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Meet Professor Gareth Dylan Smith

Gareth Sylan Smith

Music Ed professor Gareth Dylan Smith wears a lot of hats. He’s an educator, writer, and drummer, modeling, as he says, “the kind of portfolio career that is common to so many musicians in the twenty-first century.” In addition to teaching Popular Music Practicum and Research in Music and Music Education here at NYU, Smith is founding editor of the Journal of Popular Music Education, the manager of institutional giving and a copywriter at Little Kids Rock, and a musician. He spoke with us about his career path, his research interests, and playing music.

What course(s) are you teaching this year?

I will be teaching two courses in the spring semester – Popular Music Practicum, and Research in Music and Music Education. This is my second time teaching these courses, and I am excited about incorporating all the revisions I’ve made for this year. I know and work with the people who first designed and taught these courses, so I feel a responsibility to represent their intentions while also making the courses my own.

Have you taught music in elementary or high school? (How did that impact the work you do now?)

I taught elementary school music in London, England from 2001 to 2006. That experience impacted the work I do now in several ways. Perhaps most profoundly, I met my wife in that job – she taught second grade and sports. In that job I learned about the importance of parents in a school community. I figured out pretty quickly that programming school concerts was as much about pleasing parents as it was supporting the students. I taught high school from 2004 to 2009, and there I learned a lot about what it’s like to be a teenager in different parts of a large, multicultural city, and how pressures of studying factor into the lives of young people. I also taught drums peripatetically for many years, visiting sometimes dozens of people each week to teach drums, guitar, music theory, or clarinet, and sometimes a combination of these. I learned from that, that it’s best not to leave your guitar on the roof of your car when you drive away, and that it’s preferable to check your friend’s custom guitar is not still in the middle of the road. Overall, I learned that teaching is all about people; with each day in teaching, you’re learning something new about people. It’s really a wonderful job.

What kind of music do you play?

I just auditioned for a New Jersey riff-rock band in the vein of Kyuss and Grey Hairs. We play mid-tempo, deeply grooving rock music and sing about defeating unwitting superheroes. I’m in a duo with a tenor sax player in Scotland, called Build a Fort, and we make anti-populist jazz-rock fusion at the intersections of Garbarek/ECM, King Crimson, Radiohead, and the E-Street band (but with no vocals, piano, or guitars). Our debut EP is due out in the fall – we recorded this over three sessions in the Dolan Studio here at the Steinhardt School, NYU; the sessions and the takes were fantastic, as it’s such a great space to record! The recording engineers, Celia and Iver, were awesome, and they were instrumental (no pun intended) in bringing the music to life. I’m in a garage punk rock trio called the Eruptörs. We live in the US, the UK, and Sweden, which makes gigging all but impossible. We have four albums out, though, and we’re always working on new material, albeit slowly. We dream of syncing a track to major Hollywood action movie and living opulently off our royalties forever. The major musical partnership for the last 21 years of my life (exactly half the time I’ve been alive) has been with Stephen Wheel. Stephen and I moved to London together in 2001 to seek fame and fortune with our brand of energetic, harmonically sophisticated alt. rock. While we loved playing live together with our badass bassist, Hannah, most of our success has come in the recording studio since the band effectively broke up in 2004. I’m on all four of Stephen’s existing albums, and his next album which is due for release in the summer of 2020. We also have a rock concept album all but ready for release – based on the John le Carré novel, Tinker Tailor, Soldier, Spy. For fifteen years while I lived in London, I was a member of Irish psycho-ceilidh band, Neck – touring and playing with them was some of the most fun I’ve ever had. No experience has come close to the best moments on stage with Neck – utterly electrifying and even transcendental.

Being a drummer, I mostly play other people’s music, which means developing close relationships with writers and bands, seeking to find a place in their songs as I work to help them make their music the best it can be. I have been lucky to play with some amazing singer-songwriters, including Gillian Glover, Mark Ruebery, Rachael Travers, and Daniel Spiller.

Whenever I have made money making music (which has definitely been the exception to the rule), it’s been in the theatre. I have played hundreds of nights on dozens of shows, from Oklahoma! to Rent and Lucky Stiff. I have tended to play smaller, intimate theatres where the experience has been quite profound – perhaps most notably on a 2011 production of Parade; that show was incredible every night, and truly moved me.

How do you integrate your academic research and writing with being an active musician?

Until quite recently, these two parts of my work didn’t really intersect. My doctoral research and my first book were about drummers, but (despite the misleading cover image on the front of the book!) neither of these was about my playing or my life as a drummer. I undertook a second master’s degree just a few years ago, in popular music performance, specifically in order to challenge myself to combine my performance and research worlds. The result was a trilogy of research papers that fortuitously coincided with me recording an album with two former members of the legendary British heavy metal band, Iron Maiden; these guys left right before the band became huge! I am working on the third of these papers now. I was invited to give the keynote address at a recent conference, in which I spoke about various aspects of aesthetic experience and I played the drums in eclectic styles.

