Babson Magazine

Spring 2015

A Search for Meaning in Music

Sandra Graham ponders the many ways music affects culture, society, and her own life.

Sandra Graham

Photo: Webb Chappell
Throughout her life, Sandra Graham has played at least 15 instruments. Piano was the first.

Sandra Graham, associate professor of ethnomusicology, credits a brief romance in her mid-30s with bringing her back to music. Not that her love for music ever really waned. She grew up singing around the piano with her parents and four siblings, and she began playing piano and clarinet as a youth, adding instruments, such as the bassoon, as her curiosity arose. Her bandmates were her best friends.

But a move from New York to Maryland when she was 13 changed more than her surroundings. “I hated my band teacher,” she says of her new school, and the music teacher didn’t challenge her abilities. So Graham’s interest dwindled. She continued adding to her repertoire of instruments, learning guitar, but by the end of high school, Graham decided her college major would be English. Upon graduating, she worked as an editor and was content playing piano and attending theater for her musical fixes. Then she started dating an actor. “It was just one of those little three-month romances,” she says, “but it had a profound effect on me, because we’d spend Friday nights at his grand piano playing duets and singing show tunes. It reignited my love of music.”

Graham decided to earn a second degree from Moravian College in musical composition “for the fun of it.” After arriving on campus, however, the myriad possibilities entranced her, and she immersed herself in as many ensembles and courses as she could, once again learning to play new instruments. “I had to take courses in all the instrument families,” she says. “But every once in a while I would fall in love with an instrument and take private lessons. I took viola and oboe because I just really loved those.”

When graduation loomed, Graham couldn’t bear the thought of school ending, so she applied to graduate school and set about earning her doctorate from New York University, where she discovered ethnomusicology, or the study of music in culture. “Ethnomusicologists still attend to what music sounds like, music analysis, theory, all those things,” Graham says, “but we also look at what social meaning the music has. Does it have implications for gender, politics, religion, social organization? Ethnomusicology was a word that had never passed my lips. And I fell in love with it.”

During grad school, Graham continued learning instruments, picking up the mandolin and playing in a Near and Middle Eastern ensemble. “I sang and played various string instruments,” she says. For her dissertation, she chose to focus on the Fisk Jubilee Singers, the first African-Americans to sing spirituals on a public platform to a white audience. Her research has taken Graham down “all these little alleyways,” and she has written about blackface minstrelsy, black music theater, and the politics of folklore in America. Currently, she is finishing a book on the popularization of African-American spirituals.

After earning her PhD, much of Graham’s time was dedicated to launching the graduate program in ethnomusicology at the University of California, Davis, where she taught for eight years. During her time at UC Davis, Graham traveled extensively and taught for a semester in Slovenia and Croatia. “The folk music really stuck with me,” she says of her time abroad. “There were folk music festivals, and holidays that included folk music. The songs are indelible in my mind because music plays a role in public rituals and holidays in these countries in a way that it doesn’t in the United States.”

Four years ago, in search of a new, more permanent role, Graham brought her knowledge and talents to Babson. “It felt very much like home here,” she says of the College. “What attracted me is there is no department of music. It’s very stimulating to have this cross-pollination of discourse among music and poetry and anthropology and Middle Eastern studies and African-American studies and feminist studies.”

Since arriving, Graham has developed and teaches four courses: “African-American Music,” “Appreciating Classical Music,” and “Global Pop,” as well as “Memory and Forgetting,” which is part of the first-year foundation curriculum in arts, history, and society. Although she wasn’t sure what to expect from business majors, Graham says Babson students often bring a greater degree of interest to her classes than her previous students. “When you’re teaching music majors, a world music course can be just another requirement they have to fulfill. Some may be interested, some not. Here, most of my courses are pure electives,” she says. “The people who are there want to be there.”

Graham also is involved with The Empty Space Theater, Babson’s cocurricular program that integrates theater and the classroom, becoming its music director. Her stint began in 2012 with the musical Working, based on Studs Terkel’s nonfiction book about Americans and their jobs. “I had my students do interviews with people like Studs Terkel had done. They taped the interviews, they wrote them up, and I published them in a book. Then I had my students invite their interviewees to a performance of Working,” says Graham. “I threw a reception for everyone afterward. It was a wonderful event. We had a blast, and I was just bowled over by the transformation of the students. I thought, ‘Oh, I can’t wait to do another one.’”

Even with such a full schedule, Graham also said yes to the Rocket Pitches, Babson’s student a cappella group, when they asked her to become their faculty adviser. Graham says she functions more as a director, finding music for the group and teaching them songs. About 20 students participate. “A lot of these kids come from strong theater and music programs at their high schools,” she says. “They come here and are wondering where they can unwind and have a good time with music.”

Graham, who admits that her full life can be a bit stressful at times, too, is happy to help these students find respite through song. “People come to rehearsal stressed, and then after a half-hour of singing they’re up and joyous again,” she says. “It’s wonderful. We need more of this on campus.”