’m of the school of historical thinking pedagogy, which is an approach that invites students to practice thinking skills that professional historians use,” Chavannes explains. “For example, if someone shares an idea, then you ask who the person is, what their relationship is to the idea, and when, where, and why they shared the idea. I’m passionate about inviting students to try on this way of thinking to see how it deepens their creative practice, because it certainly deepened mine.” He weaves this approach into the three Sound Arts and Industries courses he teaches.

In Oral History for Sound Artists, Chavannes’ focus is on helping students formulate historical inquiry to drive creative work. To expand thinking skills like sourcing and contextualization, he asks each student to find a loved one whose life they want to learn more about.

“Students spend time developing questions to interview this person. What comes out of the interview is what shapes the project,” he explains. “This approach also teaches what it’s like to do research. It isn’t a linear process. It’s about insight—which you can’t really plan for.”

Archival History for Sound Artists is a course designed to help students deepen their creative practice. “When you’re caught up in sound production, it can be easy to lose sight of history,” he explains. “You may find a sound online and use it, but you should first think about the politics and ethics behind that. Think about the source. Who made it? Where did it come from? Why was it made? That matters.”

His third course, Listening to Colonialism, emphasizes Jamaican dancehall music as a way to understand the histories and legacies of British colonialism in Jamaica. This approach strengthens historical thinking skills and teaches students how to work with and synthesize a point of view from a wide range of perspectives and sources. It’s a practice students can apply in all aspects of their lives—not just their creative work.

In addition to building thinking skills, Chavannes says he also wants to foster a climate that normalizes failure. “There can be lots of pressure to ‘already know’ certain things. If you appear not to know, then the stakes are high. I want to make it okay for us to ‘not know’—and to ‘not know’ out loud. Failure is a normal part of learning, and we can help each other learn by making it okay to be vulnerable.”

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