I have also co-written a few research papers about the business model and identity work of being in a garage punk rock band, about the portfolio careers of musicians like me, and about a recording project that uses super-low-latency internet to jam, improvise, perform, and record in real time across vast distances on different continents. I was very glad also to contribute a chapter for a forthcoming book about music diasporas, based on my experiences in the Irish punk/folk band. My work as a teacher has shown me that students often value hearing in depth and from various perspectives about the work I do as a musician; we can turn anecdotes into rigorous research that critiques the practice and raises questions about ethics, social structures and human relationships.

What is your job serving on the board of International Society for Music Education (ISME)?

I just attended my first meeting of the ISME board, in Helsinki over the summer. ISME has a fascinating history, as it was founded by UNESCO in 1953, as part of the world’s efforts at reconciliation and deepening international understandings following the devastation of the Second World War. ISME is at its core a convening organization, so it exists explicitly to bring people together. It’s much easier to understand and trust people whom you’ve talked with, made music with, and had lunch with, so ISME is about breaking down barriers and bringing people together in the name of working for a more peaceful world. My main role on the board right now is leading a working group to look at the best way to frame and arrange institutional partnerships with ISME. The ISME mission is supporting and promoting music education and music making for all; it is an honor to be involved in the work. 

Could you tell us about the Journal of Popular Music Education?

The Journal of Popular Music Education (JPME) is a forum for dissemination of scholarly research and debate about popular music in, and in the service of, education. I suggested founding this journal with my colleague Bryan Powell (Montclair State University) back in 2014, and it took us three years of proposals and trial runs to launch. The idea was prompted by my recognition that popular music education was, in theory, just a part of regular music education, but in practice it had been ‘othered’ by the profession. That is to say that the phrases ‘music’ and ‘music education’ tended by default to exclude popular music practices, and the research journals were doing this too – my epiphany came one afternoon while I was eating lunch in a board meeting of the British Journal of Music Education – one of the then-editors of BJME said “where do people go to publish about popular music education?” The solution, I decided, was to found a new journal. As founding editors, Bryan and I aim to serve the diverse community that identifies with the aims of the journal, which are to define, delimit, debunk, disseminate, and disrupt practice and discourse in and around popular music education. Through drawing together diverse, rigorous scholarship concerning learning in, through and about popular music worldwide, JPME seeks to identify, probe and problematize key issues in this vibrant, evolving field.

What is popular music and what role does it have in the classroom?

Popular music is already in the classroom. It’s in every child and every teacher who breathes in air in the room. It’s the music we grow up hearing and listening to; the music we sing in the shower, in the car, and walking on the sidewalk; it’s the music we hear in stores, on TV, on the radio, on our Spotify playlists, in church and at sports games. It’s the music we people write for ourselves and for each other – the beats we make and the rhymes we construct.

The first job of music teachers in regard to popular music is to recognize that music is valuable to people. Music is only in school for the same reason it’s anywhere else in our lives – it means things to people, and often its meanings are pretty profound. Musical preferences are deeply personal, usually only tacitly understood, rarely interrogated, and often surprising. It is incumbent on teachers as responsible citizen-educators to recognize the importance of music in their students' lives. I believe music teachers also have a responsibility to facilitate active participation in making and celebrating the music of their students.

Music education works in schools to represent and perpetuate sets of values and assumptions. By celebrating the musical (and thus deeply personal, cultural and emotional) values of their students, teachers help them to feel included in their classroom, in the school environment, and in society more broadly. Failing to welcome students in this way leads to their alienation. Because music is so meaningful to people, and especially to young people, music teachers have the opportunity as well as the tremendous responsibility, to decide who feels welcome and valued in society, and who is cast to the margins and excluded.

What is the Association for Popular Music Education hoping to achieve and what were some of your goals as its president?

I was elected to the role of president of the Association for Popular Music Education (APME) in 2017, following two years as Vice President. During my tenure in both positions, I worked with the board to internationalize the Association through establishing ties with the International Society for Music Education (ISME), to diversify board membership (hopefully leading to a more representative and inclusive organization), and to establish the outline of a strategic plan for the next five years.

Please tell us about your work with Little Kids Rock – what did you feel was lacking in music education that this organization is trying to address?

Little Kids Rock is the largest music education nonprofit in the US, working to address systemic injustices in society. Through working with teachers and young people in schools, Little Kids Rock works hard to show how more people can make music that is meaningful to them. Race, class, and gender discrimination (amongst other forms of division and injustice) are at the root of the unhappiness that pervades the lives of too many people. I spend a lot of time writing articles and editing books about how music teaching should be more accessible and humane, but the readership for those articles is very small. I came to work with Little Kids rock because I felt that I could add a little more fuel to the fire they are lighting under city and state administrators and policy makers, to transform schools into better places for more people so more of us can live rich, creative, and purposeful lives. Music education is awesome – Little Kids Rock is helping to bring music-making opportunities to more people. 

What kind of work do you do as manager of institutional giving and copywriter for Little Kids Rock?

