The Inexpressible, Intangible Music AND

Mark Vuorinen

Mark Vuorinen is an Associate Professor of Music and Chair of the Music Department at Grebel, where he teaches courses in conducting and conducts the University of Waterloo Chamber Choir. He is also Artistic Director of Kitchener-Waterloo’s Grand Philharmonic Choir and The Elora Singers.

Conrad Grebel University College is home to the University of Waterloo Music program. Tucked into spacious facilities on the lower level of the College “across the creek” from the sprawling campus of the University, the Department of Music welcomes a diverse student body to learn about and to make music. Over decades, hundreds of students have graduated from Waterloo with degrees in Music, and tens of thousands more have taken courses or participated in music ensembles. The Department of Music is large enough to create a vibrant and creative community of music-making and learning yet small enough that students get to know faculty, staff, and each other, personally.

In Grebel's Music Department we often refer to studying "Music AND." This terminology, though seemingly incomplete, is, nonetheless, apt for a number of important reasons. First, the phrase recognizes that many of the students we teach in our classes, or who make music in our ensembles, come from all across the University campus to complement their programs in Math, Engineering, Health, Environment, Science, or from other programs in the Faculty of Arts. Second, “Music AND” represents a lens through which we can see music at its myriad intersections with other disciplines and cultural contexts. The Music program embraces a strong liberal arts orientation, and explores the role of music in human life. Core areas of music history, theory, and performance are enriched by a global music dimension, with courses addressing questions at the vital intersection of disciplines, such as Health and Healing, Popular Music and Culture, Music and Film, Music and Peace, Music and Landscape, Music Cognition, and travel courses taught in various international locations. And third, “Music AND” is a description of how we strive to experience music in our daily lives. Music is a powerful vehicle for bringing people together in community, for inspiring social change, for elevating worship, and for helping to better understand the world around us as it engages the mind and body on every level.

Musical curiosity brings students to try a course or two in musicology or music theory, or to take individual lessons in our Music Studio program. And, our ensembles are filled with students whose love for music has brought them to sing in a choir, play in the orchestra or Jazz Ensemble, or learn to create music by playing in the Balinese Gamelan Ensemble while they complete programs in an array of diverse fields.

These academic and performance offerings enrich the experience of students while they are on campus. Sameeksha Naik is a Mechatronics Engineering student who plays French horn and serves as the primary conductor of the University of Waterloo Concert Band, a student-led ensemble. She has studied Music Theory and Conducting at Grebel and has said that “Playing in ensembles has given me a chance to know people outside of my program and I have a strong network of peers and alumni as a result.” She even noticed a jump in her grades when she started getting more involved with music. “It really contributed to my overall performance and well-being in engineering,” she added.

The idea that studying and participating in musical activities can contribute to an overall improvement in well-being and health is something we often hear from students. Math student Michael Chung is taking a minor in music (a collection of eight courses and ensembles) and agreed that music has been an important part of his undergraduate experience, making his “studies really fun and fruitful.” He added that the music activities have been “a great complement to my math courses, and participating in them has helped me with my overall well-being and mental health,” during busy terms.

There is no shortage of research that indicates the positive effects that participating in music has on both individuals and groups of people. Choral Canada, a national arts service organization for choirs and choral singing, has developed a curated list of scientific studies as part of its advocacy work that points to the physical, psychological, social and spiritual value of singing in community. To those who sing in choirs, these positive benefits are well known and are part of the reason they have joined in the first place.

Architectural Engineering student Isabel Crant has experienced the benefits of joining a music ensemble this year. When asked about the role that music plays in her life at Waterloo, she said, “I don’t often get the chance to experiment with fields outside of my program. Chamber Choir has helped me feel connected to my musical background and it has introduced me to wonderful people within the ensemble. I truly recommend any student with an interest in music to join school ensembles—it’s been one of the most enriching experiences I’ve had here at UWaterloo.” And many of these benefits are enjoyed by musicians who play instrumental music together as well. Each year hundreds of students do “Music AND” as they sing and play in Grebel’s musical ensembles, both for credit and as an extra-curricular activity.

The concept of “Music AND” is also core to many of the courses that we offer in Music. While our students study curriculum in music theory, history, world music and performance, the department has also developed a number of courses that focus a lens on the places music intersects with other disciplines. In fact, our 100-level music and culture course, How Music Matters (MUSIC 110), was designed with exactly this in mind. Recognizing that students must have a basis for the study of music that includes a wide range of music from a variety of historical eras and geographies early on in their studies, music faculty co-designed this new course to focus attention on music as it intersects with cultural topics such as “Music and...” love, death, politics, protest, war, censorship, identity, in concert and in everyday life. This co-taught course introduces students to areas of teaching specialities of several faculty members with the goal of leading students towards upper-year courses focusing on the convergence of music and topics such as health and healing, peace, landscape, and music and worship.

Finally, there is the experience of music as an intersection of the intellectual and the emotional. Academic pursuits naturally seek to develop an understanding of music and its cultural surroundings and how it is constructed—and even what meaning it holds. We also strive to encounter music as a stimulus of emotion. Music elevates the joys and wonders of life. It helps us sort through grief and sorrow. It helps us confront the challenges of life and engages the mind, body, and soul on every level. We feel chills upon hearing an especially moving piece of music. This is a whole other kind of “Music AND!”

Music and music-making inspires us. Music helps create joy and helps process grief. Music brings together communities. The Balinese Gamelan so aptly does this by giving every member an integral part to play. They rely on each other to complete the interlocking rhythms. And, our Chapel Choir brings together community in its song, as it elevates worship, connecting students, faculty, and staff through the shared experience of drawing breath together and releasing it to create vibrations of sound, a sensation unlike anything else. There is an element of the intangible in these expressions of “Music AND,” something inexpressible, and that is part of what makes us come back for more.

Whether it's by singing in a choir, playing in an instrumental ensemble, or taking a course, “Music AND” means something different for everyone. For Hannah Rivers, a Systems Design Engineering student, it has been an integral part of her university experience. "Not only has doing music at Grebel brought a lot of joy to my degree through getting to develop my artistic abilities, but it has also helped my academics by adding structure to my weekly schedule with choir and increased my average through fascinating Music courses which are a wonderful break from my technical classes.” She added, “I have met so many new friends through choir and through the Music program at Grebel, which has enriched my social life and helped me to meet people who have different perspectives and come from different backgrounds."