I split my time between researching potential philanthropic funders, asking those funders to support the work of Little Kids Rock, writing copy for our marketing team, and playing drums. Drumming isn’t really part of my job, per se, but we’re encouraged to make music at the Little Kids Rock office and I have some beautifully musical friends there who really know how to rock and roll. Most of my work day is spent trying to match grant proposals to the specific interests and philanthropic goals of organizations who want to give back to their communities in different parts of the country. And resisting the urge to snack.

What are you hoping to impart to your students here at NYU?

I would like students to trust themselves, and not to leave NYU thinking they have all the answers. I keep finding that I have almost none of the answers; I don’t even know most of the questions! Learning is for life, and to believe otherwise, or to lead others to believe otherwise, does a disservice to our profession as teachers. I want for my students’ future students to feel empowered with the knowledge that they can keep learning and growing and that that is our job as humans. To get along, we need to respect and understand one another, and to do that we need to keep open minds, and maintain a compassionate outlook, keeping our own desires and ambitions in perspective. The neoliberal capitalist world in which we all strive to survive is far too competitive, in my view. Not everyone needs to win, and not everybody can win. We shouldn’t all be up against one another in the first place. Collaboration is essential to survival, and all the individual successes and celebrities in any field know this – no one has ever achieved greatness on their own. I hope that my students all flourish and that in doing so, they help others to flourish too.

I want for students to realize when they are happy and fulfilled (and that these are not always the same thing), to help their own students recognize these things too, and to remember that one person’s success is often a huge disappointment for many others who tried just as hard but didn’t come out on top. It’s definitely important to work hard, but hard work is no guarantee of success. We all want to feel like we’re part of something meaningful and collaborative and that goes deeper than performances, presentations and grades. All of my NYU students have become really good at making music, and I want for each of them to remember to cling to the magic that music brings when we make it alone and together. I hope that they continue to do this forever, and that they nurture this love above all things in their students. Being a good student, a good musician, and a good citizen is hard work. But it is work that pays off a thousand-fold. Humans are culturally and biologically predisposed to make music, and as teachers we have the opportunity to help others grow in this most wonderful area of human activity and meaning-making.  

Is music your whole life?

Music isn’t my whole life, but very little of the rest of my life would exist without music. I have a t-shirt (actually several t-shirts) that read “I drum, therefore I am”. This phrase means a few things to me, apart from the fact that I like playing drums and often feel most competent and most completely myself when I’m playing. It means that just about everything I’ve done and that has happened to me, certainly in my adult life, has come about because of how central playing the drums is to being me. I met my wife in a music-teaching job that I took to help pay rent while I was trying to make it big with a rock band in London; our relationship led me to study for a master’s degree in music education and eventually brought me to the US (my wife grew up and went to college in New York state); we now have a house and a circle of friends here, plus a wonderful daughter, and my wife has helped nurture my love of hummus, halloumi, falafel, and binge-watching comedy and dramas on Netflix when I should be in bed or at work. I like to go camping, to run, to swim, to cycle, to drink small, strong cups of coffee and to eat cakes of all sorts. I love to travel by car, plane, and train. I love walking in cities and wide-open spaces, playing with Lego, baking, and reading bedtime stories with my daughter. I have fun writing limericks, haiku, and observational comedic blog posts about the crazy world we live in. I like to write songs for my wife’s family – the songs are never any good, but my in-laws are very tolerant.

Do you have other interests too?

I like it when my music, introversion, and dealings with customer service workers combine, like the time my car keys were no longer under warranty but I got the local Kia dealership to give me a $300 replacement for free after I wrote them a song about needing the key, recorded myself performing it, and posted the video to YouTube. I like red wine, non-dairy cappuccinos, kale for breakfast, all hot sauces without exception, but especially the really hot ones with hilarious names that challenge you to eat them, like Satan’s Rage or Spontaneous Combustion. I like to work out. I love to wear double denim and genuinely think it always looks cool. I like getting tattoos. I like to learn but don’t usually like to be taught.

You wear a lot of hats! How do all of your roles enhance your teaching at NYU?

I model the kind of portfolio career that is common to so many musicians in the twenty-first century. It’s not enough to be just a great player – you need other attributes and skillsets. I don’t have the business nous or the networking skills that might have helped me to land a more full-time schedule performing, but I do possess a finely-honed ability to edit text and to project-manage academic books to production. I’m a good writer (of words, not of music, alas) and an unusually capable packer of vans and cars. I love to teach, especially at the college level.

I think the main enhancement my various roles bring to my teaching is that I can show students how life is about constantly growing. I used to think I’d be done professionally once I’d earned my undergraduate music degree from the Welsh College of Music and Drama in 1999, but you find there’s time for so much more. Every interaction with another human, every visit to a new place, every book, every train ride, every time you pick up a new instrument or try out for a different gig – all of these lead to something, and it’s exciting to wear more hats (figurative, as well as literal) and add more roles to your résumé. Some people worry that doing more things might make them somehow less of a musician. I understand where that anxiety comes from, but the way I see it, the more you do, the richer your musicianship and your whole personality becomes. I hope my students go on to live their lives with eyes and hearts wide open to opportunities to grow and to help others grow too – that is the role of a teacher.

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